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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...

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Who runs the Democratic Party?

 At least since the 2022 election, it seems to me, average Democrats have made clear to pollsters that they would prefer a different presidential candidate to 81-year old Joe Biden.  I have written before that Biden's rise to the White House tells a lot about what is wrong with American politics.  During his very long Senate career, Biden combined a cozy relationship with corporate interests--many of whom headquarter in Delaware for legal reasons--with the ability to make appropriately liberal noises on a variety of issues.  He eventually tried twice for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1988 and 2008, and demonstrated no appeal to primary voters on either occasion.  Then, however, Barack Obama picked him as his vice president.  Like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, and Al Gore--three of whom had also tried and failed to win their party's nomination for president--Biden immediately emerged as a very serious presidential candidate.  I have speculated before that the vice presidency confers both national name recognition, and access to leading donors.  Being first lady did the same thing for Hillary Clinton.  This week, the New York Times printed a remarkable story enlightening me as to how important donors can be.  

The story focused on Jeffrey Katzenberg, a very successful ex-studio head in Hollywood, described in the piece as "one of the most prolific cash generators for Democratic presidents for a generation." The story, by Peter Baker, does not tell us how he and Biden got to know each other, and it doesn't say anything about Katzenberg's role in the 2020 primary campaign.  Perhaps it was enough that Biden succeeded Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton as the leader of the Democratic establishment.  Both Biden and some of his staffers, we learn, talk to Katzenberg, a dynamo, several times a week.  He helped put together the State of the Union address.  The real point of the story is this:  a number of other major contributors, apparently, shared average Democrats' concerns about Biden when he announced his candidacy for re-election last year.  Katzenburg took on the mission of persuading them that Biden was up to the job, partly by bringing them into the oval office to see him in action themselves.  And that apparently worked.  None of them backed another possible candidate, and none ever emerged.

Before 1960, leading politicians in both parties, not campaign contributors, played the most important role in deciding who their candidates would be.  Franklin Roosevelt carefully cultivated Democratic leaders around the country while he was governor of New York from 1929 through 1932, and that secured him the critical 1932 nomination for president.  Theodore Roosevelt was far more popular than incumbent William Howard Taft in 1912, but he could not overcome the opposition of party leaders and win the Republican nomination.  (The party professionals paid dearly for supporting Taft in that case, as the Democrats won control of the government  handily.)  Richard Nixon owed his career to his cultivation of Republicans around the country.  In 1960 John F. Kennedy had to convince local party leaders like Richard Daley in Illinois and David Lawrence in Pennsylvania that a Catholic could win the election and would not hurt their local parties in order to get the nomination.  These party professionals were in day-to-day contact with ordinary voters.  Today's contributors are not.  The only national politician with a sincere, devoted following among the electorate is, of course, Donald Trump.

Presidential primaries were introduced in some states early in the twentieth century, and by 1932, when Roosevelt won a number of them and lost two others, they had some influence.  They seem to have fallen out of favor between `1932 and 1960, but they allowed Kennedy to prove that he was electable even in overwhelmingly protestant areas like West Virginia, and by the 1970s they had become the mechanism for choosijng almost all the delegates. That was supposed to put the power to select the nominee in the hands of the people, but it hasn't.  The only candidate before Trump who used primaries to defeat the establishment's choice was Barack Obama in 2008 against Hillary Clinton, and even then, the establishment split and parts of it went over to him before the race was over.  Thanks to various Supreme Court decisions, money is more powerful in US politics than ever.

It is hard to believe that Katzenberg's influence does not also extend to policy, and he and Biden reacted publicly to the October 7 attacks in exactly the same way: by condeming Hamas and expressing unequivocal support for Israel.  That, however, is much less important to me than contributors' power to choose party's presidential nominee, based mainly on  how the nominee treats them.  Let me be clear: I do not expect any drastic campaign finance reform to change this situation.  This is where history has taken us.  Following up on last week's post, I have written this one to to change the world, but simply to understand it.  That's a paraphrase of a famous man, and I wonder if anyone will recognize it.

Sunday, June 09, 2024


 My birthday, which has just passed, always coincides roughly with the end of the academic year, which even though I am no longer living on an academic calendar still always provokes reflection.  There has been plenty to write about in the last two weeks, starting with Donald Trump's conviction in New York, and including the continuing war in Gaza and a story in today's New York Times on the spread of Islamic terrorism in West Africa--a further step in the catastrophe of US foreign policy that began in Afghanistan and Iraq and spread to Syria, Egypt, and Libya under the Obama administration.  The influence of inflatoin upon the election is also very much in the news.  Yet for the time being I seem to have lost my appetite for analyzing these milestones on our uncertain road.  The enterprise of American journalism, like the enterprise of American history--which has taken up far more of my time--has relied from the beginning on the belief in progress and a story which, while full of twists and turns, is always neaded for a happier ending.  I now find this very difficult to believe. In addition, pointing out what has gone wrong has usually had a corollary: suggesting how we might fix it.  I don't have much faith in solutions that I might propose.

Thus, yes, Donald Trump in my opinion was clearly guilty of the offense of which he was charged, and after reading the judge's charge to the jury I thought that the legal argument behind the case was a lot stronger than many continue to argue.  The evidence clearly showed that he falsified records to make it possible for him to win the election.  Yet months before he did so, his nomination had confirmed the bankrupt collapse of the Republican Party,which had not been able to find a candidate that could defeat him.  Shortly thereafter his victory over Hillary Clinton showed that the Democratic Party suffered from the same problem.  And now, eight years later, Trump leads Biden in the polls and has established himself, I think, as the most personally powerful politician in the country since Ronald Reagan.  And the biggest reason, I think, is that he, unlike any established political figure, has exploited the weaknesses of the establishment order that has dominated our politics at least since Clinton.  Recent focus groups show voters favoring him because they think that we need drastic change, and that only he will provide it.  Is that so wrong?  The conviction will not change their minds.  And whether he is guilty of various charges or not, who can deny that the various trials are indeed an attempt by the establishment to do what it has not been able to do in the broader court of public opinion--to eliminate him as a political factor?

Our establishment's embrace of the global free market, which took its biggest steps under Clinton, with NAFTA, and Bush II with China's accession to the WTO, has probably done more than anything else to discredit it in the eyes of millions of hardworking Americans.  That however was not all.  Barack Obama accepted the view of his Boomer advisers that the crash of 2008 did not reflect anything fundamentally wrong with our economy, and that it could be weathered merely with a massive influx of liquidity from the Fed.  The Democrats abandoned the New Deal solutions of putting people to work to fight unemployment and restructuring mortgages to save homes and farms.  The establishment also relies completely on the Fed to fight inflation.  Inflation has dramatically influenced US politics for generations.  It was the biggest reason for the Republican Congressional sweep of 1946.  It hurt Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and in 1971, Richard Nixon, unlike Joe Biden, saw high inflation as a critical threat to his re-election, and actually imposed wage and price controls.  He eventually lifted them, and further inflation helped bring down Gerald Ford in 1976 and crush Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Biden and the Democrats have been in denial over inflation for three years now and I haven't seen a single mention of possible wage and price controls.  We no longer expect our government to act to help ordinary people against it.  The same is true about our housing crisis, apparently the worst since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.  Then the federal government took a number of serious steps to encourage the construction of new, relatively low-cost housing around the country.  The housing stock expanded so rapidly that even black Americans, who had to cope with segregation, increased their percentage of homeownership dramatically in the decades after the war.  Now we are hearing nothing from the government about the problem.  In those days the country felt a debt to the young adults who had won the war for us and their families.  Now we have already forced millions of young adults to mortgage their futures just to attend college.  And last, but hardly least, we have lost the common values, the sense of common purpose, and the common identity that in the past allowed us to achieve great things.  

It has been two weeks since I posted something here, and I have very busy weeks ahead.  I may be moved to post again in a week or two, or it may be longer.  Believe me, these observations are very painful to record, but I can't ignore them.  I hope to get to a different place for myself and my faithful readers of 20 years standing, but I don't know exactly where that place will be.  Meanwhile, as Orwell had his garden, I have music, family and friends, and the continuing drama of athletic competition to keep me fully engaged with life.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

A commencement address that no one will hear

 Good morning, and a hearty welcome to friends and family who are sharing in this great occasion this year.  And congratulations to all our graduates.

