Sunday, June 12, 2016

AMERICA THE STUPID

June 12, 2016: AMERICA THE STUPID

          When Jefferson left France in 1789 to return to the United States after his five years there as the American minister plenipotentiary, he sent ahead of him boxes of books to friends. One was a box containing six cubic feet of books to James Madison. These included the famous Encyclopedie, Diderot's compendium of current knowledge, one of the great projects of the European Enlightenment, along with various editions of the Greek and Roman classics, in their original languages, plus the works of Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and many other Enlightenment figures. Books were hard to obtain in America. In Paris and London they were plentiful.

          He sent books to his nephews as well. Jefferson had no white son, only daughters, and his ideas about their education were typical of their time--to wit, what was the point of educating women? He told his daughter Martha that she should become adept with the sewing needle, and otherwise master the social arts. For his nephews he developed a carefully thought out program of reading of the classics, studies in science, geography, and modern languages, and the law. The classics were to be read in their original languages. Other than that, he believed in walking. He himself used to walk six miles a day around Paris, no matter what the weather. "It's only water," he said of rain and snow.

          And then, years later, after his presidency came to an end, he founded the University of Virginia and did much to establish its curriculum, based on the same principles he wrote to his nephews about, the same books he sent to them and to Madison and James Monroe and other friends. He had in mind a classical education, and a preparation for political service in the government of the United States. For which a familiarity with Thucydides and Polybius and Cicero was as important as a familiarity with the U. S. Constitution.

          This was the sort of education that most of the founding fathers had. One exception was George Washington, and he felt the lack of it, but did what he could to catch up. When Jefferson sold his library to the government to help found the Library of Congress, and to pay a portion of his many debts, he owned more than 6,000 books. Washington had a few hundred. So this sort of education was not, strictly speaking, an absolute necessity to govern well. But it was a huge help. It gave the founders the mental equipment, and the common background, of an Enlightenment education in the theory and practice of government. To read Thucydides is to learn a great deal about what was essentially civil war, Athens vs. Sparta, from a writer who participated in it. To read Polybius is to discover how a small city in central Italy, Rome, could become the master of the whole Mediterranean. And Hume? Hume's words and thoughts can be found in the Declaration of Independence. Montesquieu explained how republics worked, and we live in a republic. Only small ones survive, Montesquieu argued. The U. S. was small then. Now it is very large.

          A wiser time. And how do people prepare today for governing? Does anyone get this kind of education any more? I certainly didn't. In public school I remember a course in civics where the process of proposing and passing legislation was taught, but dully. And I was one of two juniors in high school who were sent to Boys State for a couple of weeks one summer, where we went through the process of running for office and electing mock legislators and a mock governor, who at the end gave a speech. It was run by the American Legion and I wonder whether it still exists. For personal reasons I was miserable the whole time and got nothing out of it. As far as the classics go, no course in them was available. Not until I got to college did I read anything of the Greeks, and then it was Greek tragedy and Greek philosophy. What I know of political life and government I know by educating myself, and by practicing it in the village where I live.

          We all know the consequences of the abandonment of political education in this country. People like Donald Trump, who flaunts his ignorance of issues, an avowed racist, bankrupt both morally and intellectually. People who serve in Congress, make laws, control committees, and have an approval rating, collectively, of 9%. People who serve in state governments, where corruption is an everyday occurrence. And the people themselves, who not only don't read the classics but don't even read newspapers any more, a people so generally ignorant that comparisons of the ability to do math or read or write consistently place us in the middle to low range with respect to other first world countries. How many people can name their state representative, their state senator? How many can name the three branches of the Federal government, and explain what they do? How many still believe that the sun orbits the earth? Or that the earth is four thousand years old? Or that global warming doesn't exist? America has become stupid.

          In a republic, life is inescapably political. You have to educate people to politics, to understand it if not participate in it. Jefferson saw that clearly, and founded a university to accomplish it. He rejoiced when a Pennsylvania farmer invented a new and more efficient way to make wagon wheels, based upon a reading of Homer-- in the original Greek. It's a big and complicated country, with innumerable interest groups, many different factions, and it takes educated people to run it, indeed to do such an elemental thing as vote. But education is the first thing to get cut, the last thing most state legislatures respect.

          So we sink deeper into ignorance, deeper into dysfunction, deeper into paranoia. The coming election is, more than anything, a test of American intelligence. And it's an open question whether we'll pass.

         

Thursday, May 5, 2016

REPUBLICANS I HAVE KNOWN

May 5, 2016: REPUBLICANS I HAVE KNOWN

          I grew up in a Republican household, it was middle-class, my father commuted to New York City every morning and worked in railroad insurance, he had met my mother in the office when they were both young, and she was the boss's daughter and his secretary. She could type 120 words a minute. All these people were Republicans. We lived in a solidly Republican town, Westfield, N. J., an old suburb. My older brother, my only sibling, went to Cornell, took chemical engineering, worked for a couple of years at an oil refinery in Perth Amboy, then enrolled in law school nights and ultimately became Westfield's town attorney, holding the job for twenty-three years, a state record. He was Republican through and through. When my wife and I went to see him late in life you could not walk into the house without finding Fox News going on the TV. All hours of the day and evening.

