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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...

Monday, September 25, 2023

Will dau tranh destroy the United States?

 Eleven and one-half years ago, in the spring of 2012, I made one of my most important posts here.  I have reposted it twice in the last three years.  Now the issues it raised have entered a new phase, and I think it's time to revisit it again.  Here it is.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


One of the most important readings about the Vietnam War that I have ever encountered is a chapter by the late Douglas Pike, a real authority on the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, about dau tranh, or struggle, the philosophy behind the Vietnamese Communist revolution. Dau tranh, Pike explains, had two forms: military and political. Of the two, the political was far more important, and indeed, the Viet Cong always had several times as many active political workers as soldiers during the Vietnam War. Their mission was to rally their own troops and sow confusion among the enemy, doing whatever they could, in particular, to make the South Vietnamese government unable to function effectively. They also infiltrated that government at every level and tried to influence the views of enemy forces. Their goal, essentially, was to reduce society to chaos and allow the well-organized Communist Party to take over. The other day I raised some eyebrows in a small group setting by suggesting that the Republican Party has been practicing dau tranh for more than twenty years. It has now crippled government at all levels and has a good chance of reducing much of the United States to chaos in the next ten years.
Dau transh in its current form started with Newt Gingrich's all-out assault on the Democrats in the House of Representatives, whom he was determined to demonize in order to take away their majority. Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, now signed by almost every Republican in Congress and thousands more in state legislatures around the country, is another form of dau tranh. So, of course, is the ceaseless drumbeat of propaganda day after day, week after week, year after year, on Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest. So is the attack on the authority of the mainstream media, universities and scientists. Oddly, while this attack on government probably did more than anything to land us in our current economic mess, the mess also makes dau tranh more effective, because it undermines confidence in the government. Conservative Republicans have also waged long-term dau tranh within our legal system, using the Federalist society to develop a network of conservative lawyers and judges and packing the courts whenever they can. Jeffrey Toobin has analyzed the increasingly significant results of that effort in a series of articles in the New Yorker.
I was moved to write this post because I have to deal with dau tranh almost daily myself in managing this blog. One of my regular readers is a fanatical right-winger who probably posts 50 comments a week here, week in and week out. They are not really comments, for the most part--they are links to some piece of right-wing propaganda, often accompanied with personal abuse towards myself. I think I know who he is, although we have never met face to face, and I also regard him as the prime suspect for having put my name on the Obama=Hitler email which is still circulating, even though he denied it when we were both still on the same discussion forum. (He was kicked off the forum when his dau tranh and personal abuse went too far.) I warn, of course, on the blog, that abusive anonymous comments will be deleted, but he berates me for doing so nonetheless. The attempt to keep the extreme Republican view of the world in the foreground is a key element of Republican dau tranh, just as it was for Nazis and Communists.
The Republicans' real target is the idea that dominated the last century--the idea that human reason can design, and create, a better world. That is why Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson have been given places in their Pantheon of villains. I'm afraid they have sufficiently discredited that idea that it no longer dominates our political life, and might be disappearing altogether. Their lust for power is much, much greater than their respect for the truth. This is the threat the nation faces. Pike also argued provocatively in one of his books that there was no known counter-strategy to dau tranh, and I'm afraid he may have been right. [end post.]