This has been one of the  most difficult years in the history of American higher education, and certainly the most difficult since 1969-70, when protests against the invastion of Cambodia shut down hundreds of campuses and administrators canceled exams to encourage the protests. I myself had graduated from Harvard in the spring of 1969, in the wake of a protest there that had occupied the administration building, led to a violent police bust, and disrupted commencement.  Then, too, the demonstrators had demanded amnesty for evrything they had done, but the administration had suspended some of them and some of them faced charges in court.  Today the protesters demand divestment from any Israel-related enterprise, then they demanded the elimination of ROTC.  The administration caved into that demand, and for decades it was impossible for students to attend Harvard on scholarships while preparing to serve in the nation's officer corps.  That, to me, was a sad and tragic decision.  Yes, we were in the midst of a mistaken and horrifying war, but the country still needed an army and it was a better army, and a better nation, that included Ivy League graduates within it.  But then, as now, a good many students had concluded that that war was not simply a tragic mistake, but the symptom of a hoplessly oppressive society that had to be transformed utterly.  The faculty and administration gave into that view.

Today, two utterly irreconcilable views divide the campus, the faculty, and various parts of alumni community, including some very important donors.  One view argues that Israel, a "settler colonialist" state, has no legitimacy, and that Palestinians should rule the whole territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Some who hold that view, by the way, also see the United States as a settler colonialist state and deny its legitimacy as well, although it is less clear exactly what changes they woul would like to make now to remedy the injustice of the nation's creation.  On the other side, people regard Israel as an essential refuge for the Jewish people and claim an Israeli right to takle all necessary steps to defend their country's security and subdue Palestinian groups such as Hamas that do not accept it and act volently against it.  Both views are based upon near-absolute ideas of right and wrong, and in my opinion, they mirror the views, not of all Israelis and Palestinians, but certainly of the Israelis and Palestinians who now exercise political power over their two peoples.  I have been an historian of international conflict all my life and I have watched the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for at least 58 years.  Today, as we finish a year dominated by that conflict, I want to offer you a different perspective on it--one based not upon one particular idea of justice, but upon the facts as I have come to understand them.  And I do so partly because I think that you, our new graduates, will need that perspective as you make your way through life.

The Jewish people originated millenia ago in what we call the Middle East, and apparently settled or resettled in what is now Israel after a period of captivity in Egypt.  They established their Kingdom, their written language, and their religion there, although they were conquered a few centuries later, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans.  Judaism then gave birth to Christianity, perhaps the source of its greatest worldwide influence.  The Romans apparently scattered the Jews around the Mediterranean in the early Christian era.  Then, a few centuries later, Islam arose further East, and eventually conquered and conversted the whole southern shore of the Mediterranean as well as most of the Middle East.  Eventually it conquered the Byzantine Empire as well, both in Asia and parts of Europe, and for several centuries it occupied Spain and Portugal.  Jewish communities suffered discrimination  in Christian and Muslim communities alike during the Middle Ages.  By the end of the Middle Ages, the largest Jewish communities were in Poland and Russia.

In the 18th and 19th centuries nationality began to replace the hereditary right to rule as the organizing principle of Europe.  Where did that leave the Jews?  They might in theory become equal citizens of the new nations in which they lived, as they eventually did in western Europe and above all here in the United States.  That option did not appear to be open, however, to the much larger Jewish populations in Russia and Russian-ruled Poland or in Austria-Hungary.  A good many of those Jews immigrated to the United States and elsewhere, but millions remained.  And among them, in the late 19th century, the dream of Zionism was born--the idea of re-establishing a state of Israel in the Holy Land where they could live.   During the First World War, leaders of the international Jewish community secured the support of the British government for a "Jewish national home" in Palestine--a province of the Ottoman Empire--and the new League of Nations endorsed that idea after the war, while reaffirming the rights of the existing Palestinian population.  Britain secured a League mandate to rule Palestine

It immediately became clear within Palestine that the Muslim Arab population would not accept the idea of a Jewish national home, and periodic outbreaks of violence between Jews and Arabs began.  Meanwhile, nationalist political movements in Poland, other Eastern European nations, and eventually in Germany became strongly anti-Semitic, arguing that Jews had no place in their communities.  The Soviet Union treated its millions of Jews better than Tsarist Russia had, but also stopped emigration for them.  As conditions for Jews became harder in Europe, the United States and other western nations restricted immigration, and the British eventually put limits on immigration into Palestine to mollify the Arabs.  Then came the Second World War and the Holocaust.  Those events left the Zionists in Palestine determined to create a new state of Israel, which they did in 1948.  In retrospect that decision was very understandable.  Six million Jews, the vast majority of them from Poland and Eastern Europe, had just been murdered by the Nazis.  The United States maintained strict immigration quotas against them.  The western European nations had not been able to protect them against the Nazis.  In addition, the creation of Israel and the decolonization of much of the Arab world left the Jews there living in hostile evironments, and they immigrated en masse into the new state.

I now must try to summarize about 75 years of Arab-Israeli conflict.  It has been marked, I think, by irreoncilable goals.  Most of the surrounding Arab states refused to accept Israel, immediately went to war against it, and refused to conclude a real peace treaty with it.  Decades later, after wars in 1948-9, 1956, 1967, and 1973, Egypt, and eventually Jordan, made peace with Israel--but the Palestinian population of hte territoy that became Israel never did.  Most of it was driven out of Israel in 1948-9 and has lived in refugee camps in Gaza, Jordan, and Lebanon ever since.  The 1967 war left Israel in control of an additional large Palestinian population in the West Bank, and also began a long-term Israeli attempt to add much, or all, of the West Bank to Israel itself.  Both the Jewish population of Israel and the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank have continued to increase, and they are now approximately equal.

The Israelis and Palestinians have never been able to make peace, in my opinon, because they have irreoncilable goals.  Both peoples include many individuals who would welcome a two-state solution and peace, but such individuals have never predominated among their peoples.  In the early 1990s, Yitzak Rabin,  a former Israeli military leader and hero of the original war of independence in 1948, became Israeli prime minister and reached agreements with Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Authority, or PLO, providing for Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the possibility of an eventual Palestinian state.  Rabin,. however, faced bitter opposition from Israeli factions who regarded the West Bank as an indissoluble part of Israel and dreamed of replacing its Arab population with settlers, and one such person assassinated him.  His successor tried to conclude a new agreement with Arafat but could not do so, and we will never know if he could have sold such an agreement to Israel as a whole. Meanwhile, the Palestinians used their limited self-rule to build up military capabilities in the West Bank and eventually unleashed the second intifada, a terrorist campaign against Israel itself.  Later, Hamas supplanted the PLO as the Palestinians' effective political authority in Gaza and began building military capabilities there after the Israelis withdrew from it.  That allowed them to mount the attacks of last October 7.

The Israeli government now argues that it cannot agree to a Palestinian state as long as it seems that the Palestinians will simply use it to prepare further attacks against Israel--and I must say that the history supports that view of what will happen. But on the other hand, the current Israeli government also apparently rejects peace because it wants Israeli control of the whole territory "from the river to the sea" as well.  Some members of the present government are openly calling for forcing the population of Gaza to become refugees in some other country, and clearly have similar plans for the population of the West Bank--and the Israeli military campaign in Gaza is, in fact, making the whole territory uninhabitable, with consequences that we cannot foresee.  

Where does that leave US citizens, the US government, and indeed, the whole international community?  Here I have my own perspective.  To all of you--and especially to those of you who have protested on one side or the other, except for the Israelis and Palestinians among you--let me suggest that we aim for some humility.  We cannot solve the problem, frankly, because neither side really cares what we think.  They are dedicated to their own irreoncilable goals which preclude a peaceful solution, and if anything is to change, it must change, first among them.  In these tragic circumstances--and they are tragic--foreign governments, it seems to me, can play one important role.  They can insist,in word and deed, that given their irreconcilable goals, both sides have a responsibility to keep the conflict at the lowest possible level, simply to allow their peoples some security and the opportunity to live their lives.  This, in the current crisis, they have failed to do.  Other previous US administrations did this after wars in 1956 and 1973 and during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s, and I regret that the current administration has not done the same.  Yes, the Israeli government had a right and a duty to retaliate for the terrible attacks on October 7, but no right, in my view, to kill more than 30 Palestinians, most of them civilians, for every single Israeli who died that day, or to level most of the buildings in an area in which two million people live.

And to the US citizens among you I point out that our forefathers did found a nation on principles that have allowed people of every race and religion to live together on a footing of relative equality.  Yes, it took centuries to turn the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution into reality for all--but we never stopped trying and we eventually succeeded in doing that.  And that effort, as Lincoln argued, kept the hope of such a world alive elsewhere.  Because we are human we are not perfect--but I believe we must keep our original dreams alive, lest we, too, sink into endless conflict, and perhaps even into collapse and disunion.

