Friday, October 20, 2017

Living in a dangerous world

At least since the time of the French and American Revolutions, international politics have involved conflicts among different domestic political systems.  In the periodic crises in the international system since the 1790s, the warring parties have fought in part to establish their own form of government.  The Napoleonic Wars ended with the old aristocracy firmly entrenched in Great Britain and bureaucratic monarchies firmly in control in nearly all of Europe.  In the 1860s the victory of the democratic North over the aristocratic South in the American civil war helped lead to the institution of some form of democracy in Britain France, and Germany.  William II of Germany and Woodrow Wilson both saw the First World war as a context between absolute monarchy and democracy.  In the Second World War, the communist USSR and the democracies in Britain and France fought National Socialism in Europe and the Japanese military regime in Asia.  In each case, the resolution of the crisis left some forms of government more popular than others, helping to determine the course of politics for decades to come.

We are now sliding into the next great international crisis.  I have never thought that it was going to lead to all-out world war on the scale of twentieth century conflicts, but it does revolve, in part, around an ideological struggle.  Among the three most important world powers, the United States still stands for democracy, in theory at  least, and for an open global political and economic order.  Both Putin's Russia and Zhi's China stand for something very different: an authoritarian model of government that they specifically distinguish from the weak, divided, socially permissive democracies of the decadent west.  Both also have rhetorically challenged the US claim to lead the world and determine the rights and wrongs of international disputes.  And both have festering territorial demands.  Putin clearly wants to restore more of the old USSR, and looks longingly at the Baltic states.  China insists that Taiwan remains a part of it and has extensive claims on the seas and islands surrounding them.

Alarmingly, the governments of both Russia and China seem far more firmly established, at this moment, than our own.  Zhi is strengthening the control of the Communist Party and the state over public opinon and the economy, reversing the trend of the last couple of decades.  Putin has a stable authoritarian regime without serious opposition that has weathered the impact of economic sanctions.  The United States government is unorganized, almost leaderless, and floundering on mnay fronts.  Most key State Department positions have not even been filled.  Low-level functionaries in the White House such as Steven Miller and Jared Kushner are evidently exerting important influence on foreign policy.  The kind of policy process that has allowed our government to survey the world scene and identify the most important threats seems not to exist any more.

Meanwhile, the President has brought us to the brink of war with North Korea, and is reversing the Obama Administration's move towards peaceful co-existence with Iran.  What disturbs me more than anything is how easy it would be to set off a replay of the events that led to US involvement in the Second World War.  In an increasingly anarchic world, war anywhere can easily lead to war almost anywhere else.

Thus, in 1939, Japan was already in the third year of its attempt to subjugate mainland China, and the Japanese were claiming a special leadership role in Asia, an idea that the United States rejected in favor of the maintenance of an "open door."  In September of that year, Hitler invaded and conquered Poland, and the British and French declared war on Germany. Then, the next spring, Hitler successively invaded Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, forcing France to conclude an armistice, and leaving Britain perilously exposed to a possible German invasion.  Those events had enormous repercussions in the Far East,.  The French, who ruled Indochina, and the Dutch, the rulers of what is now Indonesia, would clearly not be able to defend those territories against a Japanese attack.  The British would be hard put to defend Malaya, Singapore, Burma, and perhaps even India.  The Japanese moved into northern Indochina almost at once and laid plans to go further.  Meanwhile, the US government also prepared to meet German or Italian moves into French, Dutch and British possessions in the western hemisphere.  The lend-lease agreement of September 1940, in which FDR gave Churchill 50 destroyers in exchange for US bases in an Atlantic arc of British possessions from Newfoundland to Trinidad, moved the US defense line hundreds of miles to the east.  A year later, in the second half of 1941, with the US effectively at war against German U-boats in the Atlantic, the Japanese decided to attack British, Dutch, French and American possessions in the Far East, beginning on Decmeber 7, 1941.

The possibility that some one in Washington, it seems to me, needs to think about,. is that war--perhaps in North Korea--could easily tempt Putin to move into the Baltic states, claiming a need to protect their ethnic Russian inhabitants, or China to move further away from its coastline.  It would be extremely difficult, I think, for the US to react effectively to such moves while fighting a war against North Korea (or, for that matter, while fighting one against Iran.)  Putin has pointed out many times that successive US Administrations have acted unilaterally to alter borders (in Yugoslavia in 1999) or to overthrow governments (in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011) without getting the permission of the world community.  He did the same thing in Crimea in 2013 and has weathered the subsequent sanctions.  He could certainly do it again.