          I was seven when FDR died. I had been hearing all my little life that Roosevelt was a "traitor to his class," so I grabbed a pot out of the kitchen, took a large spoon, and started walking around the outside of our house beating on the pot and crying, "Roosevelt is dead, Roosevelt is dead," and that lasted until my mother rushed outside and grabbed me and took me back inside. You get the picture.

          So--quite a long life I've had, long enough that I voted my first time around for JFK. I've voted Democrat ever since. Princeton did this to me, deepened my knowledge of history, explained issues to me, got me interested in politics and what the two parties stood for. One of my roommates one year was the son of a Democratis kingmaker in Hartford, Connecticut. He subscribed to the New York Times. There was political talk in our rooms, and I listened. And began to follow the news. And abandoned my family's politics, which wasn't very strong anyway. Their politics were a small element in their overall character. They were respectable, conventional people with a great sense of humor, loving to their children, determined to give us every opportunity. Solid. You could rely on them completely. Cornell, Princeton--they made large sacrifices to send us there. They were great parents, and what I came to think of as classic Republicans, business oriented, traditional, relatively tolerant, patriotic, family centered.

          What happened? How did a party into whose hands you could put the country without fearing for its life become the party of people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump--people so inherently evil or so stupid and ignorant as to make the U. S. the laughing stock of the world, and/or a source of bafflement and panic internationally? Look back. Wendell Wilkie was a one-worlder along the lines of Woodrow Wilson. Dwight Eisenhower was boring but quietly effective, and wise. Thomas Dewey would have made a decent President. The only joke on the scene was Harold Stassen, and he never had a chance in any of the many elections he threw his hat into. No one took him seriously. The Republican Party was an educated party then, it was the party of business and always opposed regulation, but it was not irresponsible. Was it Nixon?

          Yes, no doubt that was part of it. He was a strange bird, quite intelligent, deeply paranoid, never sure how to behave with people. You can cite his famous "Southern strategy," liberating the racism inherent not only in the South but also lurking in shallow burials all over the American landscape, and thereby turning the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, racist. But it took a long time after that for the party to become completely mindless, to give it over to know-nothings like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, to tolerate people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and let them become the party's voice. Nixon wasn't the whole story. Much more had to happen for the U. S. to become an outlier among the civilized, developed nations of the world.

          Shall we call it the failure of the Establishment? No doubt that's another element, but then we have to define exactly what the Establishment consists of, and that's not easy. I'm pretty sure that if I had chosen another line of work I could have become a member of the Establishment. My mother saw me becoming a college president. In a large and extremely diverse country like ours, I think an Establishment is pretty much a necessity. A kind of semi-permanent government, the top edge of a permanent bureaucracy, it develops a sophistication about government that is often cynical but seldom reckless. We can all think right away of the many mistakes made by establishments, but you don't do away with them because they make mistakes. Or because they're intertwined with business interests. Business interests are part of the foundation of America. Alexander Hamilton understood that, and, as a friend of mine says, we're all Hamiltonians now. We deplore business lobbies and their power, but there are environmental lobbies and artist lobbies and PBS lobbies as well and wealthy people are necessary to support them.

          I could go on and on citing reasons. They're no doubt endless; we could cite a perfect storm of reasons for the decline of the Republican Party. But they add up to a major tragedy. As a home for people like my parents, my brother, it has simply vanished. Now all in Republican World is illogic and rage, a profound stupidity, anti-educational, anti-science, anti-factual, hypocritical, overtly racist. It no longer has a moral compass, a sense of noblesse oblige, a sense of responsibility, and these are things that an opposition requires to have a real place in the country's sense of itself. There is no longer any intelligence in it, or anything but a kind of inept calculation. We can no longer trust it. Once we could. And this is tragic. It is doing the country permanent damage.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

BERNIE OR HILLARY II

April 10, 2016: BERNIE OR HILLARY II

          Last time I considered this question--a month ago? six weeks?--I left room for changing my mind. Barring unforeseen circumstances, my mind is now made up. I am 100% for Hillary.

          And it is Bernie himself who killed the small chance he had with me. The more I learned, the more I disliked and distrusted. One of the key things was finding out on FB that in the ranking of our 100 Senators on a scale of willingness, or ability, to compromise, he came near the bottom, 98th out of 100. Who was number 99? Ted Cruz. That told me a lot. Politics is all about compromise. In the real world no one gets everything he or she wants. Every engineer designing cars or airplanes or ear plugs knows that if you want one feature, you have to give up another. Every politicians knows that to get anything done, you have to make deals with people you may not like whose views you abhor. You have to compromise. Bernie, at no. 98, clearly has not been willing to compromise. He stands on principle. Well, that's nice, but it's also a killer in terms of accomplishment. Bernie does not have his name on major bills. He is known if at all for attaching amendments to bills. Bernie is, in short, an ideologue.

          Standing on principle. Spare me. My redoubtable wife, Lorraine Dusky, has been trying for years to get the closed adoption laws in the State of New York, indeed in states all over America, changed, so that adoptees can find out who their biological parents are, and therefore who they are. Change has been blocked often by adoptive parents who happen to hold office in State Legislatures and have done everything in their power to block change. And they have. This has gone on in states all over the country. It persists. It is a major injustice. In states where the laws have changed, they have often had attached to them a proviso that a biological mother can if she wishes veto its application to her. They can choose to remain anonymous. Well, there are other campaigners in this process who find this veto proviso unacceptable, and campaign against the passage of laws that don't give them the whole shebang, total change, total surrender from the other side. All or nothing. They wind up with nothing. But they stand on principle. They're ideologues.