The protests of the past year, like the ones I lived through as an observer in 1969-70, assume that a vision of absolute justice can solve anything.  Such a view denies the essentially tragic character of human existence, as recognized by the ancient Greeks, by Shakespeare, and by the greatest of modern historians.  My own education and my own life have taught me a good deal about such tragedy.  Yours may  or may not have done the same for you--but life will do so in due course.  You will find that heroism and tragedy are inseparable and that the noblest goals can still have terrible results--both as citizens of your nations, and in your own life.  That is why now, as you receive your diplomas, your education is only beginning.  Good luck with it, and thank you.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Our Competing Aristocracies

         In August of 2017 I devoted a long post to journalist Jane Mayer's superb book Dark Money, which had appeared a  year earlier.  While I hope readers may go to it and read the whole thing, I am gonig to quote the first few paragraphs here.

"Last weekend I finished Dark Money by Jane Mayer, which appeared last year.  It was marketed, largely, as a history of the involvement of the fossil fuel magnates Charles and David Koch in American politics over the last few decades, but it is much more than that.  I intend in what follows to summarize what I found in the book, but from a slightly different perspective than Mayer’s, and without much of any attention to the voluminous, and fascinating, personal data that she provides about the Kochs and other financiers of our new “conservative” political movement.  Instead I am going to treat the book as the first draft, as it were, of a genuine political history of the last 40 or 50 years—because it explains more about where we are and how we got here than anything else that I have ever read.   Mayer leads her readers through the story in rough chronological order, and I recommend the book to everyone.  I on the other hand am going to try to identify its major features in an effort to explain how we got to the miserable point at which we find ourselves.

"Charles and David Koch are the most striking example of extraordinarily wealthy Americans who have had an outsized impact on the politics of the last forty years—and whose impact is reaching a new peak right now.  They followed in the footsteps of their father Fred, who in the 1950s was one of the founding members, along with candy manufacturer Robert Welch, of the John Birch Society.  Nothing illustrates what has happened to American politics in my lifetime in more striking fashion than this.  The ideas of the John Birch Society, a group of fanatically anti-government lunatics who in the 1950s identified Dwight D. Eisenhower as a member of the international Communist conspiracy, are now the single most influential set of ideas in American political life. Their main tenets are an unlimited faith in free enterprise and a conviction that government attempts to moderate the negative impacts of capitalism are simply a power grab designed to establish dictatorship.  And because of the success of their political movement, their fortunes have grown by orders of magnitude over the last few decades.

"In addition to the Kochs, the superrich political elite has included John Olin, a chemical manufacturer; Richard Mellon Scaife, a scion of a Pittsburgh family prominent in banking and industry; and Harry Bradley, another Birch Society acolyte who ran the Allen-Bradley Electronics Company in New York.  In the middle of the twentieth century, when marginal income tax rates topped out at 91%, these men had all taken advantage of a provision in the tax code—first used by the Rockefeller family—to create a “philanthropic” foundation to shield substantial portions of their enormous income from taxes.  Unfortunately, the definition of philanthropy has been broad enough to include the subsidy of a particular ideology—and ultimately, direct intervention in politics.  That one tragic flaw in our tax code has reshaped opinion and redistributed power at every level of American government.

"Now I have rarely been impressed by any of the ideas coming out of the new Right during the last few decades, but like many liberal Democrats, I suspect, I have assumed that conservative intellectuals had honestly come by their ideas.  I am not suggesting now that they have lied about them, but Mayer leaves no doubt that the entire new right wing intellectual establishment was created from the ground up by the handful of major benefactors listed above.  Both the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation—the two centers of conservative “thought” in Washington—were originally funded largely by Richard Mellon Scaife. The Bradley and Olin Foundations were also powers behind the Heritage Foundation, and the Kochs have been involved as well.  I have always thought of the Cato Institute as a nest of principled libertarians—partly because it tends to oppose foreign interventions—but it turns out to have been started by Charles Koch.  Charles Murray was an unknown writer before the Olin foundation adopted him and subsidized his first book, Losing Ground, arguing that social programs were hurting the poor.  (Spoiled, perhaps, by success, Murray went a bridge too far when he and Richard Herrnstein argued in The Bell Curve that black people were intellectually inferior to whites.)  And I was amazed to learn from Mayer that the Bradley foundation gives four annual awards of $250,000 each to leading conservative journalists, activists, and intellectuals. Winners have included George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Heather MacDonald, Shelby Steele, Victor Davis Hanson, John Bolton, William Kristol, Paul Gigot, Michael Barone, Jeb Bush, Harvey Mansfield, Edwin Meese, Roger Ailes of Fox News, General John Keane, and Charles Murray."

I certainly think that I was on to something then, but I have suddenly realized that this was only half of the story of what has happened to our political life.  I discovered the other half in 2022 book by a much younger conservative journalist, Luke Rosiak, entitled, Race to the Bottom: Uncovering the Secret Forces Destroying American Public Education. Now, while I haven't met either Mayer or Rosiak face to face, I suspect I would enjoy dinner with Mayer much more.  Rosiak is a rather angry early middle-aged man whose prose drips with contempt; Mayer is more of an old school journalist.  But Rosiak's book, like Mayer's is so exhaustively documented and carefully footnoted that there is no question but that he has also identified a very important presence in our political life.   The right wing foundations that Mayer documented turn out to be only half of the story.  

The power of foundations, as Mayer and Rosiak both point out, stems from a particular provision of the tax code that allowed some of America's richest families to escape the very high income and inheritance taxes of the middle of the twentieth century.   The Rockefellers and the Fords were among the first to escape inheritance taxes by turning much of their fortunes over to charitable foundations named after themselves.  And although Rosiak's book focuses on various serious problems within the US public educational system, the biggest lesson I drew from it is that the Ford, Rockefeller, John T. and Catherine MacArthur, Gates, Kellogg,  Annie E. Casey foundations and the Open Society Foundation founded by George Soros are playing at least as large a role in American life as the Koch, Scaife, Bradley and Olin foundations that Mayer focused on.  They, however, are run by left wing, largely woke bureaucracies, and their grants have created whole infrastructures of educational and public policy activists who are providing K-12 curriculums for schools based on woke ideas and pushing for radical changes in schools, especially in our largest districts, in the name of "equity."  Our new gilded age has become a struggle between two groups of billionaires, one left wing and one right, in which the views of average citizens play a very limited role.

The Ford Foundation, Rosiak reports, provided about $60 million in funding for racial equity issues a year between 2011 and 2020, and announced a further $180 million increase in 2020.  The MacArthur Foundatin indirectly subsidized the career of Nikole Hannah-Jones when she worked at Pro Publica, and has funded the Pulitzer Foundation, which has distributed curricula based on her historically inaccurate 1619 Project to school districts around the country.  The foundations, Rosiak shows, have many links to teachers unions, whom serious educational reformers--the ones who run effective charter school networks--now regard as the biggest obstacle to necessary changes.  (I know this because one of my sons worked for one of those networks for more than a decade.)  The Ford, MacArthur and Soros foundations have joined with the National Education Association to fund FairTest, which lobbies to limit the use of standardized tests in schools on the grounds that they are discriminatory.

Rosiak, himself a parent of school age kids, spends a long chapter on the disastrous decision to shut down schools during the pandemic, one that has inflicted damage upon a whole generation that seems likely to last for a long time.  He also shows how the educational establishment used that crisis to implement many other changes that activist groups--funded by the foundations--have been pushing.  These included easier grading systems that make it almost impossible for students to fail, a de-emphasis on standardized tests (a policy also adopted by many colleges, although some are now reversing it), and an end admissions standards to elite high schools based solely on standardized tests--the practice that turned schools like Boston Latin, Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, and Lowell High School in San Francisco into the highest-achieving schools in the country, public or private.  Such policies, new racial advocates argue, are "inequitable"  by definition because the produce student bodies composed mostly of Asian and white students.  I read Rosiak quite carefully, and I don't think he ever mentioned another activist demand:  that the teaching and administrative staffs of inner city schools reflect the demographic makeup of their students as closely as possible.  I have heard this demand frequently voiced by Boston area activists on my local NPR stations, on the grounds that "children of color" can only get the education they need from "educators of color."  Not coincidentally, NPR is very heavily supported by the foundations that Rosiak lists.  

On another front, Rosiak discusses the widely held view, particularly among liberals, that public education in the United States promotes inequality because it is financed largely by local property taxes, and thus, poorer communities spend much more per children than rich ones.  He presents some data showing that this simply is not true, and I can now corroborate that based on data from my own state of Massachusetts.  Boston, the city with by far the largest number of poor students in the state, spends $28,882 per pupil per year, one of the highest figures in the state. Cambridge, which ranks 134 out of 341 cities and towns in per capita income,. spends the second most, in the state, $36,712 per pupil.  Brookline and Wellesley, two of the wealthiest suburbs, spend nearly as much as Boston, more than $25,000 per pupil each, but Newton and Lexington, whose schools seem to have the best reputations of all, spend just  $16, 804  and $22,736  per student, respectively.  I suspect that the cost of education in Boston is so high for the same as it is at Harvard University--administrative bloat. These are, obviously, fragmentary data, but it does seem that the correlation between per-pupil spending on the one hand, and wealth and educational achievement on the other, is not nearly as strong as many people tend to think.

