In a long, deeply-researched, and very worthwhile essay, Ta-Nahesi Coates surveys the sweep of American history to make the case for reparations — “by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences”. “Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success — and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy.”
Coates’ historical case here — ranging from 1619 to the present day and resting on works by Edmund Morgan, Eric Foner, Ira Katznelson, and others (he even gets in the oft-forgotten Tulsa riots) — is air-tight and undeniable. At the very least, we could all stop pretending that four centuries of shameful discrimination and brutality didn’t happen, and acknowledge that, as Coates points out, it remains manifest in everything from our housing policies to the wealth gap to our absurd incarceration rates.
Along those lines, granted this may be changing soon, but it remains ridiculous that we have a very powerful Holocaust Museum on the Mall, but no equivalent museum or memorial about our own national original sin, slavery. The Holocaust Museum is very appropriate for DC: It is an unforgettable reminder of the systematized depravities that even supposedly civilized societies can commit. But we need to start considering the beam in our eye more seriously as well.
This piece also dovetails nicely with one of my favorite Cornel West quotes: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America — this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.”
“In those years, photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) undertook a photographic survey of the Russian Empire with the support of Tsar Nicholas II. He used a specialized camera to capture three black and white images in fairly quick succession, using red, green and blue filters, allowing them to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to show near true color images.” Along related lines, and making the rounds again because of the Ukraine situation, “real” color photos of Russia from 1909 to 1912.
Of course, Social Security had rollout problems too. And progressives at the time definitely lamented the concessions that were made as Social Security evolved from bill to law, including the exclusion of agricultural and domestic laborers [re: African-Americans] from the law. (Frances Perkins: “The whole thing has been chiseled down to a conservative pattern.”)
That being said, I think it’s important to keep this in mind every time the right starts complaining about byzantine complexities in the Affordable Care Act: We could’ve avoided many of these issues if this change-bringing administration hadn’t immediately ruled out the obvious progressive solution to the health care problem — a single-payer system of Medicare-for-all, like most other advanced industrialized nations enjoy, perhaps phased in with an immediate voluntary buy-in and a gradual lowering of the coverage age.
Instead, we adopted the Republicans’ proposal, the marketplace/exchanges plan originally conceived by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, without even including a public option to keep the insurers honest. And what’d we get for this ginormous unforced concession to the right? Nothing. Republicans still didn’t support the health care law in 2010, and they’ve screamed holy hell that it’s tyrannical government socialism for the past three-odd years — even though it was their plan to begin with.
Now, they’re deliberately sabotaging implementation of the ACA and trying to pin every misstep, including this rather sad website #fail, as a failure of the liberal project. As Konczal aptly points out, what’s failing here is the NEO-liberal project — the desire to embrace public-private, technocratic conservative ideas of a generation ago (see also: cap & trade), in the hopes that today’s conservatives will somehow be intellectually honest enough to support them too. That is a sucker’s bet every time.
One other important takeaway from this article: “[I]f all the problems are driven by means-testing, state-level decisions and privatization of social insurance, the fact that the core conservative plan for social insurance is focused like a laser beam on means-testing, block-granting and privatization is a rather large problem. As Ezra Klein notes, ‘Paul Ryan’s health-care plan — and his Medicare plan — would also require the government to run online insurance marketplaces.'”
In other words, here again conservatives are decrying exactly what they ostensibly espouse. Perhaps a better way forward on fundamental pieces of legislation, instead of playing Lucy and the football with the Republicans, is to try to enact our own ideas from now on.
Update: In Foreign Affairs, Kimberly Morgan makes much the same argument: “The real source of Obamacare’s current problems lies in the law’s complexity. A straightforward way to assure coverage would have been to extend an existing, well-worn program to more people…In the United States, [due to] political antipathy to government programs…policymakers regularly rig up complex public-private, and often federal-state, arrangements that are opaque to the public, difficult to administer, and inefficient in their operation.”
“At any rate, this was a terrible accident; 147 young people, they were all young men and women, were killed, lost their lives and a number of others were badly injured…This made a terrible impression on the people of the State of New York. I can’t begin to tell you how disturbed the people were everywhere. It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn’t have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! We didn’t want it that way. We hadn’t intended to have 147 girls and boys killed in a factory. It was a terrible thing for the people of the City of New York and the State of New York to face.” — Frances Perkins
I meant to post on this a few weeks ago, but busy-ness conspired against it: 100 years ago last month, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground. And ultimately, from its ashes, a New Deal — something the Scott Walkers and Paul Ryans of the world might should consider.