          A free college education for everyone, at least in the public colleges? Wow! A direct appeal to the young, saddled with crushing debt from their own college educations. I quote Ernest Hemingway--"Isn't it pretty to think so." The how of things seems to escape Bernie at every stage. The 50 states all have some sort of public education, which those states pay for with the college tuition they charge, as well as general funding from taxes, and in may states right now this funding is shrinking, partly on Republican grounds, namely 'why should we do anything for our people?' and partly on good old American anti-intellectualism and its pride in native ignorance. So how is this going to happen? Is Bernie going to tax the rich? Great. Now in the states controlled by Republicans, and the majority of them are, how is the Republican love for the rich going to transform suddenly into its opposite? The Republicans in these states are not going to disappear. They are not going to change their minds. It seems obvious this year that a lot of Republicans at the national level are going to lose their offices, but at the state level? Is the gerrymandering that favors Republicans going to disappear without floor fights that will go on for years? Bernie is not giving us the how. Bernie promises to get rid of the big banks, but when pinned down he can't say how.

          But there's going to be a revolution, he says. Really? Where are the signs of that? I don't see any. This is not a revolutionary country; the people who take arms against a sea of troubles already have the arms. and they're pointing their muzzles in the other direction--against change; against minorities and liberalism and government control of Western lands and the like. When it comes time to vote for true liberals like Gene Macarthy or Walter Mondale or Hubert Humphrey, they don't. It's not a liberal country, and the many liberals among my friends don't seem to understand that they live in a bubble, that out there in Oklahoma and Idaho and the South it's very different. Very different indeed.

          And Hillary? She gets it. She doesn't engage in magical thinking. She campaigns, as Gail Collins pointed out yesterday, in the places where people live and work and she listens. She finds out what they care about. She knows that Wall Street is immortal and it's a good thing to get to know people who control hundreds and hundreds of thousands of jobs. They are not necessarily the enemy. It's a complicated world. Wall Street, like any business, needs to be regulated, but it's not all evil and greed. Nothing is. Wall Street fulfills essential functions. So does mining, so does agribusiness, so do so many of the big bad wolves of American liberalism. These entities are not the enemy. You regulate them. Regulation has powerful enemies in Congress. You have to work through Congress to get major things done. Hillary will compromise. Bernie doesn't compromise. He stands on principle.

          Hillary lives in the real world. She knows you don't get everything you want, and you don't get anything in politics all at once. You have to work for it, and real change, deep change, takes years. How long has it been since we won the Civil War? One hundred and fifty years. And where is racism now? All gone? I used to say it would take as long to give out as slavery lasted--more than 300 years. Now I'm thinking, maybe longer. She knows that as President, you have to be president of all the people, not just the liberals. You lose as often as you win, and are happy to make small gains. If you can't reform the system, which is entrenched, you try to manipulate it to your advantage. You make friends with the press if you can. You keep your friends close, your enemies closer. She is one of the most experienced politicians in America, as everybody knows, and she's down on foreign policy; indeed, she has a foreign policy, and it's not clear that Bernie does, or what it might be when he's faced with the enormous problems it constantly presents. In the now famous Daily News interview he couldn't figure out how to balance the American role in Israel with his native distaste for Israeli injustice toward the Palestinians. Come on, Bernie. You're running, as John Oliver would say, for fucking President of the United States. You have ISIS to deal with along with North Korea and China and the woefully neglected South American countries, along with the terrible conditions in Central America that drive immigrants into our arms. How are you going to deal with it? What's your policy? Do you have a policy? Or is it all and only about income inequality, which is another major problem nobody knows how to solve?

          Hillary does not have charisma but I like her more and more. I like strong women and married one. She keeps me alert. She has her causes but she's not ideological. She can change her mind. But her heart is always in the right place. And she is no ideologue. She understands what's possible, what isn't; she fights for her cause but can compromise. So do I, in my small role running a regulatory board here in Sag Harbor. I don't stand on principle, I stand on practical, doable. I am mostly liberal, but not always. The arc of history moves toward justice, said Martin Luther King, but slowly. Very slowly. That is a wise thing to say. Bernie has yet to say a wise thing. We all know economic inequality is a plague, a blight upon the idea of America. But he promises impossible things. Thanks for bringing it up, Bernie, but it's time to let the people who live in the real world manage change. And by the way, you really look bad when it comes to gun control.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

THE COWBOYS

March 23, 2016: THE COWBOYS

          We gave a brunch last month for some old and new friends and I was sitting next to someone on our couch that I've known for 35 years, let's call him David, and he leaned over to me and said something about Iraq, to the effect of, what if we had left Saddam Hussein in power?

          Amen to that, brother.

          And then this week I read the very long piece in the current Atlantic about Obama's foreign policy, and my admiration for that policy was confirmed. Obama is cautious. Prudent. He believes in diplomacy, not war. He understand the complexity of the world and its interconnections. He gets it about tribalism in the Middle East. He knows something of the history of the region. He is trying to point America in the direction of the Pacific, as the coming region, a region where we might do more good than in the snake pit of the Near East..

          Most of all, he understands that America is not the savior of the world. It cannot impose democratic systems on societies that do not want them, have no experience with them, and are not ready, and may never be ready, for them.