And although Rosiak doesn't mention this, the MacArthur Foundation also uses its renowned "Genius Grants" to reward its favorite intellectuals in the same way that the Bradley Foundation, as I mentioned above, rewards prominent conservative thinkers--but on a much larger scale.  The Bradley Foundation awards are one-shot gifts of $250,000, while the MacArthur grants are worth $800,000 over five years.  The foundation began awarding these grants in 1981, and their rosters are a kind of history of the last 43 years of US intellectual life.  In the first five years, winners included political scientist Seweryn Bialer, literary critic Harold Bloom,  historian Henry Louis Gates, Political Scientist Alexander George, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, novelist William Kennedy, novelist Cormac McCarthy, historian James A. McPherson, novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, filmmaker John Sales, and poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren.  Since 2015 they have included Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Homeric translator Emily Wilson, historian Ibram X. Kendi, and interdisciplinary scholar Imani Perry.  They now include far fewer scientists than they originally did.  Of the 20 2023 winners, 2 are white males and three are white females.

I am proud to have read both Mayer's and Rosniak's books.  One was written primarily for liberals, the other for conservatives, but both paint very convincing pictures of the intellectual and political power of great wealth, protected by the tax laws and dispensed by foundations without any public accountability at all.  They are a very important part of the new aristocracy which controls so many aspects of American life, and none of them seems to care very much about what is good for average Americans.  


Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Historical perspective

 I grew up, I think, at the climax of the Enlightenment, which had begun several centuries earlier.  By Enlightenment I mean above all the idea that human reason could improve human life, economically, medically, and politically.  That was, as my new book shows quite clearly, the idea upon which the United States was founded, and the idea which our greatest presidents tried to sustain amidst changing circumstnaces, including a civil war fought over slavery, a great depression, two world wars, and a worldwide ideological struggle between communist dictatorship and capitalist democracy.  The ideas of the Enlightenment did not create a utopia, partly because science, in particular, allowed humanity to do both good and evil on an unprecedented scale.   On the one hand, advances in medicine, food production, and industry mutliplied the world's population again and again.  On the other hand, advances in military technology, culminating in the atomic bomb, allowed for unprecendented levels of destruction, and still threaten the complete destruction of civilization.  And last but hardly least, humanity has never really managed to substitute reason for primal emotion.  Those two critical aspects of human nature have remained at war, and what distinguishes the period roughly of 1750-1968 is that reason, on the whole, had the upper hand, and that kept the dream of the Enlightenment alive.

I knew by the mid-1970s that something had gone very wrong in American political life in the late 1960s, and that the nation had lost the capacity to focus on the common good, partly because of the Vietnam War.  By the 1980s I had come to accept that we had lost something, and I did an interview late in the Reagan era that showed that I had shed many of my youthful illusions.  (I still have it, but I would have to retype the whole think to link it, and I don't think it's worth the trouble.)  The fall of Communism and the return of the Democrats to power under Clinton seemed to promise a brighter future.  Then, around 1995, I read Generations and suddenly saw the past, the present, and the future in a new light.  The erosion of civic order that had begun in the late 1960s, Strauss and Howe taught me, was a reucrring phenomenon, which had been followed in the 1860s and the 1930s and 1940s by a rebirth of unity in pursuit of new, inspring values.   They confidently expected to see something similar in the first fifteen years or so of the new century, and I welcomed that hope myself.

In fact, between 2001 and 2020, the nation experienced not one, but three crises of the type that they had predicted:  9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession, and the COVID pandemic.  None of them, however, had the regenerative effect that they had predicted.  George W. Bush, probably encouraged by Karl Rove, tried to mobilize the nation on behalf of a generational crusade to spread democracy through the Middle East, but he couldn't bring himself to ask the mass of the population for a real sacrifice via a draft or tax increases, and his goals were as unachievable as our parents' were in Vietnam.   Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner--Boomers all--persauded Barack Obama that there was nothing wrong with our economy that a massive infusion of liquidity couldn't cure.  Donald Trump tried to ignore the pandemic at first, and he and Biden dealt with its economic effects with another massive infusion of cash that tended to benefit industry and local government.  Meanwhile, teachers unions insisted on closing schools, a step whose disastrous effects may persist for a decade or more.  These repeated failures and an extraordinary growth of tribalism have left us with a polarized, divided electorate, which has transferred the control of either the White House or at least one hosue of Congress in eight of the last nine national elections and is very likely to do the same again this November.

Meanwhile, two new ideologies have replaced the idea of using reason to advance the common good.  The first was, very simply, the profit motive and the revolt of our economic elite against the New Deal order, whose prophets were Milton Friedman and Lewis Powell, whose famous memorandum, written just before he went on the Supreme Court, called for an attack on the regulatory state and a rebirth of the values of free enterprise.  The second, which began in academia but has now spread to many of our important institutions, was the tribal revolt against the idea of equal justice and equal opportunity for all, which new ideologies branded as nothing more than an excuse for the domiation of straight white males.  Any presidential candidate who genuinely sought to build a new majority coalition would have to take on at least one of those ideologies, and probably both of them--and no such candidate is on the horizon.  The spread of those ideologies made the kind of regeneracy that Strauss and Howe counted on impossible, and that, in turn, establishes the late 1960s as a critical turning point in world history.

The age of the Enlightenment, I believe, was an heroic age.  Its spirit encouraged both journalists and historians to see public affairs as a story of progress, and perhaps to try to use history and journalism to further progress.  Journalists and historians, by and large, now use their platforms to push their own ideology, which they identify with progress.   Unfortunately, I believe, on many fronts, the era of progress has come to an end, and academics and journalists, with rare exceptions, are simply promoting an ideology--or at times, their own superior wisdom--rather than facing facts.  They still claim to have the answers that will make our lives better, but the mass of our people have learned the hard way that they no longer do.  

The gap between ideology and reality is also behind much of the growing division over the Middle East.  Both supporters of the Israeli govenrment and of the Palestinian revolt believe that their cause must triumph because it is just, and this blinds them to the real tragedy of two peoples of roughly the same size claiming the right to control the same piece of land.  This is the kind of tribal conflict which Enlightenment principles cannot solve, either.  Yes, a two-state solution would reflect those principles--but the political authorities on the two sides reject one, and I suspect that majorities of their constituents do, as well.

This fall will mark the twentieth anniversary of History Unfoolding.  Much of it, particularly for the first six years or so, was written in the Enlightenment spirit--in the belief that better ideas could make a difference.  I am trying to let that idea go now, and it isn't easy.   We live in a tragic era rather than an heroic one now, and I no longer expect to live to see a great rebirth, even if I can live to be 100.  Yet as the great German historian Ranke tried to tell us nearly 200 years ago, we must accept all human history as reflective of some divine plan--as he put it--or as Thucydides said, as reflective of human nature.  We can value the eras that have made civilization and modern life possible even in a long era of entropy and decline, and we can keep certian non-monetary, non-tribal values alive in our own lives.  Some day new generations will revive the Enlightenment values in all their glory, bulding on the 18th and 20th centuries as those times built on antiquity.  And meanwhile, as Orwell once said, the earth continues to revolve around the sun.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

1969 and 2024--more thoughts

 More parallels are emerging between the campus protests of 1964-70 and today's.  (The great Berkeley protest began in the fall of 1964; not until 1968 was there a second comparable one, at Columbia; Harvard followed in 1969, and all hell broke loose in the spring of 1970.)    Rather than edit the weekend post I decided to put them into this new, short one.

To begin with, these protests, like those, are increasingly focusing on a specific demand.  In 1968-70 those demands included the elimination of ROTC from campus, the creation of black studies departments, and an end to university expansion at the expense of surrounding communities.  The Harvard protesters secured the end of ROTC, tragically, and the creation of black studies in some form in 1969.  Today the popular specific demand is divestment from any Israeli enterprises.  I will be very surprised if any university gives into it.

Meanwhile, a second familiar demand is coming into play: that students receive no punishment for demonstrations and encampments.  That was called "amnesty" back in the 1960s, and the demand marked a significant break with the idea of civil disobedience as articulated by Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Civil disobedience recognized that civilization depended on laws and punishments, and its practitioners willingly accepted punishment for breaking laws that they thought were unjust.  The student radicals on the other hand demanded that they go free because their causes were just.  That demand has resurfaced on campuses today, and Columbia's administration is now offering to meet it, provided that protesters pledge not to violate university rules for another year.  I suspect that the protesters will refuse.  

