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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, May 28, 2023

Seinfeld and Us

 Although my sons repeatedly tried to get me interested in Seinfeld, I never could.  I guess I want shows to be about something.  I did watch the last episodes, though, and I remember that my dear friend Bill Strauss was very encouraged by it.  He didn't like Xer-oriented tv much, for various reasons, and he disliked the utter irresponsibility of the Seinfeld characters.  He felt vindicated when they wound up in jail.  This was 1998, well into what we called the Third Turning or Unraveling and three years before 9/11, and perhaps their fate suggested that the nation was ready to move back towards greater responsibility at every level and put aside the excesses of the last few decades. 

This all came back to me when I read this article on the 25th anniversary of the last episode in the New York Times. In those 25 years we have experienced 9/11, the financial crisis, the election of Donald Trump (who made the Seinfeld characters look like model citizens), and the pandemic without rediscovering the national consensus that got us through previous great crises.  All that has left the nation with a very uncertain future. The author of the article, Maya Salam--who is apparently about 35 years old, that is, a Millennial--takes a very different view.  I am going to quote the three key paragraphs for non-commercial use only.

"[Seinfeld] has consistently been framed as a comedy about four terrible people, with good reason. Jerry and his fellow misfits lied, cheated and stole. They were petty and shallow. They created a framework for “bad” sitcom characters that shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” would embrace with great relish and success.

"But they also presented an irreverent version of adulthood that I had never seen on TV or in life: a playful yet sophisticated world where grown-ups joked and laughed together and didn’t take themselves too seriously, even when everyone around them was being very serious indeed.

"Most important, they openly mocked the notion that professional success, marriage and parenthood were the cornerstones of existence. For me, a serious child surrounded by serious adults — a child who was ostracized by those unable to categorize me, and who knew early that established paths to fulfillment would not apply — this revealed loads of possibilities."

The show, she continues, openly mocked marriage, family, and careers as traps or prisons.  This contrasted it, she says, not only to "The Cosby Show" and "Growing Pains" (she says nothing about "Father Knows Best" or "The Dick Van Dyke Show"), with with "Friends," "Living Single," and "Will & Grace."  And she goes on:

"Despite the nihilism suggested by its “no hugging, no learning” motto (and by much of the characters’ behavior), “Seinfeld” did exhibit a worldview and priorities that were refreshing and, for me, far more aspirational and inspirational. Not despite the fact that these were flawed people uninterested in perfection, but because of it. Even with their abundant neuroses, they lived in the present, sought fun and were loyal to the tightknit, pretense-free friendships at the show’s heart, the kind where your people know your bad parts and love you anyway.

"Today — as cracks in the facade of hustle culture continue to spread; as a growing library of books and articles promote the value of rest and fun; as more people delay or forgo marriage or children — real life seems to be catching up with “Seinfeld.” "

Let's try to put all this in an historical perspective.  How did the traditional, disciplined view of life develop?  It developed, I would argue, as a necessity to survive, first in an agricultural world and then in an industrial one.  Agricultural life moved according to natural rhythms that people had to respect.  If they did not plant, fertilize, weed and harvest at the proper times, they starved.  Industrial life required even tougher self-discipline.  In every era, some men and women refused to play by these rules and some of them managed to find a way to live, and literature often featured such people. They were however escapes, more than role models.  The huge Boom generation--and Jerry Seinfeld and his co-creator Larry David are Boomers, born in 1954 and 1947--openly rebelled against all society's rules in the late 1960s, partly under the impact of the Vietnam draft.  That rebellion has continued in subsequent decades.  The idea of intellectual authority has been discredited in academia while artistic authority vanished in the arts. Scientific authority has been drastically challenged as well.  Meanwhile, the authority of the market has grown.  We are talking about "Seinfeld" because it was a great success.

Many I am sure would agree with Maya Salam that the proclaimed freedom to live however one wants is a great thing.  Many younger people have never really known any other view.  Evidently the structured society and values of the mid-20th century were indeed too strict to last.  That is why the rebellion occurred.  What we do not yet know for sure is whether most of those values were necessary to keep our society together and functioning.  That question will be answered, I think, in the next few decades.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Good news

 To my surprise and delight, this letter of mine and a reply appear in the current New York Review of Books.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Rewriting history?