“Tully took the president’s dictation for his famous Pearl Harbor speech. ‘Miss Tully had been with Roosevelt since his days as governor of New York,” said David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States. ‘And many of his most sensitive letters, instructions, notes and even scribblings passed through her hands.‘”
The National Archives obtains 5,000 pages of new FDR documents, courtesy of the archives of personal secretary Grace Tully. (This video describes the acquisition.) “Archivists hope to have the collection publicly available by November and online by January.“
As the manifestly fradulent behavior by Goldman Sachs of late comes to full light — one among many, it seems — Numerian of The Agonist goes back to basics to make a case for strong banking reform. “The very first lesson we should learn from this crisis, which we thought this nation learned in the 1930s, is never again…The second lesson we should learn from this crisis is that we should not as a nation have to learn these lessons over and over again every 80 years. Something has to be done to make the legislative changes this time stick.”
On the release of his long-awaited The Publisher, an extensive biography of TIME/LIFE founder Henry Luce, Columbia historian (and my dissertation advisor) Alan Brinkley discusses how Luce may have coped with the Digital Age. “Luce — for all his flaws — was an innovator, a visionary and a man of vast and daunting self-confidence. Were he to live in our time, trying once again to revolutionize the spread of knowledge, he might find his talents much in demand.“
And, in very related news, Boing Boing posts Chris Ware’s recently rejected throwback cover for Fortune‘s annual 500 issue. “It hearkens back to the golden age of Fortune as an exemplar of beautifully designed and illustrated magazines…’and he filled the image with tons of satirical imagery, like the U.S. Treasury being raided by Wall Street, China dumping money into the ocean, homes being flooded, homes being foreclosed, and CEOs dancing a jig while society devolves into chaos. The cover, needless to say, was rejected.’”
“Is it conceivable that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s doctors knew he had widespread cancer in 1944 and still let him run for his fourth term as president? New research makes this astounding argument — and claims that the physician who supposedly told the truth about Roosevelt’s death in 1970 was in fact continuing the deception he had helped create.” Slate‘s Barron Lerner evaluates new claims that FDR may have suffered — and died — from cancer.
“How plausible is this research? If Roosevelt indeed had a hemianopsia, it suggests a brain mass, and melanoma would be as likely a cause as any…But all of these symptoms have other possible explanations…Perhaps most important, there is no smoking gun: In all of the documents Lomazow and Fettman unearthed, neither Bruenn nor FDR’s other doctors ever used the word cancer. Still, Lomazow and Fettman’s research is of great importance.”
Two recent and choice Columbia-related links by way of Ted at The Late Adopter:
“Lincoln is important to us not because of his melancholia or how he chose his cabinet but because of his role in the vast human drama of emancipation and what his life tells us about slavery’s enduring legacy…In the wake of the 2008 election and on the eve of an inaugural address with ‘a new birth of freedom,’ a phrase borrowed from the Gettysburg Address, as its theme, the Lincoln we should remember is the politician whose greatness lay in his capacity for growth.” In The Nation and on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Eric Foner evaluates the continuing legacy of the 16th president.
“Economic orthodoxy — which gave high priority to balanced budgets and fiscal restraint — remained a powerful force in the 1930s, even as its limitations became increasingly obvious. Similar arguments can still be heard today…The New Deal was least successful when it was least aggressive–when it let concerns about fiscal prudence override the urgent need to pump enormous sums of money into a moribund economy.” And, over in TNR, Alan Brinkley notes what the Obama administration can learn from the New Deal.
Update: “Most Americans, I suspect, if asked whether they would prefer a president with strong principles or one who prefers pragmatic politics, would choose an idealist over a realist in a flash. But almost all successful politicians combine principle with pragmatism constantly.” In a TNR piece that ties the two above together quite well, Prof. Brinkley speculates on the fatal flaw in Dubya’s make-up: certitude. “For whatever reasons…Bush has seemed to be comfortable only when he could make quick and firm decisions, however complicated the issue, and then move on. Admitting mistakes or changing course seems almost contrary to his nature.“
“This time, the FWP could begin by documenting the ground-level impact of the Great Recession; chronicling the transition to a green economy; or capturing the experiences of the thousands of immigrants who are changing the American complexion. Like the original FWP, the new version would focus in particular on those segments of society largely ignored by commercial and even public media.” In the wake of the turmoil engulfing the newspaper industry at the moment (see also: The Wire, Season 5), journalist Mark Pinsky argues in TNR for a 21st century revival of the Federal Writers’ Project. Given the woeful state of the academic job market during this current downturn, I bet there are quite a few historians out there who’d give this a “Huzzah!”