And last but not least, administrations that call in law enforcement to break up demonstrations or encampments, now as then, risk alienating much larger numbers of students and faculty.  A Harvard Crimson editorial has already demanded that punishments play no role in the settlement of current disputes, but college presidents are bowing to pressure from the House committee, in particular, and suspending students for defying them.  And having put up this post, I have just learned that Columbia protesters in Palestinian garb have occupied Hamilton Hall, the administration building their elders occupied back in 1968--and thereby forcing the administration to escalate again.

All this reflects two of the enduring achievements of the radicals of the late 1960s.  The first was the idea of the moral superiority of the young, the idea of the nation's youth as the sole repository of goodness in a corrupt society.  Their second closely related idea was a complete disregard for established procedures, or indeed for the need of any regular procedures, to make decisions and settle disputes.  Colleges are now very unlikely to try to undo these ideas because they need their own students so desperately, and have given up the idea that they are offering a vitally important product--education--which students may accept or decline as they wish.  I could easily be wrong, but I am not aware that there has ever been a serious protest at one of the St. John's colleges--perhaps because students know they are there to learn.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

The Campus Revolt and its Enemies

 I have blogged many times over the years about the changes in our intellectual life in the last half century and their impact.  They actually began, at least embryonically, in the early 1960s, when the United States was in the midst of an era of unprecedented economic and social progress that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare in 1964-5.  None of that was enough to satisfy a small cadre of undergraduate activists who formed the Students for a Democratic Society, whose 1962 manifesto painted a grim picture of an oppressive, stagnant American society and, fatefully, identified universities as the best place to begin the work of overthrowing it.  The Vietnam War--undertaken by Lyndon Johnson when his power was at its height--seemed to many young Americans to validate their critique of American society, and it turned colleges and universities into the leftist hotbeds of which the Port Huron statement had dreamed.  Meanwhile, women, liberated sexually by the pill and entering college in unprecedented numbers, began their own rebellion against traditional roles.  Eventually, in the 1970s, the gay rights movement followed.  Very recently, no less a figure than historian Drew Faust, a former president of Harvard, approvingly quoted those key paragraphs of the Port Huron manifesto in her own autobiography.

Something else, I am convinced, was at work--something much bigger.  The mid-twentieth century was the climax of Enlightenment civilization, based on the idea that reason, not emotion or blind allegiance, could become the organizing principle of society.  Impartial rules might govern our behavior, our institutions, and our education.  France, as I learned in college, was the country where these ideas had gone the furthest the fastest, and beginning in the 19th century and through most of the twentieth, they had provoked major intellectual revolts on both the left and the right by those who found these ideas too sterile and confining.   Something similar happened among the millions of Boomer university students in the late 1960s who suddenly rejected their parents' dress, much of their personal moral code, and many of the symbols--such as the American flag--that they revered.  The rebellion quieted down when the Vietnam War did, but within academia, it entered a new phase thanks to the ideas of intellectuals like Michel Foucault and Edward Said.  Foucault argued that the whole structure of Enlightenment ideas was just an oppressive mechanism designed by by a particular elite, and championed rebellion against it.  Said in effect extended a similar analysis to the whole of western civilization, which treated him very well--making him a Columbia professor--but which he saw merely as an oppressive mechanism directed against the Third World.   From the 1980s through the 2000s these ideas took over the humanities in American academia, leaving no place there for academics like myself who never accepted them.  (For new readers, that is a theme of my autobiography, A Life in History.)  

In the last seven months, we have seen a replay of the late 1960s on elite college campuses, with a twist.  Most of today's students are not radicals--just as most of them weren't radicals in the late 1960s.  Yet some of them have imbibed the idea that western civilization is inherently oppressive and that the job of students and universities as a whole is to alter it.  "Settler colonialism," a popular phrase nowadays, refers to the whole spread of European people and western ideas around the globe from the late 15th century onward, and treats it as one huge oppressive mistake.  That is the message of "land acknowledgements" that audiences routinely sit through nowadays at concerts and plays, of the renaming of public buildings and the removal of certain statues, and of movies and New York Times supplements that shamelessly rewrite history to eliminate any positive role for white people. And since the Six Day War in 1967, this ideology has treated Zionism and Israel as settler colonialist enterprises.  Ironically, this has become, at best, a half truth.   The elite that founded Israel in 1948 was indeed very heavily influenced by the Enlightenment.  It was largely irreligious and justified Zionism as simply one more application of nationalism, which had already rewritten the map of Europe and was about to do the same in Asia and Africa.  Now, however, a new Israeli elite draws much more heavily on the ancient ideas of the Jewish people as expressed in the old testament, where it finds its justification for an Israel that will indeed include the entire West Bank and Gaza, and, to some of its extreme elements, the East Bank of the Jordan River as well.  Israel and the United States are now two of the more religious nations in the world, and in both of them the Enlightenment has also faced determined long-term attacks from the religious right in recent decades as well.

And now, as in 1966-72, the left wing campus revolt has unleashed a right wing political backlash.  Ronald Reagan in 1966 won a landslide victory in California partly by attacking the Berkeley administration for not cracking down on the protests that had begun in the fall of 1964, and taking advantage of older Americans' feeling that their kids were out-of-control, spoiled brats.  The same belief contributed to the Republican victories in 1968 and 1972, when the share of the Democratic vote fell from 60 percent in 1964 to the low 40s.  Today, some Republican elements and Republican intellectuals have been complaining--rightly, in this Democrat's view--about the intellectual tenor of our campuses for a very long time, but they are complaining more loudly and with much greater effect now because they have powerful allies among very wealthy conservative Jewish Americans who are putting great pressure on college administrations to crack down on what they regard as anti-Semitic protests on campus.  I know some people would regard that last sentence as an anti-Semitic trope, but it happens to be a fact. (For the record, as I have tried to make clear, I do not regard opposition to the policies of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic.  I have explained my attitude towards the current conflict in two earlier posts.)  Pressure from that contingent played a critical role in the resignation of two university presidents.  And that, to me, is another tragic irony.  Society at large, and particularly our educated elite, did not try to do anything about the intellectual attack on the Enlightenment and the founding principles of the United States on campuses, until those changes seemed to threaten the tribal interests of one important element within society.  And to paraphrase Al Smith, the cure for the ills of tribalism is not more tribalism.  The bulk of American Jews, meanwhile, remain Democrats, at least half of them probably oppose the Netanyahu government, and a good number of younger Jews are taking part in pro-Palestinian protests, as is their constitutional right.  Nearly everyone, meanwhile, seems to share the fantasy that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that the US government can and should resolve.  And no one is focusing on the broader failures of today's universities, especially in the humanities, which are threatened with extinction because they now offer products that almost no one wants to buy.

Great historians, I often say, do not argue with  history.  Like the rise of the Enlightenment in earlier centuries, the rebellion against it must reflect fundamental aspects of human nature.  Thanks largely to generational change, I think, history is inevitably cyclical, which means that gains made my some generations will be lost by others.  That is what has been happening, intellectually, politically, and socially, in the United States for the last half century or so.  As the fascinating book, The Closing of the Western Mind, pointed out, something similar happened when Christianity tried to wipe out the intellectual heritage of the ancient world, and that time, it took nearly a millennium before a renaissance came along to revive it.  We don't know how far current intellectual trends will go and when they might be reversed.  I take comfort in having spent my youth in the last years of Enlightenment supremacy, and in the historical record that suggests that it will indeed make a comeback, sooner or later, to the delight of generations yet unborn.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Ask and ye shall be given

 Nearly two weeks ago, when I concluded a post that referred to George Orwell and Animal Farm by wondering whether a parallel satire might be written about the present day, my old friend and college classmate the critic George Scialabba pointed me towards Lionel Shriver's new novel, Mania.  The library quickly coughed it up, and I read it pretty quickly.   It was the first of Shriver's many books that I had read.  This post will inevitably contain some spoilers but I will leave plenty of suspense for future reasons.  Mania isn't going to sell like Animal Farm did, but it is in my opinion a very telling satire--and so far the msm's reaction to the book is rather revealing as well.