 Jonathan Eig, a prolific nonfiction writer on many topics, has written a huge new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.  This New York Times review indicates that it is a very well-researched and well-written book with plenty of new material, and I am looking forward to going through it--it will take some time for a library copy to reach me.  (For reasons of space, I very rarely buy books nowadays.)  My subject today, however, is one aspect of the book that the Times did not mention, but which Eig played up in an interview Gillian Brockell of the Washington Post.  That attempts to revise our view of how King viewed Malcolm X, based upon what Eig found in the papers of Alex Haley, who did a long Playboy interview with King while he was in the midst of ghostwriting Malcolm's autobiography in late 1964.  Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham picked up the ball and ran with it in a column last Sunday, and I wrote her an email about the controversy.

The controversial exchange from the interview went like this:

“Dr. King, would you care to comment upon the articulate former Black Muslim, Malcolm X?” [Malcolm's break with Elijah Muhammad had become public earlier in 1964.]

 “I have met Malcolm X, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. He is very articulate, as you say. I don’t want to seem to sound as if I feel so self-righteous, or absolutist, that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. But I know that I have so often felt that I wished that he would talk less of violence, because I don’t think that violence can solve our problem. And in his litany of expressing the despair of the Negro, without offering a positive, creative approach, I think that he falls into a rut sometimes.”

“Fiery, demagogic oratory in the Black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.”

In the original transcript in Haley's papers King responded as follows:

“I have met Malcolm X, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. He is very articulate, as you say.

“I don’t want to seem to sound as if I feel so self-righteous, or absolutist, that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. But I know that I have so often felt that I wished that he would talk less of violence, because I don’t think that violence can solve our problem. And in his litany of expressing the despair of the Negro, without offering a positive, creative approach, I think that he falls into a rut sometimes."

That, however, is not all. Earlier in the original transcript, Haley asked King, “Dr. King, what is your opinion of Negro extremists who advocate armed violence and sabotage?” King's lengthy response  begins: “Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettoes urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence can achieve nothing but negative results.”  As  we shall see, no one in 1964 could read those words without thinking of Malcolm X, whose "fiery, demagogic oratory" had been mainstream media news for several years.  We don't know whether Haley cleared the final published version with King or if they had any further conversations, perhaps on the phone, that don't appear in the transcript.  Yet to me, the difference between the published and unpublished versions is one of tone,. not of point of view.  The only phrase that appeared in the published version alone is that rhetoric like Malcolm's "can reap nothing but grief."

Eig, and some other scholars he quotes, take a different view. "Eig has shared his discovery with a number of King scholars, and the changes 'jumped out' to them as 'a real fraud,' he said. 'They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been teaching that to my students for years,’ and now they have to rethink it,'Eig said."

My readers may judge for themselves whether Haley's published version seriously distorted what King said in the unpublished version.  I do not think that it did.  One cannot, however, discuss the relationshp between King and Malcolm based merely on this one interview.  Doing a few hours of research early this week, I found that they had been publicly sparring for years.  

 In  July 1962, a chartered Air France plane full of prominent white Atlanteans crashed during its takeoff in Paris and killed everyone aboard. Speaking in Los Angeles, Malcolm X declared: "I would like to announce a very beautiful thing that happened. I got a wire from God which I--well, somebody came and told me that he had really answered our prayers over in France and dropped an airplane out of the sky with over 120 white people on it. . .We call on our God--He gets rid of 120 of them at one whop.""  Asked to comment, Martin Luther King dissented from this view.  He had known many of those white people, he said, and "Many of them believed in progress. . .if the Muslim leader said that , I would certainly disagree with him."  

          A year later, in June of 1963, Dr. Kenneth Clark interviewed both Malcolm and King for public television (you can find it on youtube.)  " "King is the best weapon that the white man, who wants to brutalize Negroes, has ever gotten in this country," Malcolm said, "because he is setting up a situation where, when the white man wants to attack Negroes, they can't defend themselves because King has put this foolish philosophy--you're not supposed to fight or you're not supposed to defend yourself."  Indeed, Malcolm attacked King's philosophy of non-violence whenever he was asked about him.