“Even revisionist historians who view Hoover kindly concede that his was a failed presidency. Still, it’s unfortunate that commentators and politicians are employing ‘Hoover’ as an epithet for inaction. His White House tribulations consumed only four of more than 90 years studded with extraordinary achievements- — as Great Engineer, as World War I Food Czar, and, above all, as Great Humanitarian.” In light of recent events, esteemed historian William Leuchtenberg rides to the rescue of the Great Engineer, and attempts to set the record straight on comparisons of Dubya to Herbert Hoover. “In contrast to George W. Bush,” he concludes, “President Hoover moved in unprecedented ways to cope with economic calamity.“
Reagan aside, I do respectfully take issue with Greenberg’s prior Slate piece comparing Obama to a long list of well-meaning losers, including Adlai Stevenson and Bill Bradley. Greenberg writes: “Obama exhibits other elements of this Stevensonian style as well. It’s a style — an ideology, really — that links the quest for common ground with a language of enlightened reason. It disdains the passionate and sometimes ugly politics of backroom deals, negative campaigning, sordid tactics, and appeals to emotion. It extols sacrifice and denigrates self-interest…What he doesn’t seem to understand — as Stevenson did not — is that democratic politics fairly demands a measure of thrust and parry, of appeals to self-interest, and of playing the political game. And so does being a good president.“
I would argue that these constant appeals to individual self-interest is exactly what’s what wrong with Democrats today. Put simply, our civic life has nearly wasted away, with devastating consequences for the Left in this country.The major operative question our politics seeks to answer today is not “How should we live?” or “What can we accomplish together?” but “Where’s my stuff?” And, due to this narrow, limiting absorption with individual self-interest, lefty candidates of late have mostly based their proactive appeals on small-minded ideas like bribing elderly voters with prescription drug benefits and everyone else with tax cuts. That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?
As a result, more and more citizens are tuning out of the process completely. Without vision, the people perish. People find the grasping individualism at the center of politics today inherently unsatisfying, and they look for a deeper common purpose wherever they can find it. And, since Democrats too often can’t stop speaking in uninspiring technocratic policy-wonk, a consequence of their limited vision and ambitions, voters have been inclining in recent years toward the GOP, who at least offer a flawed but workable story, often rooted in gung-ho nationalism and unpacked ideas like “Freedom, Yeah!”, about who we are as a people. The story is everything (which is one main reason why I was drawn to American history in the first place.) To be successful, to be anything other than GOP-lite — a pathetic state we’ve been floundering in for decades — Democrats need to tell the nation a story about our shared history and our shared goals, and stop pandering to voters’ immediate self-interest all the live-long day.
Greenberg may argue that civic-mindedness in a political candidate is the province of losers, but I disagree — It’s all in the telling. After all, it was the extremely popular John F. Kennedy who reminded us to ask what you can do for your country, and his slain brother RFK obviously talked a great game in that respect too.
In this piece, Greenberg also discusses the retreat from the “the Mugwumps’ and Progressives’ moral uplift in favor of a pragmatic approach” under FDR. (This is also the ground my dissertation covers.) And, yes, the broker-state model of governance honed by the New Deal worked for a long time. More importantly, the idea of interest-group pluralism it cultivated has had many critically important successes to its name, not the least the civil rights revolutions of the past few decades (although those too have a strong civic component — MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech makes it explicit: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.” This is not the language of self-interest but an appeal to a shared narrative as Americans.)
But I would argue that the enthronement of individual self-interest above all else in politics has reached its logical endpoint, and as a result our system is on the verge of falling apart — half the country doesn’t vote, money constantly bends the rules and everyone knows it, people are losing the inclination (or even the capacity) to act as informed, independent citizens. Indeed, you could argue Hillary Clinton’s failure with health care reform in the nineties exemplified the problem with broker-state leadership: When setting out to confront the issue, the Clintons cut everyone in on the deal, from insurance companies to HMOS to the AMA, in true broker-state fashion. As a result, no reform at all was forthcoming.
This was mainly because, as I’ve said before, the individualistic/broker state model of liberalism has no theory for coping with corporate power — It serves the wants, needs, and interests of consumers, what’s wrong with that? But a civic-minded progressive would argue that there are more important goals than the sating of individual desire, that the government is an expression of our common aspirations and should be more than just a dispensing machine, and that undue corporate influence over — and outright corruption in — our political affairs in fact represents a dire threat to the republic and to our way of life.