          So naturally Thomas Friedman, writing today in the New York Times, devoted his column to critiziaing Obama's views as expressed in the Atlantic. To be brief about it, I have long despised Friedman's views on foreign policy. He was one of the principal hawks promoting American intervention in Iraq in 2001, one of the idiots who drank the Kool-Aid, believing in the carefully calculated lies of whichever Chalabi (sp?) it was, who convinced the Neo-Cons that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction even though the international experts--I'm thinking primarily of Hans Blix--knew there weren't, having actually been in Iraq looking for them and found none.

          Has anyone noticed we are still there? Still involved? Is the situation better than it was? As Obama points out, Iraq presented no serious threat to the security of the United States at the time. Is the situation in Afghanistan better than it was? I wrote a piece about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and read a book about the British experience in Afghanistan and it all still applies. The Soviet intervention, ten years worth, was an utter disaster. Afterwards a Soviet ambassador to the U. S. warned  someone at the State Dept. not to make the mistake they had made. Wasted words. The English in the nineteenth century tried to impose, by force, a tribal leader on the Afghans who would rule the country, and wound up losing an entire army, every single man killed. Nothing has changed. There's an excellent movie out now, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, with Tina Fey, that graphically depicts how things currently fare in Afghanistan, and only the technology has changed. More helicopters. More IEDs.

          I blame Woodrow Wilson for much of this. Make the World Safe for Democracy. Right, Woody, you naive fool. American intervention stems from this doctrine, although, to be sure, there was plenty of infantile talk in the nineteenth century about America being the Redeemer Nation, showing the world how to live free, and this talk went on even while we were exterminating the Indians, another tribal culture, and buying and selling black human beings, breaking up families, treating human beings like cattle. WE did this. Holier than thou Americans, smug, lucky in their isolation between two oceans, and consequently stupid.

          It's a cowboy dumbness. It believes in myths, Shane, really fast with a gun, quick on the trigger, defending the innocent family, killing Jack Palance, then riding into the sunset. And all those who followed, Clint Eastwoods riding into town, killing the bad guys, almost always all by themselves, then riding on. That's who we are, we Americans, heroes bringing law and order to chaotic places. The appalling thing is to see this mentality at the very top, among people who actually run things and have serious power, and seeing how they persist at these levels no matter how many terrible mistakes they make. Caution? Prudence? Not for them.

          Serving in the military, actually firing weapons at other people, and being fired at? Not for them.

          Not until this country faces the truth about itself and so much of its past will it ever crawl out from under its own arrogance. But I don't have a whole lot of hope. Myths are extremely difficult to kill. In a country that seldom pays attention to its own history, its own moral failures, myths can only flourish.

         

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

AMERICA ALAS

AMERICA ALAS

March 1, 2016

          Every weekday morning I sit in Starbuck's and spend too much for a cup of tea--in Starbuck's tea costs more than coffee--and read the NY Times and brood. This morning it was an op ed page piece telling us that in Europe Donald Trump awakens memories of Benito Mussolini. As well he should. He has the Republican establishment in a panic, although they created him. He makes me distinctly nervous. He makes the Europeans nervous, as well he should. He is a demagogue, indifferent to policies or the political process, bent on power no one knows how he will wield, an obvious narcissist, racist, blowhard, willing to accept the endorsements of the KKK, a man with no discernible moral standards, with a history of failure, a man who offers no ideas or positions or point of view, who does not argue but wins the crowd with ad hominem insults, and turns every crowd into a mob.

          The Republican Party created their own monster, and now he rages about the countryside raising havoc. The Republican Party created Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, both lying machines, and Glenn Beck and any number of others of their kind, and let them deliberately misdirect the public and play to their prejudices and resentments and buried hatreds. Now we all pay the price. The media love it because it's such good theater, and the mob loves it because it gives voice to their hatreds. Their racism. Their bitterness at their own struggle to make ends meet, which they blame, rightly, on forces beyond their control. And the manifest injustice of seeing the CEO of the corporations they work for making 400 or 500 times what they make, and flying around in their private planes. How ironic that the leader of this mob flies around in his own private plane.

          At some point in the future a clever writer will untangle this disaster and tell us why it happened, although by then it may be too late; we may have, or have had, a President Trump, and the country will be lost. I certainly hope not. But even if the country is not lost this time around, it will remain in trouble, because the fundamental flaws will remain. Let me list them.

          The survival of a republic requires an educated public. Our educational levels are steadily sinking in relation to the rest of the world. If education is adequately funded at all, it is only for the STEM disciplines, science, technology, math, which are thought to be useful, while all the rest are, in the mind even of our own highly educated President, evidently, merely an indulgence. This is an ongoing tragedy. The founding fathers we revere so much were all educated in the classics. Read Jefferson's letters to his nephews about this. He tells them what to read, and it is the classics, and the Enlightenment political philosophers; and it is this that created the Constitution. This is what made Washington, Jefferson, and Madison and Hamilton and James Monroe such wise leaders politically. Now our political leaders are mostly lawyers. Jefferson's reading lists are truly formidable. But he fully expected his nephews to grow into political leaders themselves. That was their duty. That remains the duty of every voter in a republic--to educate himself about politics, to lose his innocence and plunge into it, to study it and to serve. To be a citizen is to take on responsibility for government, to get involved, to follow it closely. And to vote. Fewer than half the eligible population votes in the typical American election now. And that's criminally shameful, and one of the primary reasons the republic is unlikely to survive.