Traditionally the world's leading power has a strong interest in maintaining peace.  That was what Bismarck understood in Europe after 1871, and what American leaders including Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon understood in their time.  Peace does not seem to be one of Donald Trump's priorities. He is more interested in intimidating or defeating enemies and proving that we can "win" again.  Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush managed to achieve similar goals in Grenada and Panama, but those nations were close to the US and did not have nuclear arms.  War against North Korea and Iran could very easily set off a new era of worldwide conflict.  No one would come out of it better off than when they began.

Friday, October 13, 2017

LeCarré Looks Back

John LeCarré has been a major figure in my literary landscape since 1964, when I read his sensational best-seller, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  That was in fact his third book, but his first big success, and it established him as a major Cold War novelist.  I discovered later that Spy (as I shall call it) had used an interesting literary device.  It was in fact a kind of sequel to an earlier, less successful novel, Call For the Dead, which had introduced the character of British spy George Smiley, and the German Hans-Dieter Mundt, who had worked for a while in Britain, committed several murders, and returned to Germany to become (by the time of Spy) the head of East German intelligence.  It turned out theta LeCarré, real name David Cornwall, had been a British spy himself, but he left the Secret Service in the 1960s.   After writing three stand-alone books in the next ten years, LeCarré revived Smiley (who had been a minor character in Spy) in his 1974 masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, dealing with the hunt for a Soviet mole at the highest levels of British intelligence.  Tinker, Tailor spawned two sequels completing the story of Smiley's duel with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.  During the 1980s he wrote The Little Drummer Girl, about Israelis and Palestinians; A Perfect Spy, in which he re-created his father, a con man, as the father of another treacherous British spy; and The Russia House, based on a true case of corrupted intelligence during the Reagan years--just as Tinker Tailor  was based on the case of the real defector Kim Philby.  Then the Cold War came to an end, and LeCarré went in another direction.

I do not mean to put off my faithful readers for whom all this may be new, but if you have never read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I must urge you to stop reading now, go to your local library (or to, and get it.  It is one of the most brilliant and provocative thrillers ever written, complete with one of the most shocking denouements, and I cannot do what I want to do today without giving away the key to the plot.  If cold war thrillers will never be your style, I suppose you may as well go ahead; but I feel both sad and deeply envious for anyone who still has this book ahead of him or her. I feel the same way about Tinker, Tailor, although it is a somewhat longer and more difficult read.  The reason for all this is that LeCarré has now published a new sequel to Spy, A Legacy of Spies, which I want to discuss--more as a literary critic than an historian, although this post will have historical points.  And I can't do it justice without giving away a great deal about Spy.

The title character in Spy was Alec Leamas, a hard-drinking British agent, who at the beginning of the book watches his last agent inside East Germany shot as he tries to cross the relatively new Berlin Wall into West Berlin.  The killing is the handiwork of Hans Dieter Mundt, who years earlier, serving his country in London, had murdered an agent and her husband--and nearly murdered George Smiley--but somehow managed to escape before being apprehended.  Leamas now returns to London, and the mysterious Control--the head of the Service until his death years later, just before the main action of Tinker, Tailor begins--suggests to him that they "take another crack at Mundt."  Leamas agrees.  He leaves the Service, and finds work in a small public library.  There he meets Lis Gold, a pretty young woman who happens to be a Communist, and they become lovers.  He drinks heavily, behaves erratically, and then, without warning, beats up his grocer, and serves some months in prison.  When he gets out he keeps drinking, and then is approached, indirectly, by East German intelligence, who want him to defect.  Eventually, he does.

Brought to East Germany, Leamas is interrogated by Mundt's deputy and rifle, Fiedler, whose Jewish parents had returned to East Germany after 1945 because they were Communists.  He is Mundt's rival in part because Mundt is an ex-Nazi who has not changed his views about Jews.  Fiedler wanted to talk to Leamas because he suspected Mundt of having become a British agent after being arrested for the murders he had committed in London.  Leamas, it becomes clear, has prepared various stories that will convince Fiedler that he is right. Leamas thinks he is arranging for Mundt's removal, and probablyi his execution, as a British spy.  He establishes a kind of personal bond with Fiedler, who is portrayed as a man of good will and genuine feeling.

