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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...

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.


Energyflow said...

I think that a Moderating principle was in effect after the war and was replaced by two extremes of libertarianism and cultural marxism. IT IS utterly Natural fort US to develop ideologies. Libertarianism is sort of the pioneer Spirit of the old days hoping To liberate us from bureaucracy and cultural marxism IS the furthered development of the socialist economic class warfare applied To radial groupings. To Play the devil's advocate Here I will simply claim that These are two dominant theories of the left ad right that are rational and competitive attempts To save humanity. We See Milieu applying the one theory To save Argentina from sclerotic decline typical of Staates whose govt spending exceeds certain percentages. I ready a Statement by Lee Kuan Yew, ex Premier of Singapore stating that all multi racial democracies become dominated by ethnic based political parties. In a real Sense then both ideologies harken To a bygone era of one the one Hand freedom of discovery and on the other, Segregation. The Male Desiree dominated the right and the female desire of social controls the leftist ideology The period you emerged from and understood, held rational govt control and steering of processes for necessary as well as color and sex blind attitudes for correct. There is no universal or historical justification for that. Any mixture of Levels of freedom or govt involvement or of identity politics vs ethnic laissez faire could bei assumed in say a large Empire or small enclave. The postfeudal nation state, post religious scientific era is Just as much value laden as any other era. Greeks could bei quiet rational thinkers as they used slaves To allow them this free time. We invented the steam engine and other motors using fossil fuels to afford this luxury. When all men sweat a day's work few have time for mind games. Ideologies of any sort, like Greek Egyptian, Chinese, Indian philosophies or religions were simply extensions of thoughts applied to the current environment. Nowadays and in the Last two centuries were no different. I recall the theme song from "All in the Family", "those we're the days". Nostalgia gets us nowhere. I think therefore I am ( mind as center of being)can be just as good a central concept as buddha's focus on compassion ( heart focus). Western ideology is failing as it is not adapting, is inflexible due to its belief on itself being the summit of evolution.

Skimpole said...

It is striking that the United States was supposedly a model of Enlightenment values during the first 89 years of its existence when chattel slavery was both legal and a key institution. It was also supposedly such a model when for the following century its claims of equal citizenship and the rule of law were enforced towards former slaves with distinctly less success than the Kaiserreich did for its Jewish citizens. Similarly, it wasn't the glib dismissal of half the population for those first two centuries that was the problem, nor the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. It was only when the first woman to hold, not the Presidency, but the American constitution's consolation/booby prize that the Enlightenment was now in mortal peril. A couple of posts ago you were dismissive of those who though the United States could somehow solve the Israeli/Palestinian crisis. Consider that from 1967 to 1993, in contrast to almost every other country in the world, the United States arrogated to itself the role of honest broker in the conflict in which side received massive aid and the other side was barely acknowledged. Israel's every fear and rationalization was deeply commiserated. The plight of the Palestinians got a perfunctory acknowledgement, like saying three Hail Marys after visiting a prostitute. And like the national attitude towards slavery before 1854, the moral action following such acknowledgement was always to be indefinitely delayed. It seems disingenuous to say the United States could no more solve this problem than it could civil strife in say Sudan or Nigeria or the Congo, when unlike those examples every journal of opinion in the country has discussed the Palestine/Israel conflict for more than half a century. Moreover many of the most powerful opinion makers have devoted considerable energy and invective to insuring that their preferred solution would take place. And they have succeeded: for decades the Israel right has pretended to support a two-state solution, and American politicians have pretended to believe them. To throw up one's hands, weep a few tears, and say there is nothing we can do is supposedly the hallmark of realism. I can't see why: last time I checked weeping hypocritical walruses gorged on sentient oysters weren't real either.

Ed Ciliberti said...

Aloha Dr. Kaiser,

Tsk, tsk doctor, such pessimism, and from an historian!

I read Generations in 1991 and, like you, was greatly taken by their perception of a repetitive cycle in (at least) American history. And I wondered if it was a human thing, not just an American one. It made more sense to me that it was a human one. Yet, for many reasons, over time, the cycles were not coordinated among cultures and countries. I believe that in recent times, with globalization, the cycles have indeed become synchronized across the world. Howe’s most recent book appears to accept that as true.