          And on February 4, 1965 just a couple of weeks before he died, Malcolm X went to Selma in the midst of King's voting rights campaign there and spoke to SNCC volunteers at a church. It was a famous speech about "house Negroes" and "field Negroes."  He said: "Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent. That’s Tom making you nonviolent."  King, obviously, was a pastor the leader of the nonviolent movement at that point.  The Birmingham campaign had already led to the introduction and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Selma campaign led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act--but Malcolm chose this moment to reiterate his attack on King as an uncle Tom.  Later he said in the same speech: "There’s nothing in our book, the Quran, as you call it, Koran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful. Be courteous. Obey the law. Respect everyone. But if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery! That’s a good religion. In fact, that’s that old-time religion. That’s the one that ma and pa used to talk about. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a head for a head and a life for a life. That’s a good religion. And doesn’t anybody, no one resist that kind of religion being taught but a wolf who intends to make you his meal. This is the way it is with the white man in America. He’s a wolf and you’re his sheep. Anytime a shepherd, a pastor, teach you and me not to run from the white man, and at the same time teach us don’t fight the white man, he’s a traitor, to you and me."  [emphasis added.]  He wasn't in Selma to support King.

King and Malcolm differed fundamentally on several points.  King, to begin with, felt that black Americans could, and, really had no choice but to depend on the good will of white Americans and the strength of fundamental American values to secure justice and legal equality.  Malcolm's Selma speech tells me that even on the eve of his death--after his pilgrimage to Mecca and break with Elijah Muhammad had changed his view of white people as devils--he did not yet trust white Americans and believed that black people had to arm themselves to fight against them.  Secondly, King's Christian beliefs led him to reject violence completely--a view not shared by all Christians, evidently--while Malcolm saw no contradiction between Islam and preparing to fight for self-defense.  In the Washington Post interview, Eig says, "[King and Malcolm] always had a lot in common. They always believed that you had to take radical steps to change America, to end racism, to create a country that lived up to the words of its promises.” That is an extraordinary statement.  For most of his life Malcolm X totally rejected the words of America's promises and wanted to destroy the United States as it existed and create a separate black state within its borders.  Even in the last year of his life it is not clear to me that he had settled on a new vision of an integrated United States.  Renée Graham went even further, writing that the two men "had a manufactured feud" and "were not adversaries."  The Selma speech clearly shows that they remained rivals, contending for the allegiance of black America based on very different principles, right up until the end of Malcolm's life.  Ms. Graham by the way has not replied to my email--I and others have found that she never replies to critical emails, and she disabled comments on her columns some time ago.

Proquest historical newspapers also led me to a text of which I was unaware--and I will be very interested to see if Eig refers to it in his book.  It turns out that on March 13, 1965, the Harlem paper New Amsterdam News published an obituary of Malcolm X under Dr. King's name.  My dear friend the sociologist Jonathan Rieder, who has written two books on King's rhetoric, does not believe that King actually drafted this obit--it does not, he says, sound like him.  I suspect it might have been written by Clarence Jones, an attorney who handled King's legal affairs in New York and who had been quoted just weeks earlier as hoping that King and Malcolm might indeed form some kind of alliance--but without suggesting that anything like that had taken place.  In any case, King must have approved it, and I am going to reproduce it in full here.

New Amsterdam News, March 13, 1965, p. 10. The Nightmare Of Violence By DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING. JR. (President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference)

                The present ghastly nightmare of violence and counter-violence is one of the most tragic blots to occur on the pages of the Negroes' history in this country. In many ways, however it is typical of the misplacement of aggressions which have occurred throughout the frustrated circumstances of our existence.

 How often have the frustrations of second class citizenship and humiliating status led us into blind outrage against each other and the real cause and source of our dilemma ignored? It is sadly ironic that those who so clearly pointed to the white world as the seed of evil should now spend their energies in their own destruction.   

Malcolm X came to the fore as a public figure partially as a result of a TV documentary entitled, “The Hate that Hate Produced". That title points to the nature of Malcolm's life and death

Malcolm X was clearly a product of the hate and violence invested in the Negro's blighted existence in this nation.

He, like so many of our number, was a victim of the despair inevitably deriving from the conditions of oppression, poverty, and injustice which engulf the masses of our race. In his youth, there was no hope, no preaching, teaching or movements of non-violence. He was too young for the Garvey Movement, too poor to be a Communist- for the Communists geared their work to Negro intellectuals and labor without realizing that the masses of Negroes were unrelated to either--and yet he possessed a native intelligence and drive which demanded an outlet and means of expression.

He turned first to the underworld, but this did not fulfill the quest for meaning which grips young minds.

It is a testimony to Malcolm's personal depth and integrity that he could not become an underworld Czar, but turned again and again to religion for meaning and destiny. Malcolm was still turning and growing at the time of his brutal and meaningless assassination. Spoke to Mrs. King

In his recent visit to Selma, he spoke at length to my wife Coretta about his personal struggles and expressed an interest in working more closely with the nonviolent movement, but he was not yet able to renounce violence and overcome the bitterness which life had invested in him.