Eventually Mundt is indeed arrested and put on trial, with Fiedler in the role of prosecutor.  Leamas continues to insist--as he believes--that Mundt was never a British agent, but the evidence has mounted that he was.  Then, in the midst of the trial, who should appear, to Leamas' astonishment, to Lis Gold, who has been brought to East Germany as part of a Communist exchange program.  On the stand, she is forced to reveal that she has been visited by George Smiley and another British official since Leamas's department and that she suddenly received a paid-for lease for her flat.  Leamas's cover is exploded, Mundt is saved, and Fiedler is obviously headed for execution.  Then, Leamas realizes that his mission, all along, has been the reverse of what he thought: he has been sent to save Mundt from Fiedler, not to get revenge on Mundt. Mundt is, indeed, a British spy.

And for this reason, Mundt puts Leamas and Liz in a car to drive to East Berlin, where they will cross over the wall.  On the way, in a brilliant scene, Leamas tries desperately to convince Liz, and himself, that all this really is necessary because of Mundt's value to British intelligence.  But she is not convinced, and in his heart, Leamas isn't either.  She also cannot understand why Mundt would let her return to Britain.  Her intuition is apt.  As they climb up the wall, she is shot by one of the sentries.  Leamas pauses literally at the top of the wall, with Smiley screaming at him to jump from the other side. Instead, he climbs back down next to Liz, and is shot and killed himself.

The novel shows how two people are caught in the great Cold War struggle and destroyed.  But there is another level to it, and nearly all LeCarré's spy writing, which did not occur to me until much later.  Never in LeCarré's books do the intrigues of the spies, on both sides, mean anything to anyone but each other.  Nearly all the information they seek and the operations they run relate to their own loyalties and disloyalties.  They live and die playing a deadly game of interest to no one but themselves.

A Legacy of Spies (hereafter Legacy, picks up the story of Spy  at some unspecified moment in the relatively recent past.  Its exact date is never given away, but based on the ages of some of the characters I would put it early in the 21st century, that is, at least 10 years ago.  Its protagonist is another old friend, Peter Guillam, who had a brief role in Spy and a much larger one in Tinker, Tailor, as a protege of Smiley's.  Guillam, it suddenly occurred to me for the first time, is pretty clearly LeCarré himself.  They are about the same age and share (from what I have been told) a great interest in the opposite sex.  As the book opens Guillam is living in retirement in France, but the Service contacts him to help deal with a lawsuit.  The suit has been filed by two new characters, the illegitimate son and daughter, respectively, of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold--two characters we never learned about in Spy. They want damages for their parents' deaths, and in the entirely new climate of post Cold War Britain, they may get them.  Guillam realizes that the government has settled on him as a logical candidate to take the rap. 

To write Legacy, LeCarré uses the same technique that he used to write Spy a year or two after Call for the Dead: creating new characters and plot lines out of gaps left in an earlier work.  We learn a whole new story of how Mundt was captured and recruited as a British agent.  We learn much  more about Leamas's network of agents in East Berlin.  We learn a lot more about Liz Gold, whom Guillam, it turns out, had briefly courted as well.  And that involves some fascinating scenes. No one is more aware than LeCarré of the huge differences between the world of the 1960s and our own--yet when he dexcribes Liz's brief romance with Guillam, she becomes very much a 21st-century young woman, not the reserved, proper girl we met in Spy.  Leamas, seen in flashbacks, is far more emotional and loquacious than the stolid cold warrior  of Spy.  Of course, younger readers would probably have trouble accepting their old portraits--but they were true to life all the same.

Legacy ends suddenly and equivocally, without telling us what happened to the lawsuit.  LeCarré is now 86 and he indicated in a New York Times interview that this book might be his last, but a sequel to this one could easily be in the cards.  It would allow him to fill out another new plot line he introduced: that Control and Smiley decided to recruit Mundt to in the hope that he would rise high enough in the esteem of Soviet intelligence to be able to tell them the identity of the mole they suspect is hiding in their own service.  There was never a hint of such a mole in Spy, but that has not stopped LeCarré from adding this new dimension. We shall see if that part of the story also gets fleshed out.