The Republican battle against the political theory of the Enlightenment--that government must mobilize resources to secure important public goods--has a new vanguard, composed of twenty or thirty Republicans who believe that the federal government is unreservedly evil that that we would benefit if its operations came to a halt.  That vanguard comes to life in a story by Carl Hulse in today's  New York Times. "Most of what Congress does is not good for the American people," Charles Good, a Republican from Virginia, no less, declares in this piece. "Most of what we do as a Congress is totally unjustified."  "Members of the far-right Freedom Caucus and other right-wing House members see themselves as courageously doing the people's work," Hulse writes. "They believe they are reining in government and taking on what they call a corrupt 'uniparty' of Republicans and Democrats who conspire with rich donors and special interests to bankrupt the nation and beat down the average American."  And not only do they oppose the whole thrust of the last 90 years of federal domestic policy, they also are taking a stand against establishment foreign policy, including our effort to aid Ukraine.  They do not care, crucially, that Republicans have only a narrow majority in the House while Democrats control the Senate and the White House, the other two equal partners in the budget-making process.  It is not clear that anything will satisfy them.
It seems clear that a majority of the House does not favor a shutdown and would live with the budget deal that Speaker Kevin McCarthy reached with the White House earlier this year--but the extreme faction that includes Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene has intimidated McCarthy and, it seems, the rest of the Republicans, so far.  They appear to have the support of Donald Trump, whom no House Republican seems to have the courage to defy any longer,  For the time being, their Senate leader Mitch McConnell does not support their plans, but it is not clear how much longer he can keep his job for medical reasons, and the grass roots pressure for the Senate Republicans to replace him with another fire-eater will be intense when he steps down.  Kevin McCarthy presumably could try to pass a continuing resolution with the support of the Democrats and a few Republicans, but that would probably lead to his immediate replacement, an option which the far right insisted upon when he was elected Speaker.
I would like to suggest a few reasons why we have reached this point in our history--comparable in some ways to the eve of the Civil War, but with the difference that the House Republicans don't seem to want secession--they want to destroy the federal government that belongs to us all.
For approximately the first two hundred years of our history our citizenry--including leading citizens of all kinds--took an intense interest in politics.  They understood the novelty of the experiment that the founding fathers had begun and took great pride in trying to make it work.  Large landowners, successful lawyers, and some businessmen felt an obligation to enter the political sphere, and most of them--although never all--had a commitment to our institutions that went beyond political partisanship.  The last generation that showed these qualities, I think, were the GIs (born 1904-24), whose commitment to our institutions had become unshakable after they fought to preserve them in the Second World War.  People like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene--to say nothing of George Santos--did not get elected to Congress without making any name for themselves in some other endeavor.  And until Donald Trump, most politicians recognized some obligation not to pander to the most extreme emotions of their voters--the tactic Trump rode right into the White House, as he may do again.  Yes, Joseph McCarthy was an exception to everything I have just said, but the havoc he created lasted only four years, and his downfall discredited his kind of behavior for a very long time to come.  He embodied the idea of the exception that proves the rule.
There is another big reason, however, that the Republican Party won 50.6 percent of the popular vote for Congress in 2022 to the Democrats' 47.8 percent--a margin that could easily have given them a larger majority than they have now.  Our highly educated ruling elite, which controls all our major national institutions--the educational system, corporate America, our professions, our traditional media outlets, and the federal bureaucracy, including the foreign policy and defense establishment--no longer cares about the lives or the views of ordinary Americans.  Higher education taught them that they would graduate knowing what was best for us all, and they have carried that attitude into later life.  This development has been very carefully and effectively analyzed by Yale law professor Daniel Markovitz in his book, The Meritocracy Trap, which is summarized in this power point presentation.  In the book itself Markovitz emphasized that our new elite has increased its dominance by choosing solutions to problems in areas like law, health care, and higher education that increase their numbers and their power.  It is very hard for their counterparts in the media to see any of this as a problem, because they belong to the same elite.  But the one-time autoworkers who have lost their jobs to Mexico, today's autoworkers who fear losing theirs in the transition to electric vehicles, the hundreds of thousands of families who have lost their farms in the last few decades, and the socially conservative and religious people of many different faiths understand this problem very well, because they have suffered from it both materially and emotionally.  
Surveys have shown the extraordinary numerical dominance of liberals and Democrats on college faculties and in certain newsrooms.  I am not aware of any similar survey of federal, state or local bureaucrats, but I suspect that they would show a similar pattern except in the state and local bureaucracies of the reddest states. Only 41 percent of adult Americans have college degrees, but they occupy nearly all positions of any power, and they increasingly trend Democratic while those without degrees are trending Republican.  The Republican vanguard has nothing to offer the country but chaos, inequality, and a completely anarchic wider world, but they are speaking for a very large number of Americans who feel no stake in our system as it has evolved. 
Dau Tranh worked for the Communists in Vietnam because the government they sought to break down was largely a creature first of the French and then of the Americans.  It also worked because the Communists had the discipline and focus that their enemies lacked.  Republican dau tranh is working, I think, because our elite no longer takes the views of the uneducated seriously.  This is a very dangerous situation.