 There were also indications of an interest in politics as a way of dealing with the problems of the Negro. All of these were signs of a man of passion and zeal seeking for a program through which he could channel his talents. But history would not have it so.

A man who lived under the torment of knowledge of the rape of his grandmother and murder of his father under the conditions of the present social order, does not readily accept that social order or seek to integrate into it.

And so Malcolm was forced to live and die as an outsider, a victim of the violence that spawned him, and with which he courted through his brief but promising life.

The American Negro cannot afford to destroy its leadership any more than the Congo can. Men of talent are too scarce to be destroyed by envy, greed and tribal rivalry before they reach their full maturity.

Like the murder of Lumumba, the murder of Malcolm X deprives the world of a potentially great leader. I could not agree with either of these men, but I could see in them a capacity for leadership which I could respect, and which was only beginning to mature in judgment and statesmanship.

Surely the young men of Harlem and Negro communities throughout the nation ought to be ready to seek another way. Let us learn from this tragic nightmare that violence and hate, only breed violence and hate ·and that Jesus' word still goes out to every potential Peter, "Put up thy sword".

 Certainly we will continue to disagree, but we must disagree without becoming violently disagreeable.

We will still suffer the temptation to bitterness, but we must learn that hate is too great a burden for a people moving on toward their date with destiny.

The obituary looks sympathetically at Malcolm X's life and the origins of his views, but refuses to endorse them.  It calls him a "potentially great leader," but that greatness remained unrealized when he was killed by black Muslims loyal to Elijah Muhammad. (We now know that two of the three Muslims convicted of the crime were innocent, but the real culprits--also Black Muslims--have also been identified.)  And I am not at all sure that Malcolm would have moved closer to King had he lived longer.  In the eighteen months after his death younger activists such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown emerged as new rivals to King who also insisted that black people had to depend completely on themselves and rejected the absolute value of nonviolence.  Malcolm might just as easily have joined them, and the Black Panthers who followed in their wake.  Their organizations all collapsed within a few years.  Ms. Graham and others like her want to deny that a choice existed between the philosophies and tactics of King and Malcolm X, but it did--and that choice is still there today.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Why US medical care can't be fixed

 On February 15, 1993, new president Bill Clinton presented his agenda to Congress.  He promised a sweeping reform of health care, which, he said, threatened to swallow up the US economy.  The nation now spent 14 percent of its GDP on health care, he said, and if present trends continued that figure might reach 20 percent by 2020.  It has in fact topped 18 percent now.  A clue to this apparently inexorable increase comes from a review essay by a medical specialist named Jerome Groopman entitled "Saving Lives and Making a Killing" in the current New York Review of Books.  

The article deals with the development of new drugs--specifically, anti-cancer drugs, and more specifically, breakthrough drugs to control chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL.  One such drug (I will omit the long names, which would only confuse the issue) replaced toxic chemotherapy in 2014.  Only 1 million people worldwide, have the disease, but that drug has been generating $5.4 billion in revenue every  year--$5,400 for every single patient.  We must keep in mind that that represents cost, as well as income.  Now, someone else has developed a new and significantly safer drug of the same type which will almost surely replace the first one.  Running trials to test and prove the effectiveness of drugs is very expensive, and large financial investors, Groopman explains, become involved with possible new treatments at a very early stage because of the enormous potential payoff. In the critical two paragraphs of the review, the author of the book under review, For Blood and Money--a financial journalist named Nathan Vardi---explains why these particular drugs looked like such a good investment.

"For financial investors, the beauty of the drug…was that even though the drug worked, it didn’t work too well. Ibrutinib was not a magic bullet cure. The cancer was never fully cleared from the blood and rarely went away completely…. Patients would need to take a pill once a day, every day, for a long time—years….

"The analysts [at banks and hedge funds] took the relatively large number of CLL patients and multiplied it by the sky-high price that similar cancer drugs commanded in the market. Then they tried to estimate how long those patients would continue taking the drug. The analysts figured the drug could generate billions of dollars."