Meanwhile, the books LeCarré has written since the end of the Cold War do drive home the enormous differences between its world and our own. In those days the state reigned supreme in East and West, exerting extraordinary claims on soldiers, spies and citizens alike in the pursuit of something bigger.  The books were, among other things, a commentary on the excesses of civic virtue. By contrast, civic virtue is nowhere to be found in books like The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor, and A Delicate Truth.  Now Russian oligarchs, greedy corporations and and privatized intelligence groups seem to rule the world, and they grind honest individuals to powder just as the Cold War did Leamas and Liz.  In just a few decades we have gone from a world ruled by ideology to one ruled by the self-interest of the powerful.  LeCarré has documented that very well, and that is probably his greatest achievement.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

A radio appearance

Ten days or so ago I participated in a radio panel discussion in Austin, Texas, talking about many of the issues I talk about here.  You can listen to it here--it is currently the top of the list--dated October 6, 2017. Enjoy!
Don't miss the new post, below.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Burns's Vietnam

I must admit that when Ken Burns's and Lynn Novick's Vietnam series started, I was not eager to watch it.  Two or three years ago--I am not sure which--I had heard about the series by accident, and I had called Burns's office in hopes of taking part in it.  I was summarily informed that the series was already in post production, and that was that.  I was frustrated by the first two episodes, which covered things I had researched and written about myself, with some significant gaps.  But after the major American involvement began in 1965, I changed my mind.  To begin with, Burns had used almost no historians at all on camera and very few, apparently, in preparing the script.  I had no reason to take my own exclusion personally.  But more importantly, Burns had decided to present the war almost entirely from the perspective of combatants and their families on all sides--American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese.  That he had done superbly, and I was very grateful for it.  I think it is probably the best film that he has produced.

The single best thing about the series, for me, was its portrayal of combat.  Burns combined interviews with participants in battle--again, on all sides--with extraordinary footage.  At times I wondered, and I still don't know, if the footage really was footage of the exact day and place the veterans were talking about, but it certainly looked as if it might have been.  And in his battlefield episodes Burns demolished one of the enduring myths of the war:  that the United States never lost a battle  Several of the battles that veterans described in excruciating detail fit the classic pattern of Vietnam combat.  An American unit--generally anything from a company to a battalion--patrolling in the jungle or the highlands, walked into a VC or North Vietnamese ambush.  The Communist forces tried not to open fire until the Americans were just a few yards away.  This tactic, to "grab them by the belts," meant that the US forces would not be able to call in their devastating artillery or air support during the battle for fear of hitting their own men.  For hours, North Vietnamese and US forces would exchange rifle and machine gun fire and grenades, inflicting heavy casualties.  Many American companies suffered losses large enough to put them out of action as effective fighting forces in these firefights.  The North Vietnamese, of course, wanted to continue these encounters until US casualties had become so high that the American people would insist on de-escalating, and, eventually, quitting the war.  In the end, the turning point came at Hamburger Hill, in May 1969--one of so many battles that fit that pattern, and which forced the US to try to avoid many more of them.  That battle, coincidentally, took place nearly at the very moment when American forces in South Vietnam had reached their highest point.

Burns not only decided not to use historians, but he also decided not to use anyone, really, who had become famous during the Vietnam era.  The highest-level civilians he interviews are Leslie Gelb, one of the authors of the Pentagon papers, and John Negroponte, who was then a junior diplomat at the Paris peace talks.  He did not interview Henry Kissinger, or Daniel Ellsberg, or John McCain (who is seen in an interview in a hospital bed shortly after his capture.)  Nor did he interview James Webb or Ron Kovic, two activist veterans with opposing views of the war and its lessons.  But I thought the ordinary veterans he selected gave a fine portrait of my own Boom generation as it was then.  Many joined out of idealism, and we forget how many of us (like me) fully supported the rationale behind the war when it began in earnest in 1965.  The treatment of changes on campus during those years was also excellent.

Burns did what he can do, very well.  I have done something very different throughout my career--reading, researching and studying to understand the decisions US leaders took to intervene, fight, and withdraw, and why they were not successful.  I would like to make a few points that Burns did not address,  or where he contributed to longstanding misconceptions.

The first concerns the role of the Eisenhower Administration, on the one hand, and the Kennedy Administration, on the other, in involving, or not involving, the United States in wr in Southeast Asia.  Eisenhower in 1954 refused the entreaties of his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to intervene actively on the side of the French.  But in subsequent years, I found researching American Tragedy, his administration laid down policies calling for American intervention to stop Communist aggression in Laos, Cambodia, or South Vietnam--using nuclear weapons as necessary, and accepting the risk of all-out war with China. And indeed, in late 1960, a civil war in Laos, which the American-backed forces were losing, brought the Eisenhower Administration to the brink of carrying out those policies before Ike left office and dumped the situation in JFK's lap.  Burns said almost nothing about any of this.