“These are the times that try men’s souls..” was the line that opened Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in 1776 on the eve of the American Revolution. That year began the war that would, several years later, wrest America from British hands. In 1864, 88 years later, at Gettysburg , Abraham Lincoln said, “We are met on a great battlefield of that war” and “it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us”. He was speaking of America’s great Civil War, then well underway. In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt began his opening remarks before Congress “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” And so, America was launched into World War 2, 86 years after the end of the Civil War.

This year, 2024, is 79 years beyond the end of the great bloodletting that was World War II. We are supporting with weapons and humanitarian aid Ukraine’s war with Russia. We are also supporting Israel’s efforts to destroy Hamas’ presence in Gaza after it attacked that nation in October last year.

According to the New York Times, the Israel became aware of Hamas’ plan over a year before last October’s attack. They did not believe it was something Hamas could carry off and did nothing. Hanas is a creature of Iran and they would have certainly knew of the plan. Since the beginning of the Ukraine war and the inflicting by NATO of sanctions Russia and Iran have strengthened their relationship. I believe that Iran told Russia of Hamas’ plan. I believe that Putin saw it as an excellent opportunity to open a second front against NATO, especially against the United States. The US now has to support two of its allies with munitions and weapons. It’s classic military strategy to create a secondary attack to support the main attack, thereby weakening the enemy overall defenses. In doing so, the likely of the main attack succeeding is increased significantly,

Generations’ thesis, as you know, is that there exists in history a saeculum that repeats itself every 80 years or so in a given nation or culture. The saeculum consists of four phases, the last of which is a complete unraveling of the society and results in a existential crises that brings a new society into being in that nation. So far, in the US at least, each crises has morfed into a very bloody war.

Today, American is into a very serious unraveling. War has already broken out in Europe and the Middle East. The threat of war clammers in the Western Pacific over Taiwan and North Korea willy-nilly shoots missiles every so often. Doesn’t Planet Earth today look, taste, sound and smell a lot like the post WWI atmosphere of the 1920s?

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
The Second Coming, Yeats

David Kaiser said...

Dear Skimpole,

You are making the classic mistake of today's historians--judging the past according to a mythical view of the present. No, the Enlightenment did not create perfect justice all over th world all at once. It began a process. Yes, slavery existed in the US until 1865, but it was abolished, thanks to the application of the principles of the Enlightenment. The same thing happened with respect to equal rights for black citizens and women. Rather than appreciate the achievements of previous generations, my own generation of historians, by and large, decided that they had inherited such an evil world that they had to start history over, based on new principles. And they have thrown the achivements of the Enlightenment away.

Skimpole said...

The issue is not whether there is an alternative to the Enlightenment. I don't believe there is. The issue is while other countries are judged by what they have done, the United States gets to be praised for its highest ideals, regardless of not only whether it has achieved them or not, but also regardless whether it has even professed them or not for most of its history. For the American right and much of the center the French Revolution is damned from the moment Burke denounces it. Yet slavery is somehow the exception that proves the rule of American moral superiority. Indeed the United States seems to exist in a state of redemption and absolution, but African-Americans and women whose criticisms are not to Kaiser's taste are threatened with excommunication from the Enlightenment. It seems odd to blame them for throwing the achievements of the Enlightenment away, when it is a conservative Supreme Court that clearly despises Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. It also seems odd that an intellectual tradition that has so often sneered and spat at the Enlightenment gets to radiate in its moral aura. Is Fanon the enemy of the Enlightenment, or these respectable figures who euphemized and whitewashed cruel colonial wars before, during and after Algeria?

I can't say I like the recent jabs at "perfect justice." It's not as if ex-Harvard professors were offering to take on the indignities of an imperfect world they're willing to confine Palestinians to. And the Israeli claim of security certainly needs to be analyzed more. Certainly after the last war both Russia and Serbia had serious security concerns. Since 1947 has the United States every seriously considered any Russian security claim to have any moral weight, as opposed to accepting it because it did not have the power to change its behavior? As for the former Yugoslavia, the western Powers waited a few years and decided, obviously correctly, that Milosevic was acting in bad faith. What has Likud ever done to deserve America's endless indulgence? One more thing, not only does Israel have nuclear weapons, thanks to the United States' generosity, it is allowed to pretend that it doesn't have them.