I must say that while I liked the book, I was not bowled over by Shriver's writing.  She can be very funny, but she takes her time about everything.  The book runs to nearly 300 pages and I think 200 might have done the job just as well. Animal Farm has only 144 pages.  The book is an alternative history of the first quarter of the 21st century, written in the first person by a non-tenured literature professor at a mythical Pennsylvania university named Pearson Converse.  (I'd love to believe that "Pearson" is an homage to the great muckraker Drew Pearson, but I'd be surprised as well as delighted to find that Shriver knows anything about him.)   She has a partner, three children, and a lifelong "best friend" who figure very prominently in the narrative.  Raised as a Jehovah's witness, she became a hopeless contrarian, and therefore could not surrender to the ideological fad that swept the country (in the novel) in the early years of the century:  the Mental Parity movement, closely associated with the idea of Cognitive Equality.   Described by its mythical founder as "the last frontier of civil rights," the movement holds that no one is really more intelligent than anyone else, and that the illusion that some people are smarter is just a pretext for the oppression of the many by the elite few.  This has led to very significant changes in language, education, politics, and even in medical care, and has had severe consequences for the protagonist and her entire family, including her two brightest children.  Meanwhiles, her best friend, a television reporter, achieves new fame and fortune by climbing on the bandwagon.

Mania has already received mostly unfavorable reviews from Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post, Anthony Cummins in The Guardian, Laura Miller New York Times.  While they recognized "cognitive equality" as a new form of wokeness, none of them seemed to share my view that it is an obvious stand-in for anti-racism, extreme feminism, and agitation for transgender rights.  More importantly, they did not acknowledge that those very real movements--along with a general decline in our educational system--have had exactly the same consequences in real life as cognitive equality does in the book.  That will be my topic today.

To begin with, the idea of cognitive equality, seasoned with the moral absolutism with which we have become so familiar, has in the world of Mania led to major changes in the English language.  Words like "stupid," "intelligent," "sharp," "profound," "idiot," "genius," and so on now represent thoughtcrime, and cannot be used in any context, as for instance to describe a sharp knife.  This has happened in our time.  Because slave owners described themselves as masters, the faculty heads of Harvard residential houses are no longer called masters--even though that title has a long academic history here and in Britain that had nothing whatever to do with slavery.  "People who can become pregnant" is now preferred in many quarters to "women" in deference to transgender ideology.  "Slave" has been replaced by "enslaved person," and "slave owner" by "enslaver," even though very few American slaveowners ever turned a free person into a slave.  Here, obviously, I could go on and on, but I don't really think I need to.

In other many other instances, however, I don't need to resort to parallelisms, because developments in the fantasy world of Mania and the one I've been living in for decades are identical.  "I'm supposed to stop focusing on traditionally towering figures of history. John Locke, Adam Smith, Rousseau. . .The point is, in my courses, I'm now meant to celebrate all the historical figures we've customarily overlooked."  That has been the watchword of the American historical profession for 40 or 50 years, and explains why, as Fareed Zakaria recently remarked, a white male who wrote about presidents would have no chance of getting tenure at most universities today.  And Locke, Smith and Rousseau are completely unfashionable, not because they were very smart, but simply because they were straight white males.  On another page, Pearson (the narrator) complains that the AP courses that her son would normally be taking have now been abolished.  School districts in California and in Cambridge, Massachusetts have dropped Algebra I for eighth graders, which allows students to take calculus as high school seniors, because so few black and Hispanic students found their way into it.  (Cambridge has recently reversed that decision.)  When Pearson insists to her friend Emory that "it's a fact," "not an idea," that some people are smarter than others, Emory replies, "According to you."  Postmodernism abandoned the concept of objective fact decades ago.  

And sadly, the thought police we encounter in Mania have real-world equivalents as well.  Pearson has to undergo some re-education on her job after she tries to assign The Idiot to her literature class, because the word is, of course, forbidden, and a few orthodox students turn her in to the dean.  Something very similar has happened to a tenured professor whom I know, who had to give up a very popular course in which he had stepped over linguistic boundaries (in a quotation) for a year.  She also gets visits from Child Protective Services who worry that she is steeping her own kids in false ideology.  In real life, parents in several states have lost custody of children after they refused to accept the child's desire to transition to a different gender.  

And last but  hardly least, the nomination, election, and now very possible re-election of Donald Trump proves that an obvious lack of intellectual distinction is no bar to highest office, and may even appeal to a significant number of voters.  That reflects the anti-intellectualism of the right, but the changes in the humanities that have favored ideology over creativity and judgment reflect an at least equally powerful anti-intellectualism on the left.  At one point in the book, Converse also notes that MacArthur genius grants are now being given to people of no intellectual distinction.  That too as happened with respect to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Ibram X. Kendi, none of whose writings, in my opinion, display exceptional intellectual ability.  It is even more interesting to compare the list of the first crop of MacArthur Fellows, selected in 1981, to the group selected in 2023.  

There is another critical aspect to our own crisis today that Shriver's work leaves out.  We still have very smart people who get very good educations--but what do they do with their lives?  A very large number of them reach the top positions in finance and industry--and there, because of another set of intellectual and legal changes, they focus all their brains and their energy on short-term economic gain.  That is why Boeing, for instance, can evidently no longer be trusted to build safe airplanes, and why our health care system is more and more corrupted by the profit motive.  That, however, is clearly a matter for another book.

I have been fascinated by greatness in a number of different fields all my life.  In 2017 I published Baseball Greatness, which used statistical analysis to identify the greatest baseball players of all time.  About 19,000 men had played major league baseball at that time--and many times that number had tried and failed to make the majors.  But out of those, my methods identified about 100 of them--less than one-half of one percent--who were demonstrably far superior to all the rest.  I see no reason to doubt that a similar percentage of individuals in any complex field of endeavor are capable of extraordinary achievements, but our whole society has indeed rebelled against that idea. This vast social change has happened much more slowly than the revolution in Animal Farm, but it may have equally fateful consequences. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Podcast discussion of the JFK assassination

 A new generation is hard at work muddying the JFK waters, and I managed to get on to this podcast discussion of the case earlier this month.  The host, Lorien Fenton, began with a 23 minute rant on her favorite subject, UFOs, but if you start at 23 minutes, the discussion is not bad, and I had no trouble trying to inject a good dose of reality into the situation.  While my interlocutors didn't agree with a lot of what I said, we were all unfailingly polite.  Paul Bleau, the other guy, has distributed several surveys to JFK researchers.  I'll have another important post, a book review, up by this weekend at the latest.

NOTE:  Getting to the audio may be a little more complicated than I thought.  Here are the instructions.  The date of the video was April 8.  Note:  read carefully as you go along, the instructions provide the username and password you need to log in.  You don't create one.

Finally, if you like the interview it is yours to share! A few days after the interview log onto https://Revolution.Radio, click on the "Archives" button. Follow the instructions to log in. Then scroll to "The Fenton Perspective" and click on the folder, then scroll to the date of our show. (Should be the latest/last entry). Download the file.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

More on States of the Union

     I have recorded and posted this seven-minute video about my new book, States of the Union, on youtube.  If you like it please pass it on to anyone you know who might be interested--and feel free to post comments! Thanks.  

Sunday, April 07, 2024

Our intellectual elite

 In 1937, the left wing publisher Victor Gollancz brought out George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier--an account of life in a British mining town and a political manifesto--as a selection of the Left Book Club.  My father, then in the mist of his Oxford Rhodes Scholarship, evidently belonged to the club, and I still have the orange paper-covered copy that he received.  The book included so many attacks on left wing orthodoxy and upper-class intellectual fads that Gollancz and his two colleagues on the club selection committee decided that Gollancz himself would add an introduction definitely disassociating the club from some of what Orwell said.  He commented, quite rightly, that while Orwell on the one hand professed is own belief in "Socialism,"  he held very traditional views on diet, family life, and other issues.  Gollancz blamed these views on his class background--just as a contemporary critic would blame such views on race and gender.  "Mr. Orwell calls himself a 'half-intellectual'," he wrote, "but the is that he is at one and the same time an extreme intellectual and a violent anti-intellectual."  Orwell was my first serious intellectual interest and I wrote my undergraduate thesis about him, and I see now, 55 years later, that the same could be said of me.  

A few months ago, following a respected friend's recommendation, I started listening to Cafe Insider, the podcast of the former New York US attorney Preet Bharara.  Bharara has a calm, very engaging delivery and does interviews very well, and he brings his legal expertise to various issues of the day, particularly the pending cases against Donald Trump.  Last week he interviewed the journalist Evan Osnos, who has written a recent biography of Joe Biden that apparently includes a lengthy analysis of the coming election.  (I haven't read it.)  That interview, available here, strikes me as a perfect example of what is wrong with our current intellectual elite, whose flaws may return Donald Trump to the White House in nine months.  I'm not attacking Bhrara and Osnos personally here.  I'm citing them as prime examples of the chattering class, center-left version.

Early in the interview, Bharara posed the question that dominated the discussion.