Monday, September 11, 2023

When did "the sixties" end?

 Six months ago I reviewed a book by Heather Hendershot, When the News Broke, about the television coverage of the turbulent Democratic Convention of 1968.  The current issue of the New York Review of Books includes a review of the same book by the distinguished Columbia historian Eric Foner.  I have some differences of opinion with Foner about the era which we both lived through, mostly about the role of leading mainstream media outlets. " For many years," he writes, especially but not exclusively in the South, the mainstream press published articles about the civil rights movement that denigrated demonstrators, defended segregation, and included the names of Black men and women who sought to register to vote, resulting frequently in economic retribution such as the loss of their jobs."  I believe that nearly all the major northern media coverage of the civil rights movement in the South was very sympathetic, as were the news broadcasts of the major television networks.  "Until 1968," he continues, "the news media displayed a remarkable credulity about official claims of military progress in Vietnam and failed to examine in any depth the rising tide of nationalism in the colonial world that helped explain the conflict."  In fact young reporters for leading newspapers in Vietnam expressed enormous skepticism about how the war was going during the Kennedy Administration and much of the media was skeptical from the outset of the large-scale war in 1965.  Foner wants us to believe that we needed I.F. Stone's Weekly, the Nation, and the new underground press to learn the truth.  And that leads me to what I really want to talk about: the definition of the exact legacy and the intellectual and academic rebellion of the late 1960s, to which Foner turns at the end of his review.

Foner points out that the bulk of the television audience sided with the police, not the protesters, after watching the Chicago convention.  Partly for that reason the Democratic Party--which had won more than 60 percent of the popular vote in Johnson's 1964 landslide--won just 42.7 percent of that vote in 1968, the rest divided between Nixon and George Wallace.  The entire South, except Texas, went for Nixon or Wallace in that election, the beginning of the realignment that allowed the Republicans to win five of six elections from 1968 through 1988,  and the next two Democrats to reach the White House were southern centrists.  Reagan put an end to the New Deal order.  Yet as Foner points out, that was not the whole story:

"But radicalism did not suddenly disappear. By the early 1970s social movements dotted the political landscape, including the second wave of feminism, gay liberation, and environmentalism, while the Black struggle continued. All survive to this day, and all have changed American life in dramatic ways. The antiwar movement did not reach its peak until 1970 when, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four protesting students at Kent State University by members of the Ohio National Guard, a strike paralyzed campuses throughout the country. And in 1975 the war ended. . . .When did the decade of the Sixties end? Did it end at all? We sometimes seem to be reliving those years that did so much to shape our world."

I am convinced that the legacy of those years is far more profound than he seems to realize, and I want to explain why.

The Second World War and its aftermath were the climax of about two centuries of European and North American politics based upon a mix of the principles of the Enlightenment and the social influence of the Christian religion.  The states of the North Atlantic region believed that reason and science could create better governments based on impartial principles and improve the lives of their citizens--and states did that.  They did so, however, thanks to a widespread, though not universal, respect for authority among the citizens, who submitted to a great deal of discipline in nearly every area of their life.  Education was based on well-defined curriculums.  The laws tightly regulated questions of sex and marriage.  Society defined strict roles for men and women.  The continental European nations required their young men to serve in their armies, and the Anglo-Saxon nations adopted that practice as well during the two world wars. The Second World War showed what the modern state was capable, both for good and for evil, and much of the wartime atmosphere lasted for another fifteen or twenty years because of the Cold War.  Meanwhile, a new generation was growing up in relative security and affluence--the Boom generation--whose parents had already begun to discipline much less, and who were not growing up in fear of war or destitution.  

What holds the various political and social aspects of the sixties together is a rebellion against authority of all kinds--political, social, and cultural, and above all, generational.  The percentage of young people in college was much higher than ever before, and this was perhaps the first generation--the Boom--in which everyone who could go to college was expected to do so.  The 1964-5 school year was the first in which nearly all the students in college came from the Boom--and it coincided with the start of the Vietnam War, which over the next few years proved that the older generation had made a terrible mistake.  Many students did not see why they should fight in that war, and that in turn encouraged them to question other forms of authority, from dress codes to parietal hours in dorms to the illegality of certain widely available drugs.  