          What else? Money in politics. This is so obvious it hardly needs comment. Every thinking citizen I know believes the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United was essentially corrupt, based on a disastrous nineteenth century precedent that corporations have the legal status of a person and designed to give free rein to the rich to control the politics of the country. A decision, significantly, engineered by the former corporate lawyers on the Court. "The business of America is business," said Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s.. As anyone can see, business bought Congress a long time ago. The lobbying industry is huge in this country; lobbyists write legislation, spend money taking legislators on junkets to golf clubs, all the machinery of corruption firmly in place. Only legislation can change this fact, and what are the chances of that? What are the chances of an amendment to the Constitution destroying Citizens United?

          And then? Ideological rigidity. A few years ago I wrote a piece in this space on why I am a Democrat, which has been lifelong with me, and it has to do with human nature and my understanding of the nature of human society in America. I think most political ideologies are based on just such views, which seem to emerge from particular personality types. More authoritarian types turn Republican. Less authoritarian turn Democrat. It sometimes puzzles me that I'm a Democrat, since I come from a Republican family. In any case, these are deep-seated differences, built into us, which means they are probably, in whatever names, Republican, Democrat, Whig, Tory, Copperheads, Know-Nothing they appear in history, permanent. Which means that the practice of politics will always require compromise. It was just that that Barack Obama tried to practice when he first entered office. The refusal to compromise is what is now coming home to roost on the Republican right. Their inflexibility, their rigidity is doing them in. And it was planned. That's the most remarkable thing. Nothing this President proposed was ever going to get enacted as long as the Republicans held power in Congress, and this was deliberate. Now it's an issue with the Supreme Court, and the egregious Scalia's replacement. They won't even shake hands with Obama's nominee. This is a version of treason. It brings government to a standstill, and it is one source of the mob mentality that engulfs the country. It embodies the smugness, the contempt for the political process, that people instinctively hate about what politics has become in this country. Normally, no politician can afford to be ideologically pure. To his public he must pretend to be if he wants to get elected, but in practice he must work with the other side, make concessions, make deals, tit for tat, in order to get a step closer to what he wants. It takes time and it takes a certain level of prevarication, but that's how it works. In office you serve all the people, not just your side. Purity has no place in politics. But one side has closed its doors. Which is what totalitarian governments do.

          I could go on, and probably will before too long. I am deep in Sag Harbor politics, chair of one of the village's regulatory boards, dealing with the public every two weeks at our meetings, and it's not easy. We have been sued already, will probably be sued again. Hot issues surround us. Vanity Fair will be publishing a piece on these issues in just a month or two. I get paid nothing for this. It's my duty as a citizen. If we don't do it, our village will die. Think globally, act locally. Don't get me wrong, I'm no hero. I just take citizenship seriously. So must we all, if our country is to survive.

Friday, February 5, 2016

HILLARY OR BERNIE?

February 5, 2016: HILLARY OR BERNIE?

          What does a President do first thing every morning when he, or possibly she, wakes up in the White House? Let's call him a he, for the time being. He has breakfast, or maybe just coffee, walks into the Oval Office, and gets his daily intelligence briefing.  He wakes up to the daily crisis. He gets his daily instruction in the real world.

          I've often wondered what that must be like, what it does to a person to be reminded, day after day, how complex most situations are, how difficult, even impossible the choices are one faces in dealing with them, and how far away solutions are. Consider the situation in Syria, and our unfortunate involvement in it. Everything in Syria is a horror--the dictator, Assad, willing to do anything to maintain his control; the rebels, wielding different ideologies of their own, united only in hating Assad; ISIS, filling the vacuum created by these separate horrors with their own extraordinary levels of violence, their own spectacular horror, and all of this affecting the entire surrounding Middle East. So what do WE do in this situation. What do WE do about the refugees, streaming toward Europe to escape the madness, to add another dimension to the five or six already at work. I have no answer. We're already bombing and strafing ISIS, throwing out own violence into the picture, but is that an answer? A lot of collateral damage enters the scene. We are responsible for it. And now some idiot on the right proposes we carpet bomb the entire country, maybe bomb the entire Middle
East, and an equally idiotic right wing thinks that's a grand idea. It cannot be fun to be President of the United States. It's hard enough, complicated enough, to be the chairman of Sag Harbor's Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, which I currently am.

          I am also currently an historian, writing American and military history and working on a second edition of my version of the Journals of Lewis and Clark. History is an education in reality, and what it taught me early on is that most Americans do not live in the real world, but in a fantasy world, a dream world in which, in one version, everybody is self-reliant, or can be if they stop being lazy, government is a con job, and freedom is the only value. That's the right's version of the dream. On the left, the dream is that we can ultimately conquer corruption, self-interest, and Wall Street, and regulate our way to a utopian society in which everyone has a guaranteed income, college is free for all, and all of us will finally be men and women of good will--what one of my nephews calls the nanny state. Both dreams are very old, the current ones being modern incarnations of ideas that date to the beginnings of Western civilization. They have cropped up repeatedly in American history. Thomas Jefferson distrusted government even while he ran it, while at the same time dreaming of a happy agricultural republic where farmers read Homer in the original Greek. His dear friend James Madison was far more realistic. "If men were angels," he wrote in Federalist #51, "government would not be necessary." But men are not angels. Government is necessary. Left to themselves, people would descend into a Hobbesian universe of all against all. Into the dystopian anarchy of the apocalypse, where we all die.