As a child I read a number of books about the great medical discoveries of the late 19th and 20th centuries, including Pasteur's vaccinations for anthrax and rabies, the development of diphtheria antitoxins, other vaccines, sulfa drugs, and antibiotics.  Many of those breakthroughs almost eliminated what had been significant causes of death.  Most of them were developed by single researchers (such as Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin accidentally in a petri dish) or small teams.  Now private US companies spend billions on drug research but only occasionally yield such spectacular results.  Those two paragraphs explain why.  Today's researchers are not primarily focused on saving lives. Their bosses--and thus, they themselves--focus on making money.  To do that, they need to develop drugs that people will have to take for long periods of time--perhaps even for the rest of their lives.  A drug that quickly and simply cures people, or a vaccine that will protect them for life with a single dose, will not be nearly so profitable.

That is why our huge pharmaceutical industry has failed to meet a critical challenge: the development of new antibiotics to deal with newer, resistant strains of common bacteria that can cause tuberculosis, staph infections, and many other infections.  This is a serious and increasing problem because of the use of more and more invasive surgeries for joint replacements, which are producing increasing numbers of infections which can be very difficult to treat.  Yet big pharma doesn't want to develop them because they would not yield so much profit. 

The role of profit in US medicine has other impacts as well.  More than 10 years ago I got a taste of French emergency medicine when a fell on a steep ski slope and slid a few hundred yards down the hill on my back.  Coincidentally my roommate on the trip (run by a group) was an American urologist who helped me get back to the lodge and the infirmary.  For the next 24 hours he obsessed about worst case scenaries, including a lung possibly punctured by a rib and a concussion leading to internal bleeding.  The doctor at the clinic dismissed those concerns with a chest x-ray and a few simple tests.  He was working for a single-payer system where the incentives favored sensible, cheaper care. 

It seems obvious to me that the federal government should completely take over drug research--which it could put on a completely different footing.  Scientists working without any profit motive could focus on our most urgent needs--such as new antibiotics--and actively try to find new treatments that would save the most money--something Big Pharma, evidently, will never do.  I feel certain that there are thousands of very bright young men and women who would be delighted to spend their lives on that endeavor for the kind of money that senior federal bureaucrats make.  The government, not venture capitalists or hedge funds,. would fund the necessary trials, and license production for very low profit margins--if it chose not to manufacture the drugs themselves.  And a certain number of breakthrough discoveries targeting common diseases might allow us, for the first time ever, significantly to reduce the size of our medical establishment and its cost.

Having written that, I have to acknowledge how unlikely it is.  Big pharma is enormously profitable and thus has the resources to work its will in Congress, as they have done again and again.  That's why no Democratic president has ever dared push for single-payer insurance that might also save the citizenry the insurance industry's profits.  Our political system sustains our largest corporations, and vice versa.  Yet eventually our values could change--how and why I cannot say--and someone, somewhere, might try this experiment, and once again rid the world of some very serious diseases.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

The decline of the nation-state

 The era of the modern nation-state began with the American and French Revolutions in the late 18th century.  They enshrined the idea of equal citizenship and governments dedicated to the welfare of their peoples. The French Revolution also inaugurated the age of the modern mass army.  Progress towards real democracy was slow in Europe during the first half of the 19th century, but it accelerated after the American civil war, which among other things marked a victory of democracy over aristocracy.  The unification of Germany led to a new era of European great-power conflict in which the major powers maintained large conscript armies and growing navies, generally protected their national economies with tariffs (except for the United Kingdom), and developed national arms industries.  After 1898 the United States became a player in the world conflict among nation-states as well and joined in the imperialism that went with it.  

The era of the two world wars vastly increased both the power of nation-state governments and their impact upon the world.  They raised armies of unprecedented size and unleashed new destructive power.  Twice they significantly redrew the map of Europe.  They required greater loyalty from their citizenry, which they enforced by various means, including wartime detention of aliens and persons thought to be suspicious.  In the Second World War the communist Soviet Union emerged as a stronger power than any nation state except the United States,  Even before that war, the USSR had starved millions of its citizens and imprisoned millions more, and the German state killed more than ten million people under the Nazis.  The United States developed atomic weapons, and the USSR, Britain and France followed suit in the postwar era.  