Something else was happening on campus.  The academics of the Silent generation (b. 1925-42) were the most favored group in the history of American higher education.  They got an excellent education and finished their degrees in the midst of a very rapidly expanding job market.  And quite a few of them began making their names by questioning the most fundamental beliefs of postwar America--such as the idea that the Cold War was simply a defense of the free world against Communism.  It was in 1965 that Gar Alperovitz--an economist, not an historian--published Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, arguing that the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Japan to intimidate the USSR.  This was one of a flood of books blaming American imperialism for the Cold War, and they all became more popular as the Vietnam War went from bad to worse.  In 1973 the historian Robert James Maddox published The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War, showing that Alperovitz and six other historians had built their case largely on sand, but his work had little impact.  The idea of American imperialism as the source of the world's evils was an idea whose time had come.

The women's movement, meanwhile, was getting off the ground as well.  Female undergraduates accompanied their male contemporaries into graduate and professional schools in unprecedented numbers.  The 1960s did not really discover gay rights--they are not even mentioned in the indispensable documentary, Berkeley in the Sixties--but the gay rights movement grew in the 1970s.  To his credit, Foner does not associate the civil rights movement with the rebellion of the late 1960s.  It had won its biggest successes by then, and it was being weakened by a generational rebellion of its own, led by men like Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.  The black activists of the late 1960s introduced a crucial shift in liberation movements.  Rather than arguing, like the earlier leaders of the NAACP and Martin Luther King, Jr., that black Americans simply deserved to be treated like white Americans, they identified the United States as hopelessly racist and corrupt, beset with evils that only revolution could remove.  

The rebellion continued to make gains on campus even in the Reagan era, and women's studies (later gender studies), black studies, and gay (later LGBTQIA+ studies) became established academic fields. All of them increasingly followed in the footsteps of the antiwar and black activists of the late 1960s.  Rather than simply calling for equal treatment within the existing American legal framework, they increasingly insisted--following scholars like the Frenchman Michel Foucault--that all the principles of western civilization were based on the oppression of some groups by others.  By the 1990s the oppressors were identified with straight white males.  I recently glanced once again at my own online archive of articles from Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, which was formed in 1987 to defend traditional intellectual values.  It is amazing how closely articles from the 1990s anticipate what has become the mainstream intellectual climate today.  The attitudes that rule our elite media and publishing today already ruled the campuses then, but it took two more generations for them to take over our institutions.

Foner made his name as a scholar of Reconstruction and recently wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln--yet he has apparently refused to join the courageous scholars who have pointed out the falsehoods underlying the 1619 Project.  He cannot face the idea, apparently, that the activism of the late 1960s might have done more harm than good--but that is the truth.  Because I was already immersed in the writings of George Orwell--the subject of the senior thesis I wrote in 1968-9--I already had an immunity to that kind of activism, and that has stayed with me for my whole life.

The mid-twentieth century consensus, to repeat, rested on the political and intellectual principles of the Enlightenment.  The rebellion against it led over the decades to the abandonment of those principles among our intellectual class.  They do not believe in a single historical or social reality, but rather in multiple realities that belong to different races, genders, and people of different sexual practices.  They believe that any consensus position on almost any issue is simply a vehicle by oppression by a particular group.  Many of them now reject the nuclear family as a model.  They cannot even accept climate change as a threat to all of us in which we have an equal stake.  Something bigger, however, than leftwing activism obviously lies behind all this, because the right now feels the same way--equally entitled to believe in and act on their own reality, even when it comes to responses to new diseases.  That is the real secret to what has happened in the last half century.

In the long run, the discipline of the era of the first two hundred years or so of American history turned out to be too much for humanity to endure--especially as we became more comfortable and secure economically.  Nearly all of us rebelled in one way or another.  Something similar may have happened to the Roman Empire, although I am too ignorant about that empire to say.  Great historians, I often say, do not argue with history.  Those of us in our 70s or older have lived through a profound transformation of human life--one that clearly must reflect immutable aspects of human nature.  Other generations must deal with the consequences--possibly for a very long time.