          Hillary or Bernie? I remember telling a teacher many years ago that I wanted to live in the real world, and have tried to do so. In truth, I am not enthusiastic about either candidate. Hillary has been with us for a long time, she makes mistakes in judgment, she has ties to Wall Street. On the other hand she also has close ties to minorities, she has been a fierce advocate for women, for human rights generally, and she has the kind of international experience and relationships that are crucial for America's role in the world. Bernie is clearly a decent man, progressive to his fingertips, and righteous. He talks the talk progressives and young people rally around. And it's appealing. But his on the other hands are that he's never gotten anything important through Congress, he obviously cannot and will not be able to finance his proposals, and he's too far on the utopian side for my taste.

          But there are miles to go. And people are unpredictable. I thought Barak Obama a poor choice in 2008 for his lack of experience and the fact that he seemed too large a target for some fanatic's rifle, but he has proved to be an excellent President caught in awful circumstances. The fact that he's black brought back out of the twilight a recrudescence of the racism that Americans have harbored for 400 years, and that was unfortunate. However, it opened our eyes to the depth of the racism that afflicts us, to the depth of our own particular horror. Politics remains what it has always been, the art of the possible, an impossible job of maneuvering among the dream worlds of this interest and the other, trying to keep one's own balance, and the nation's, while dealing with what's real. I think Hillary will be better at this than Bernie, who's an ideologue, and that she will accomplish more. But we'll see. When we reach November, I'm not sure now who I will vote for then, except that it will be the Democratic candidate. As usual, everything depends. Time will tell.
         

Thursday, January 14, 2016

LIBERTY IN OREGON

January 14, 1916                        LIBERTY IN OREGON

          Armed militia taking over a Federal facility--really? Are they serious?

          I suspect they are. Serious and stupid at the same time. But it's not as if it's new. Portions of the United States are always looking for ways to separate themeselves from the Federal Gov't., most famously in the Civil War, and somehow it's always in the name of liberty, or freedom, or get out of my backyard. I know the impulse from writing about the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in the 1790s, shortly after there first was a United States under the Constitution. Farmers there were growing corn and converting it to whiskey in order to have a product that was much cheaper and easier to ship west down the rivers to New Orleans than it was to harvest the corn and ship it east to markets in the cities there. Corn in bulk is a lot more expensive to ship anywhere on farm wagons and with multiple mules than corn condensed into whiskey, for which there's always a demand. The tax on spirits, which was levied at the source, was one of the very first taxes the Fed. government enacted, and western Pennsylvania farmers responded with an armed rebellion. It didn't come to an end until George Washington himself called up the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York militias and sent them into the Pittsburgh area, himself leading the way. It took about fifteen minutes, once Washington's army came close, for the rebellion to disappear.

          So it has always been in the U. S. We're free, right? Doesn't that mean that we can do whatever we want? If we're living here, isn't this basically our land? Why should there be Federal land at all? Benedict Anderson called nations "imagined communities." Most of us don't live in eastern Oregon, can't personally know these people, the local communities they belong to are alien to us, who live in totally other communities with different styles of life and differing experiences and different relationships to our physical environments. So what makes us one "nation"? Where do our true allegiances belong? In Europe the allegiances center on their long histories, their differing languages, their defining literatures, their relative homogeneity. We have the one language, though with different accents, but most everything else seems unreal. How many of us can imagine having common ground with a cattle rancher? In effect, that's what being a nation on some level requires. Just that level of imagination, albeit in the abstract. We have to commit to the same idea of the nation, the same image in our mind of what it means, and those images, as our politics so plainly reveal, are not the same.

          I've written about these matters before in this blog, and I'll no doubt do it again. As the populace gets further removed from its original Enlightenment principles--who asks James Madison any more what the liberty of a citizen actually means?--as more and more people come here or are born here, as the diversity in the world and all the conflicts it generates grow more and more intense, the centrifuge that is our "nation" will only speed up, and what holds us together--I'm still trying to figure out exactly what that is--will come to seem more remote. We have had these regional differences from the start. As Obama's brilliant presidency reveals, the racism hasn't gone away. The military supposedly represents the nation at its best, but in fact we treat them like shit. As differences escalate and harden, people grow more selfish. Compromise vanishes. Mutual understanding is not to be found.

          I've quoted Benjamin Franklin before, too. Let me repeat. As he emerged for the last time from the hall in Philadelphia where the Constitution was written, a woman asked him what sort of government they had conceived. And he famously said, "A republic, ma'am. If you can keep it."

          If you can keep it. It must be kept, that is, from inside the hearts and mind of a people dedicated to the task. As the President said in his final State of the Union address the other night, it's a hard task. It takes dedication, and, most of all, it takes service.

          But as a study at Princeton concluded recently, we have already lost it. We do not live, it claimed, in either a republic or a democracy any more. We live in an oligarchy.