"Logic and common sense would dictate that if three or four years ago, we were in the throes of the pandemic in a very serious way, lots and lots of people were dying, there were lots of lockdowns, people were unhappy, the economy was uncertain, now, fast-forward three years, the pandemic still persists, but it is not what it used to be, the economy is thriving, and the pandemic and all of its associated harms, and ills, and catastrophes are a thing of the past, why wouldn’t the mood of the country be ebullient, and why wouldn’t the guy who was at the helm during that transformation, whether he was deserving of it or not, why wouldn’t he be lifted up and hoisted up on the shoulders of Americans who would be praising him to the heavens? If I had told you three years ago that this is what America would look like three years later, wouldn’t the logical conclusion be that he was going to roll into re-election?"

"Yes, is the answer," Osnos replied.

I would suggest, to begin with, that things are not really that simple.  Yes, the pandemic as a serious medical threat is over, but our authorities bungled certain aspects of it in ways that are having long-term effects.  The decision to shut down the nation's schools has created a new achievement gap and increased chronic school absenteeism greatly.  As for the economy, as Bharara and Osnos acknowledge later, while unemployment has fallen to remarkably low levels, inflation has been a big problem during most of Biden's term.  And a broader question looms.  When we say in 2024 that the economy is booming, what does that really mean?  Yes, the stock market has hit new highs, but that doesn't make much difference to the bulk of the population.  Young people in our major metropolitan areas are facing the worst housing crisis since the late 1940s, and the government is doing very little about it.  Inflation has at least neutralized many wage gains.  Things are fine for the upper quarter (approximately) of the population, and those are the people whom our intellectual elite knows  And they assume, as we shall see, that the rest of the country has some obligation to share their views.  Osnos, to be fair, does acknowledge that the economic picture is mixed.

A little later, Bharara argues at length that Biden should be able to take more credit for preventing a recession--because Larry Summers and virtually every economist was certain in 2022 that one was coming.  "Clearly," he says, "it’s the case that a determination as to whose fault something is or who gets some credit for something is within the province of the voter, and they can decide logically or illogically to lay blame at someone’s feet or give credit to someone. On the other hand, it is up to the candidate, in this case, Joe Biden, to seize the microphone and take credit, whether it’s deserved or not, for things that, traditionally speaking, any politician worth his salt would’ve taken credit for."  As it happens, however, I don't think that Biden deserves any particular credit for avoiding the recession any more than he deserves any blame for the inflation that occurred.  I also doubt that our leading economists really understand exactly what has increased unemployment or raised prices over the last few years.  Our economy has been out of the control of our political leadership for a very long time, and I think that the average American knows that.  And given that the American people no longer trust either party to make that much of a difference in their lives, it is natural for them to express their dissatisfaction by voting against the party in power.  The is what they have done in every election but one since 2006, in which either the White House or at least one house of Congress changed hands.

 Neither Bharara nor Osnos, meanwhile, ever mentions the immigration issue at all.  Illegal immigration has again surged under Biden, and applying Bharara's maxim, it would appear that he is the logical person to blame for this.  And indeed, many voters are blaming him, including nonwhite voters assumed to be part of the Democratic coalition, but who are now trending in the other direction.

 Here I will digress for a somewhat unrelated point:  it drives me crazy to hear pundits claim, as they often do, that the 2022 congressional elections were a victory for the Democrats because there was no "red wave."  In fact, they lost the House of Representatives, making any further progress on domestic issues nearly impossible, and having terrible consequences for foreign policy.  More importantly, the Republicans actually won the popular vote for the House by three percentage points--a margin which would have been expected to give them a much larger majority than they actually got.

Late in the interview, Bharara finally brings up the question of Biden's age--and Osnos,. who talks throughout like a Biden campaign manager, not a journalist, gives another typical center-left response. 

"I think you see that certainly showing up in poll numbers, that people just look at Biden and that is their question, the Biden world bet[sic]. And it’s a big bet, but it is a substantive one is, that it’s not just about age, yes or no, it’s age versus crazy. To tie it back into that point we were talking about before, Preet, that’s what it is. It’s age versus crazy. Okay. Sure, there’s no question that Joe Biden is older than he was, and you see it, you feel it, this gets to the innumeracy of our politics. You just read it, like one animal to another, Joe Biden is older, yes. But that is a different thing than, is his mind intact? Is his decision-making record defensible? And compare it to the alternative.

"The oldest Joe Biden line in the world happens to be truer now than it’s ever been in his career, which is, 'Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.' And we now know who that alternative is. So that’s where the age question becomes more complicated than just, is he too old to do this job?"

Biden, Osnos says, is running for re-election because he thinks he deserves it based upon his record--but the bottom line, in which so many Democrats believe, is that the electorate has no option but to vote for him because he is running against Trump, whom they have defined as un-American and impossible. And what if it turns out the country does once again elect Trump?  Osnos has his answer ready.

"I think some of this has to do with a basic orientation of the politics of the right as it is today, which is that it is fundamentally nostalgic in nature, it is about seeking to reclaim, or rebuild, or recover things that have been lost. And those things are basically forms of power, and they’re cultural power. Let’s be blunt about this, Preet, it’s about a certain white male dominated conception of the United States, and it is one that was largely intact for a very, very long time, and now feels to a lot of people on the right as if it is going away, and Joe Biden is the head of a party in a movement that represents that. And so that’s what they’re talking about. And they can lump into that bucket all kinds of things, they’ll say that it’s about getting rid of the right to bear arms, or the right to raise your children with the curriculum that you want.

"In some ways, it’s a kind of endlessly adaptable thesis, but that’s really what it’s about. And I really come to the belief that when we talk about freedoms being taken away on the left, that’s not abstract to people. I was having conversation with friends just in the last couple of days, if you’re a woman who’s looking at the state of abortion rights in this country, and you see them being taken away one by one in state after state, that’s a really specific thing that you can identify. On the right, it is a more atmospheric declaration."

Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" comment might have lost her the election, but it lives on in the words of Osnos.  People are voting for Trump not because of high housing costs or uncontrolled immigration or the impact of free trade on jobs, but because they believe white males no longer dominate the culture--something that most white males never did.  Among the Democratic elite, blaming opposition on racism and sexism and homophobia is a way of saying, those people don't deserve to be listened to anyway.   And there is plenty to worry about in blue state K-12 school curriculums, too, even among those of us who believe that all Americans deserve equal rights.

To repeat: I have enjoyed Preet Bharara's podcasts and will continue subscribing, but I think that the tone of this whole conversation was a big part of the problem we face.

Victor Gollancz's devotion to the left wing orthodoxy of the late 1930s and early 1940s eventually cost him very dearly indeed.  He forgave Orwell for The Road to Wigan Pier and published it with his own disclaimer, but he was not so forgiving later, with fateful consequences.  On March 3, 1944, Orwell wrote Gollancz--with whom he was under contract giving Gollancz the right of first refusal on his next three books--about a new manuscript.  "It is a little fairy story," he wrote, "about 30,000 words, with a political meaning.  But I must tell you that it is--I think--completely unacceptable politically from your point of view (it is anti-Stalin.)"  Gollancz replied heatedly that he had in fact disagreed with Stalin and Soviet policy many times, and asked to see the ms.  Twelve days later, Gollancz wrote Orwell again: "You were right and I was wrong.  I am so sorry. I have returned the manuscript to Moore [Orwell's agent.]"  No major publisher would take the book, but it made the career of a minor one, Fred Warburg.  

The book was Animal Farm, one of the best sellers of the twentieth century. I wonder if there is a parallel attack on contemporary intellectual orthodoxy waiting to be written today.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Israel and the United States

 I have hesitated for a long time to write something like this post.  Chuck Schumer's speech the other day pushed me over the edge, because it exemplified one aspect of the American-Israeli problem that no one else seems to want to talk about.  I will get to that in due course, but before I begin, I want to quote a remarkable passage from the autobiography of Zora Neal Hurston.  I am indebted to the podcaster Coleman Hughes for first bringing it to my attention.

“There could be something wrong with me because I see Negroes neither better nor worse than any other race. Race pride is a luxury I cannot afford. There are too many implications bend the term. Now, suppose a Negro does something really magnificent, and I glory, not in the benefit to mankind, but the fact that the doer was a Negro. Must I not also go hang my head in shame when a member of my race does something execrable? If I glory, then the obligation is laid upon me to blush also. I do glory when a Negro does something fine, I gloat because he or she has done a fine thing, but not because he was a Negro. That is incidental and accidental. It is the human achievement which I honor. I execrate a foul act of a Negro but again not on the grounds that the doer was a Negro, but because it was foul. A member of my race just happened to be the fouler of humanity. In other words, I know that I cannot accept responsibility for thirteen million people. Every tub must sit on its own bottom regardless. So 'Race Pride' in me had to go. And anyway, why should I be proud to be Negro? Why should anyone be proud to be white? Or yellow? Or red? After all, the word 'race' is a loose classification of physical characteristics. I tells nothing about the insides of people. Pointing out achievements tells nothing either. Races have never done anything. What seems race achievement is the work of individuals. The white race did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison. The Jews did not work out Relativity. That was Einstein. The Negroes did not find out the inner secrets of peanuts and sweet potatoes, nor the secret of the development of the egg. That was Carver and Just. If you are under the impression that every white man is Edison, just look around a bit. If you have the idea that every Negro is a Carver, you had better take off plenty of time to do your searching.”