Equally importantly, the enormous sacrifices of the common people in the Second World War created new bonds between them and their government. The rights of organized labor peaked in the postwar period all over the western world, and governments took many steps to improve housing, health care, and education.  Meanwhile, only a mixture of inflation and very high marginal tax rates could finance that war and its aftermath, and those bore more heavily on the rich than the average person and created much greater equality of income and even wealth.  On the continent of Europe, however--where the growth of the power of the nation-state had had the most disastrous results--a countervailing political movement arose in the 1950s.  The European Common Market, which eventually became the European Union, sought to create a unified European political authority that would relegate national rivalries to the past.  West Germany, realizing how frightening any resurgence of German nationalism might be, took the lead in this process.  France under Charles de Gaulle refused to abandon its national sovereignty and still believed in a unique national mission, but the EU eventually moved to a common currency well after is death.

A more serious revolt against the nation-state--and indeed, against authority of all kinds--began in the late 1960s in the US and western Europe.  In the US it targeted the Vietnam War, and much of the Boom generation grew up distrusting the government on principle.  In Europe the revolt may have targeted the protesters' parents' collaboration with National Socialism.  The US revolt led to the end of the military draft in 1973--the abandonment of perhaps the most important single power of nation-states.  Britain had abandoned its draft much earlier, and eventually all the western European nations followed suit.  

The governments' loss of prestige helped, and was accelerated by, the rise of neoliberalism in Britain under Margaret Thatcher and in the US under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.  Both of them explicitly targeted the increased taxes and increased role of the government since the 1940s and argued that government was the problem, not the solution.  I have found in my new book that every subsequent president until Joe Biden has echoed Reagan's rhetoric to some extent while they continued the deregulation of the economy.  Meanwhile, international trade has increased enormously and all the richest countries depend on China and various third world nations to produce many necessary goods. The rights of labor have largely evaporated in the US and the UK, and although they remain stronger in Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe, all these nations are trending towards greater economic inequality.  The governments of Britain and the US abandoned their industrial working classes, leading to Brexit and Trump's election during the last decade.  

During the Second World War, Roosevelt and Churchill bragged--deservedly--that their democratic nations could do at least as good a job of mobilizing their resources as totalitarian ones could.  The war in Ukraine has revived the conflict between authoritarian powers--Russia, and perhaps China--and democratic ones.  The American government has found that it barely has the industrial capacity to keep Ukraine supplied with necessary weapons and ammunition, much less to provide Taiwan with what it needs to prepare for a possible Chinese attack.  The US military establishment concluded after the fall of the USSR that it didn't have to prepare for another major war.  That assumption is now very questionable.

Meanwhile, the nation-state bequeathed by the Enlightenment has suffered even more--especially here in the US--by the collapse of intellectual authority.  We have no generally shared commitment to our institutions, little remaining respect for the achievements of our past, and no shared body of facts. Social media allows anyone not only to believe anything, but to find a ready audience for their beliefs.  The great repository of historical knowledge built up over the last few centuries is either ignored or replaced by distorted propaganda.  It turns out that Jack Teixiera, the Air National Guardsmen under arrest for the biggest unauthorized release of documents since Wikileaks, believed, among many other things, that the federal government staged mass shootings to promote gun control.  He is almost surely not unique among our volunteer military, the place where one would expect the most traditional patriotism.  And the pro-gun movement in the United States has deprived our government of one of its most fundamental rights: the monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

Because I do not see how the United States could reverse these trends--from the influence of our biggest corporations on our government, to our intellectual elite's frightening self-confidence and our population's disaffection--I continue to believe that we are at an historical turning point, one which I also identified at the end of American Tragedy in 2000 and the concluding chapter of No End Save Victory in 2014.   I find myself repeating the serenity prayer quite often.

Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Politics and "the base"


I learned about American politics listening to my father, whose career depended upon them, and reading some of the books that we had around our house.  One of them was The Roosevelt I Knew, by FDR's Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.  She described a conversation she had with New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, her first political mentor, in which he criticized her for refusing to join either political party while lobbying on social and economic issues. He explained that he could always count upon Democratic party loyalty in New York City, and that gave him the freedom to take different positions to appeal to voters upstate. One could, in short, deal confidentially with one's political base thanks to mutual trust, while seeking to broaden one's appeal.

The current Democratic party often seems to be working from opposite principles.  Black politicians like to refer to black voters--and often, female black voters--as the base or heart or backbone of the Democratic party.  The Democratic leadership seems to accept that--and also to accept an obligation to give its black constituents visible rewards.  The two most important appointments Joe Biden has had to make--to the Vice Presidency and to the Supreme Court--have gone to black women.  Even though Kamala Harris's own presidential campaign in 2020 never got off the ground and she has failed to forge any bond with the American people in office, it seems accepted that she cannot possibly be dropped from the ticket.  Biden also insisted on making South Carolina the first Democratic primary state on the calendar, which will allow that state's black voters to anoint the party's front-runner. 