The progressive idea of citizenship both offers and demands higher aspirations of people than the lowest common denominator of individual self-interest that both parties appeal to today. We’re fast becoming a society where freedom is measured at best by what choices we make, but more often by what we can own as consumers. Progressives envison a society where freedom is also measured by what we can accomplish as citizens. Ultimately, freedom isn’t a state of being — it’s a state of becoming, of improvement, of progress. A political candidate who could tap into this progressive vein, I think, could inspire people like they haven’t been inspired by politics in a good long while. So, this is my crux of disagreement with Greenberg here — I don’t subscribe to the notion that common-good, public-interest progressivism is inherently a losing proposition. Quite the contrary.
Still, Greenberg’s article does a solid job of delineating the origins of Obama’s progressive appeal, and, at the very least, we agree that Obama is considerably more progressive than Clinton.
By way of Ted at The Late Adopter, a bunch of 1940’s D-listers reminisce about the Depression Decade, VH-1 style, in I Love the ’30’s. Hey, isn’t that one of the Sonic guys? (The married one, not these two.)
Some quality historicizing in today’s Washington Post Book World: Michael Kazin reviews Richard White’s new Huey Long biography, H.W. Brand’s looks at Godfrey Hodgson’s new bio of Edward House (right-hand-man to Woodrow Wilson), and novelist David Liss briefly surveys recent works on the Founders.
“Calamitous presidents, faced with enormous difficulties — Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hoover and now Bush — have divided the nation, governed erratically and left the nation worse off. In each case, different factors contributed to the failure: disastrous domestic policies, foreign-policy blunders and military setbacks, executive misconduct, crises of credibility and public trust. Bush, however, is one of the rarities in presidential history: He has not only stumbled badly in every one of these key areas, he has also displayed a weakness common among the greatest presidential failures — an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology that abjures deviation from dogma as heresy, thus preventing any pragmatic adjustment to changing realities.” As seen all over the place, historian Sean Wilentz wonders aloud in Rolling Stone if Dubya is the worst president in American history.
To my mind, the only other president that even comes close is James Buchanan. Sure, Warren Harding was lousy, but he knew it (“I am a man of limited talents from a small town. I don’t seem to grasp that I am President.“), and thus didn’t go out of his way to be actively terrible like Bush has been. (Plus, for all the corruption of the Ohio gang, Harding’s cabinet also included Charles Evans Hughes, Andrew Mellon, and Herbert Hoover, all impressive in their own right.) Speaking of Hoover, both he and Ulysses Grant have been given a bad shake. Even if the Depression basically ate his administration alive, Hoover — once renowned as the “Great Engineer” — was a more innovative president (and empathetic person) than he’s often remembered. And Grant’s administrations, although plagued by corruption, at the very least tried to maintain Reconstruction in the South. (In fact, I’d argue that Grant’s sorry standing in presidential history is in a part a reflection of the low esteem in which Reconstruction was once held by the now-woefully obsolete Dunning School.) Regarding the other Reconstruction president, Andrew Johnson is assuredly down near the bottom too, but to be fair, he faced an almost impossible situation entering office in the time and manner he did, and — as with Clinton — his impeachment was a bit of a frame-job. And Richard Nixon, for all his many failings, had China (as well as the EPA despite himself, and, although it didn’t pan out, the Family Assistance Plan.) Nope, I think it’s safe to say that we may be experiencing perhaps the most blatantly inept, wrong-headed, and mismanaged presidency in the history of the republic. Oh, lucky us.
“It was during the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman that such great progressive policies as Social Security, protective labor laws and the GI Bill were adopted. But with them came something else that was quite destructive for the nation: what I have called ‘affirmative action for whites.’ During Jim Crow’s last hurrah in the 1930s and 1940s, when southern members of Congress controlled the gateways to legislation, policy decisions dealing with welfare, work and war either excluded the vast majority of African Americans or treated them differently from others.” With Katrina as a newspeg, Columbia’s own Ira Katznelson previews his new book on New Deal racial exclusion in the Washington Post.
Some thanksgiving orals reading, for you and yours…read with lavish amounts of stuffing and cranberry sauce.
|Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.
C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.
Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s.
Slow and steady wins the race, I hope:
|George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920.
Another wave of updates over at the Orals site:
|Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939.
Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.
Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State.
John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War.
Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America.
Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age.
Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920.