I happen to agree completely with that sentiment.  It was popular among minorities, I believe, in 1942 when she published it, and it was very much in the air for the two subsequent decades during which I was growing up.  Martin Luther King Jr. echoed it in his remarks about the content of our character.  The middle of the last century was an era of extraordinary human achievement--technological, industrial, and political.  Men and women focused more naturally on human achievement then.  Now they are focusing more on tribe, defined in various ways.

Now let me quote a very parallel remark from Albert Einstein--to whom Hurston referred--recording his own feelings about his own ethnic and religious group, the Jews.

“For me, the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything ‘chosen’ about them.”

If you enjoyed those quotes, you may well appreciate this post.  If you didn't, I doubt very much that you will.  And before I go any further, I happen to be the child of a Jewish-American father and a New England/Midwestern protestant mother.  They raised me without any religion at all, something that I have never regretted.  And that means, as you probably know, that the state of Israel does not recognize me as a Jew or a potential citizen, which I would have no desire to become in any case.  I have never had and never wanted any country but the United States, and I think that the observance of impartial laws--domestically and internationally--is the only way for the peoples of the modern world to live together in peace and happiness.

The decision to create the state of Israel in 1947-48 (six years before Einstein wrote those words, by the way), was an entirely understandable decision.  Jews had lived as minorities for many centuries, often in very cruel conditions.  Zionism had begun in the nineteenth century mainly to provide a new home for the Jews of the Russian Empire (including Poland), who were not regarded as Russian citizens, and who were already immigrating in large numbers ot the United States and elsewhere. (Two of my grandparents were among them.)  Initially Zionism aroused very mixed reactions in the Jewish communities in western nations, many of whom wanted nothing more than to be treated as equals in their current homes.  The rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, and the Second World War obviously changed the calculus.  Almost nowhere in Europe had the Jews been safe from destruction, and the United States had shut off large-scale immigration from anywhere in the early 1930s.  Perhaps in part because they could not welcome Holocaust survivors into their own country, many  more American Jews now became Zionists, and the US government played in important role in the international recognition of Israel after 1948.  No one, however, could force the Arabs then living in Palestine or the governments of the neighboring Arab states to accept the creation of Israel, and they did not.  Israel has lived under military threat for the whole of its 75 years of existence, first from the neighboring Arab states and later from the Palestinian population of the Gaza strip and the West Bank, both of which Israel occupied after the 1967 war.  Israel successfully made peace with Egypt in the late 1970s and Jordan in the 1990s, but attempts to make peace with the Palestinians in the 1990s failed, and the political organization Hamas gradually emerged as the center of Palestinian resistance, winning an election in the occupied territories in 2006 and eventually securing full control of Gaza.  A parallel Shi'ite organization, Hezbollah, developed in Lebanon under the patronage of Iran, which since 1979 has been an avowed enemy of Israel as well.

The creation of Israel was a remarkable political and economic achievement.  It also freed the Israelis from the relative powerlessness that Einstein referred to in 1954, with exactly the results that he seemed to anticipate.  It is easier for weak states to be virtuous than strong ones, as Tocqueville remarked in Democracy in America.  The Israeli government developed very significant military power and used it ruthlessly in 1956 and 1967--when it began wars with its neighbors--and in 1973, when it was attacked.  (I know some readers will dispute my characterization of 1967, when Nasser in Egypt created the crisis that led to the war, but it is not at all clear that war would have occurred if Israel had not begun it.)  In addition, the 1967 decision to occupy, govern, and partially resettle Gaza and the West Bank made the Israelis the rulers of a foreign people, a role that inevitably involves cruelty and injustice.  The current war in Gaza--triggered, of course, by a very cruel attack upon civilians by Hamas--has confirmed Einstein's suspicions.  Given enough power and provocation, any nation--including both Israel and the United States--can do terrible things.  That is human nature.

1967 was also a key date for some elements of the American Jewish community.  As historian Judith Klinghoffer pointed out in her book, Vietnam, Jews, and the Middle East, it deepened the feelings of many American Jews for Israel, and it helped create neoconservatism by convincing certain Jewish intellectuals that the United States had to be a strong presence all over the world because it was one of Israel's few friends.  The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) dated from 1959 but became much more powerful after the 1967 and 1973 wars, and by the 1980s it was using its political power to make it very difficult for elected officials to oppose anything that the State of Israel was doing.  In 2006 Michael Massing wrote the most detailed analysis of what AIPAC had become and the power it wielded that I have ever seen, and I don't think anything has changed very much since then. Massing emphasized that the small number of very wealthy individuals who controlled AIPAC were much more conservative and much friendlier to the Israeli right than the great mass of American Jews were, and that is undoubtedly still true today.  Yet they remain, effectively, the voice of the Jewish community in American foreign policy all the same.

I am not going to review the whole history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the attempts to end it.  I have said before that I doubt very much that the leadership of either side wants a peace that would recognize the rights of the other side--that is, a two-state solution.  The Israeli government offered less than that in 2000, when agreement seemed to be the nearest it had ever been, and we will never know whether that Israeli government, which ruled by a very narrow margin, would have been able to get those terms accepted by its own people or not.  And to the extent that various Palestinian leaders have shown a willingness to compromise, I am not convinced that this was anything more than a strategic move to get something now in order to try to get more later--the same strategy that the Zionist leadership used in 1948 when it accepted in principle the UN General Assembly's partition plan.  I will return later to the question of where that leaves the Israelis and Palestinians now.

The current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has explicitly rejected a two-state solution.  Some weeks before the October 7 attack he displayed a map of the Middle East before the United Nations in which the territory of Israel included the entire West Bank and Gaza.  In addition, several leading members of his government are calling specifically for turning most or all of the Gaza population of about two million into refugees in some foreign land and starting to resettle Gaza with Israelis.  Meanwhile they are once again expanding settlements in the West Bank and allowing settlers to terrorize Palestinians.  And in the five months since October 7, the Israeli air force and army have made most of Gaza almost completely uninhabitable, and are now preparing to finish the job.  I don't see how anyone can rule out the possibility that the Israeli government wants to complete the ethnic cleansing of the Gaza strip, or that it might carry out the same policy in the West Bank later on when a suitable provocation occurs.   And I don't want the US government to support that policy either openly or tacitly.

Senator Schumer's very strong criticism of Netanyahu and his government took courage, but it disturbed me because it reflected a fantasy that occurs among liberal American Jews who oppose what Israel is doing but want to continue to support it.  They tell themselves that Netanyahu does not represent most Israelis, that most Israelis oppose his policies, and even--as Schumer said openly in his speech--that Netanyahu has only adopted those policies to please the extreme elements of his coalition and stay in power.   I do not believe that.  My main source for what is happening in Israel is the liberal daily Haaretz.   It violently opposes everything Netanyahu stands for, and many other Israelis do as well--but they definitely appear to be in the minority now, and the Haaretz writers know that.  Netanyahu is personally unpopular, but were he to resign or be forced out of office, he might easily be replaced by someone whose views and policies were similar to his.  Schumer is apparently one of a number of liberal American Jews--exactly how many, I cannot say--who need to feel that Israel is made up mostly of Jews like themselves.  I do not think that that is true, and I don't think it made any sense for him to demand that the Israeli electorate choose someone else.   George W. Bush demanded the same thing of the Palestinians in 2002--and four years later they elected Hamas.

And what would a responsible Israeli policy look like?  Peace will be impossible unless both sides genuinely accept the other's right to exist.  Violence will continue at least intermittently until that day--if it ever comes.  Israel could in the meantime renounce the policy of making Gaza uninhabitable and stop further expansion into the West Bank--but no Israeli government has been willing to do that for a long time.  What both sides can do, and have done for long periods, is to make every effort to keep the level of conflict at the lowest possible level, even when seriously provoked.   Hamas would be in a much stronger position today, I think, if they had only killed Israeli soldiers on October 7.  Israel had to retaliate for that attack, but not to the extent of killing nearly 30 Palestinians--most of them civilians--for every Israeli who died on that day--a total that continues to increase. Yet having stated those views, I will do what Schumer did not do, and acknowledge that neither side cares what I think or shows any signs of adopting them now.  We are in the midst of a continuing tragedy.  I have found all my life that tragedy, real or imagined, can be cathartic in retrospect.  I don't know if there is any catharsis to be had from ongoing tragedies.