I was moved to write this piece by a weekend article in the New York Times suggesting that Biden's appeal among black voters might nonetheless be dropping, threatening his re-election.  Here are three key paragraphs:

"In his campaign announcement, Mr. Biden made no secret of the importance of Black voters to his re-election. The Biden allies with the most airtime in his three-minute video, aside from his wife, were Vice President Kamala Harris, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

"Mr. Biden’s allies maintain that his administration has delivered for Black voters but that he has failed to trumpet some of his progress. Since taking office, he has provided billions of dollars for historically Black colleges and universities, and he has appointed more Black judges, including Justice Jackson, to the federal bench than any other president. Black unemployment is at a record low. The economy, a top concern for Black voters, has recovered from its pandemic doldrums, though inflation, which spiked last summer, remains higher on a sustained basis than it has been for decades.

"The president and vice president have made issues Black Americans care most about a priority and are running to finish the job,' said Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s campaign. 'The campaign will work hard to earn every vote and expand on its winning 2020 coalition.'"

Leaving aside the rather questionable description of a Supreme Court justice as a presidential ally, the first paragraph jumped out at me because I too had noticed the racial composition of the announcement video--but from another angle.  The video is filled with shots of ordinary Americans, both with and without Biden or Jill Biden or Kamala Harris, and I had decided to document their racial balance myself.  Leaving out a couple of crowd shots, and not counting the shots of Harris or Jackson, I counted 45 black women and girls, 22 black men and boys, 8 Hispanic women, 4 Hispanic men, 27 white men and 12 white women, and one Asian women--or totals of 67 black people, 39 whites, 12 Hispanics and one Asian.  When I mentioned this to a friend involved in Democratic politics, he referred me to Biden's first campaign ad, whose dominant image is the American flag, and which has a Reaganesk "morning in America" feeling.  There I counted 28 average white people--15 males and 13 females--16 black people (11 women and 5 men), one young Asian boy, and three males whose race I could not identify.  (I have left out the white people in several shots of the January 6 rioters from both videos since the viewer is obviously not being encouraged to identify with them.) 

Now let's compare the ethnic distribution within these videos to the distribution of Biden's vote in 2020.  A recent report found that of Biden's voters, 61 percent were white, 20 percent were black, 12 percent were Hispanic, and 6 percent were Asian.  That 61 percent, interestingly enough, almost exactly matches the percentage of identified ordinary Americans in Biden's first ad, although it's much higher, obviously, than the percentage in the announcement video.  Blacks were overrepresented in both, clearly, and the omission of Hispanics from the first ad is rather striking. Among the total 2020 electorate, whites still made up 72 percent of voters, with blacks 12 percent and Hispanics 10 percent.  

And how did Biden manage to increase his popular majority so dramatically over Hillary Clinton's in 2016 and thereby win a solid Electoral College victory?  The Democratic share of the white vote, the same report shows, grew 3 percent, from 41 percent to 44 percent, in 2020 relative to 2016, while the Democratic share of the black vote fell from 93 percent to 90 percent and the share of the Hispanic (the new report uses "Latino") vote--the fastest-growing sector of the electorate--feel from 71 percent to 63 percent.   The Democratic gains in the white vote came mostly from college-educated white people--who, by the way, remain a minority of white voters.  

When Richard Nixon died, the columnist William Safire--a former Nixon staffer--described their last conversation.  "Let's get a woman on the ticket!"  Nixon had said.  "It hurts the Democrats, but it would help us!"  Nixon, as it happens, was exactly the same age as my father, and equally sensitive to the real rules of US politics.  According to those rules the Democratic Party should if anything be favoring white male candidates, who would have broader appeal outside their party, while the Republicans look for female and nonwhite candidates to broaden theirs.  (When the Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2002, as I recall, their female candidates significantly outperformed the Democrats'.)  And despite the near-unanimous Democratic view of the recent midterm elections as a victory, the Democrats lost the national popular vote for House candidates by about 3 percent.  White and Hispanic voters, inevitably, will hold the balance of power in the 2024 presidential election.

The greatest progress for civil rights in the United States took place from 1948, when Harry  Truman took up the issue, through 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.  That was also the era in which the black vote was genuinely up for grabs and both parties had to pay attention to it.  And that, in my opinion, was not a coincidence.