Friday, December 18, 2015

INTO THE AMERICAN WILDERNESS

December 18, 2015: INTO THE AMERICAN WILDERNESS

          In the American wilderness it rains a lot, four days straight in our case. We crossed the Mackinac Bridge, five miles long, in a strong wind. Apparently there's always a strong wind in the Straits there, and trucks follow a guide vehicle at 25 or 30 miles an hour in order not to be blown off the bridge. We were driving to Marquette, on the shores of Lake Superior, to attend Lorraine's granddaughter's graduation from Northern Michigan University. Smart girl. She graduated magna cum laude.

          At the end of the bridge, we turned west on US 2, and drove fifty or sixty miles--distance doesn't seem to matter in the American wilderness--into the heart of the heart of the country, steady drizzle all around us, and fog, and the cedars and bogs that make this place wild. We saw not a single animal coming or going. There were no deer carcasses along the side of the road. We caught occasional glimpses of the northern shore of Lake Michigan. Then we turned north, drove another twenty miles, and turned west again toward Marquette. Here it was truly bleak, a road without a single bend or curve in it for 25 miles, then, after a right turn, more of the same. A few tiny, pathetic communities along its route, then more bogs, more cedars, the bogs brown with winter, the shrubs leafless, the millions upon millions of cedars identical, indistinguishable. In the distance you could see an occasional car approaching in the opposite lane, see it from miles away, and then in the blink of an eye it was past you. If you ran out of gas in the American wilderness you faced probably a thirty-mile walk to a gas station, or would have to depend on the ambiguous kindness of strangers. During our four days, or was it three, we saw not a single police car. But ceaseless drizzle.

          Marquette is a long strip mall, with a small town at the end, on the shore of Lake Superior. I had a drink with someone I know at a sports bar on a side street. We struggled to find words. We attended the graduation ceremonies, where the commencement speaker was a retired colonel. He told us that the American Dream was not dead after all.

          In the Middle West, people are fat. Short women, thick bodies, like Eskimos, for whom fat is a survival technique. Here I think it represents a kind of solace. Food is a pleasure that never fails, when there are no other reliable pleasures. You cannot get a decent newspaper in the American wilderness. The Sunday New York Times could be had at Starbuck's, but it wasn't there when we stopped to buy one. But it didn't matter, because the lighting in American motels is always so dim that you don't have enough light to read by anyway. It was daytime TV, or nothing.

          We made it all the way back to Saginaw in one day, in pouring rain, at 80 miles an hour. There we stayed not in a motel, but in a large old inn, once a mansion, where we were the only guests. Our room was the size of a rather grand New York apartment, perfectly preserved with its original furnishings, its original silks, paintings on the walls, books filling the bookcases, most of them Reader's Digest Condensed Books, and windows you couldn't open. It was difficult to find a restaurant in Saginaw. Saginaw is bleak in an entirely different way from northern Michigan--a downtown abandoned, no people on the streets, old mansions in ruins, America after a nuclear exchange. Another kind of wilderness. Saginaw was bleak and ugly.

          The Upper Peninsula was bleak and oddly beautiful, even in winter. Nick Adams went there to be alone after returning from the devastation of the World War I trenches. Bleakness so relentless has a kind of grandeur to it. It diminishes you with its extent. It seems to come from God. It is not about  you.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

AMERICA LOVES GUNS, YES IT DOES

AMERICA LOVES GUNS, YES IT DOES   October 8, 2015

          This is hardly news. But it doesn't make the news very often. Instead we hear mostly about the mass shootings, the power of the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment, regulation and the lack of it, mental illness and guns, the little children who shoot each other, accidentally or not, etc. etc. All that familiar stuff. But the fact of the matter is, we love guns. Love 'em to death. Any culture that has , what is it? 350 million firearms floating around? loves guns. They don't all belong to nutcases. And it has nothing to do with a "well-regulated militia." There's nothing regulated about all these gun owners, who obviously number in the millions. It's ordinary people who love guns, who fantasize about defending their homes, their persons, about cowing the burglars who break in at night, who think guns are a kind of insurance policy against violence. Who think it's about Deadwood, and the guys in the white hats who have an amazing proficiency with pistols fighting it out with their fast draws on that mythical street where these battles happen. The hidden dream life of the American citizen.

          And the culture panders to it relentlessly. Starting with Westerns, then gangster movies, all the way up to space epics, it's always about gunfights, or large explosions filling the screen with fire, the excitement of seeing people killed. And the indifference to it. I don't go to these kinds of movies any more. I find them too disturbing; they don't let me sleep. I know something about guns from firing howitzers during my artillery training, and believe me, they're fun to fire. You can stand directly behind a howitzer, toss off a shell, and watch it ascend to its apogee before losing sight of it. It's beautiful. As a rifleman firing M-1s in training, I reached just below "expert" status, where the challenge is to reach an unnatural level of stillness inside and out to lay down accurate fire. Like anything challenging, it's satisfying to be good at it. It's definitely fun to shoot skeet, where the target is moving clay pigeons, and I've shot animals, too. In my first marriage we had skunks living in a crawl space under our house and I killed them with a .22, six of them, one by one, as they emerged into the yard, then dumped the bodies in the woods. The stink penetrated the house, my business suits, my wife's clothes. I had no regrets, no pangs of conscience about it. My two nephews own guns and one hunts, they're both highly responsible men, and I have no objections to hunting. The one eats what he kills; the other owns a gun for safety, or used to. Hunting and gathering is an ancient human way of staying alive.

          More than that, I write military history for a magazine of the same name, and there's a whole lot of gunfire in military history. So are we going to do away with war because people die, a considerable number of them unarmed civilians? To borrow a line from Hemingway, isn't it pretty to think so.

          It's a savage world. But America is peculiarly savage, more than most other civilized countries, and it's not going to stop until we stop loving guns so much. To do that you have to start with young men. You have to educate the testosterone, admittedly not an easy task. Testosterone is built in. Just as the violence is built into our history. Cortes won Mexico with Toledo steel and horses; we won North America with superior weaponry, too. The West was won with guns, beginning with Massachusetts and Virginia and up and down the East Coast and steadily moving west. The result was a genocide we rarely acknowledge, millions of native peoples wiped from the face of the Earth. That would be another beginning, to acknowledge that primal crime, along with the slavery that politicians wooing the South still try to downplay, to wipe from the history books. This is who we are, this is what we stand for. Good guys against bad guys, as we'd like to believe. That's bullshit. It was murder.

          Another starting place would be training. If you own guns, you should have to go through a regulating process at least as stringent as driving and owning a car, which involves training young people how to use them. Cars are recognized as potentially deadly weapons; so should guns be. In the same way fathers train their sons how to drive, they should be required to teach their sons at least the same level of responsibility in the use of guns. I don't own a gun, but the Army trained me how to handle one, how to take one apart and put it back together again, and how to shoot it. I was good at it and I enjoyed the training. Military people respect guns, respect the dangers involved with them, and are very careful with them.

          We're not going to get guns out of our system. We're not going to be Sweden or Great Britain or France, where gun violence is so small. Recognizing that, maybe we would have a chance of becoming sensible and realistic about the fact and do the obvious necessary things to train people to use them properly, to regulate their use and who uses them, and reduce the level of violence. We need to demystify them. And bring a sense of real human responsibility into our political life, and into American culture.

Monday, September 21, 2015

AMERICAN "NATION"

September 21, 2015: AMERICAN "NATION"

          I'm currently working on a piece for Military History magazine on the Greek war of independence, which took place over the ten years between 1821-1831, and it has inevitably led me to wonder about America now. Not that we face a war for our own independence, but some of the same issues that we cannot resolve, and have never fully resolved, faced the Greeks. As in:

          After 400 years of occupation and control by the Ottoman Empire, Christian Greeks under Muslim Turks, Greek society was hardly a unified thing. Parts of the country were under the effective control of mountain warlords, Greeks, yes, but far more loyal to their own regions than to any idea of a Greek "nation." They no longer had any experience of being a nation. The cities, or better to describe them as large towns, had mixed groups of Greek and Turkish merchants running things, under sometimes nominal, sometimes firm Turkish control. Many of the more learned Greeks served in the Ottoman government; others served the Tsar of Russia. The majority of the country consisted of a peasantry that chafed under Ottoman taxes and arbitrary Ottoman rule; the peasantry nurtured the hatreds necessary for revolution but not the means. The revolution began not in Greece but in Ottoman provinces on the Danube. Eventually they achieved independence, but they never put together a modern countrywide army in the process and received a great deal of outside help, from France, Britain, and Russia in particular, without which they would have failed. As it was two civil wars followed this victory. In the end they needed a king, who was chosen by the great powers that had led them to independence. Was Greece a "nation," then?

          Is America?

          In Imagined Communities, his brilliant book on the subject, Benedict Anderson argues that it takes  common experience, and common beliefs, to make up a nation, and that it also takes shared historical experience over time. We can point to a lot of that: a Revolution, a Civil War; our Constitution, two World Wars, both of which drew on citizens from all over the country and threw them together under extreme pressure in deadly circumstances, which, precisely because of the threats, does create bonds. And there are other things that tend to form a national bond, ceremonies like the Super Bowl, Fourth of July parades, the Oscars, national holidays; shared anxieties, like Red Scares; and so on. But there have always been fault lines in American society, and they persist. Racism is one, and the election of President Obama has turned it into a zombie, back from the dead, not reducing it but intensifying it. There are long-standing ideological differences that go back to the beginning. An intense regionalism persists. And the ideological differences have only become more passionate, less reasoned. We have always debated what America was about, what it meant, what its purpose was. Now the debate has grown hysterical, and the voice of reason has died away. We have had two major political parties from the 1790s on; until the Civil War, they managed to govern, even when they were at odds.

          Now? One has opted out. One has become dangerously unreasonable and backward looking, intent on undoing what cannot be undone--the history of the twentieth century. This has only intensified the deep regional differences in the country. Texas seems to think it wants to secede. The Bible Belt and its acolytes in Washington conducts open warfare on the rights of women and minorities. I don't have to cite chapter and verse; newspapers report this news every day.

          Where does this leave us? On a downward slope toward incoherence and chaos. To be a nation, a people must adhere to its own principles, its historic identity, its common values. But we are a people which increasingly does not know its history, which cannot agree on its values, and thinks of themselves more as Texans, or New Yorkers or Floridians than as Americans, and whose standing armed forces are not composed of a citizenry required to serve their nation but of expendables hired out of the labor pool. Increasingly we look like a banana republic; increasingly we ignore our radical decline in the standings of civilized industrialized countries in relation to educational levels, health care, upward mobility and a host of other measures. Our foreign policy is an embarrassment, our ignorance a tragedy. Are we a "nation"?

          Not yet.