That, in turn, leads to the aspect of JFK's policies that I and other historians have highlighted, but which Burns did not really explore.  From the moment that Kennedy took office through early November 1961, he was besieged with a series of proposals for full-scale American intervention, including large ground forces, in Laos, in South Vietnam, or in both countries.  Virtually all his senior advisers--Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Bundy's deputy Walt Rostow, and most of the Joint Chiefs--pushed for intervention. Kennedy repeatedly rejected it.  In the last meeting in which he did so he laid out a series of excellent reasons why war in South Vietnam would be a dreadful mistake: that the war would be hard to explain to the American people, that the Saigon government had not managed to handle the insurgency, and that we would not be supported by major allies.  He also abandoned the civil war in Laos in favor of a negotiated settlement, which he eventually achieved.  He did all this, in part, because he had a wide-ranging diplomatic agenda aimed at easing tensions in the Cold War, which war in Southeast Asia would not help.  His successor had no such agenda.

I also found fault with Burns's treatment of Lyndon Johnson in 1964-5.  He made extensive use of Johnson's phone conversations, which often show the President agonizing over what to do in Southeast Asia.  I too was fooled, initially, when I heard some of those.  But gradually I realized that while Johnson loved to agonize, he had never seriously considered any alternative to fighting a war to try to save South Vietnam from the Communists.  His plan to do so was clear as early as March 1964, although he was determined to wait until after the election.  More seriously, Burns, like so many historians, gave the misleading impression that Johnson first decided on sustained bombing of North Vietnam in early March 1965, and then was gradually pushed into a ground commitment.  In fact, Johnson in December 1964 approved a planning paper that linked the anticipated bombing of the North to "appropriate deployments to handle any contingency."  In the late 1990s I got the appendices to that document declassified, and they showed a specific plan to deploy hundreds of aircraft and hundreds of thousands of troops to Southeast Asia, beginning with the Marines who landed in Da Nang the week the bombing of the North began.  Subsequent events followed that timetable quite closely, although plans to send forces ot Thailand were dropped, and those troops wound up in South Vietnam instead.  There was only one decision to fight a huge war in Southeast Asia, and it was taken in December 1964.

Burns also failed ever to identify the real issue in the peace talks that began in 1968: the issue of who would rule South Vietnam, and what would happen to it in the long run.  The Geneva Agreements of 1954 that ended the French war had recognized the "unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Vietnam, and for the next 18 years the US had struggled to establish, and define, South Vietnam as a separate and independent nation.  Beginning in 1965, North Vietnam had demanded not immediate reunification, but the establishment of a coalition government in the South and the withdrawal of American troops, leaving that new government to negotiate eventual reunification.  Not until the fall of 1972 did the Nixon Administration abandon its position.  It did not agree to a coalition government, but the agreement it signed put the Viet Cong on a footing of equality with the South Vietnamese government and directed the two parties to work out new political arrangements.  It also, of course--as Burns did show--allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in South Vietnam.  To his credit, Burns gave almost no support to the idea that the South might have remained independent if the US had simply given it more aid.

Over the course of the 18-hour broadcast, viewers got to know Burns's select group of US veterans (and similar groups of North and South Vietnamese) very well.  The last hour or so on the aftermath, featured the controversy over the Vietnam Memorial--and their own visits to it.  Many of them cried as they described them, and I found myself crying as well.  I return again to the theme I struck at the end of American Tragedy.  The war marked the end of an heroic era in American history, and set off a process of political disintegration that is still continuing.  We live with it to this day.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The New Nature of Politics

The agenda of the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress is rather confusing but in recent weeks a light has dawned, for me at least, revealing to me what is really going on in Washington.  I owe my new insights (if such they are) largely to Jane Mayer and her book Dark Money, which I reviewed here some weeks ago.   That book, I am discovering, has not had nearly the impact that it should have.  I just gave a talk on the current crisis to about 30 students and faculty at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and a show of hands revealed that not one audience member had read it.  Neither had a reporter for a major newspaper whom I called to discuss a story about one piece of the network that Dark Money described.  But I have kept the picture it drew of the influence of the Koch brothers and their allies in the Bradley, Scaife, Olin and other foundations in mind, and Jane Mayer herself pointed out an important story in the Guardian about what they have been up to lately.  Here are my conclusions.

This past week, the Senate and House Republicans finally had to abandon their last attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare.  The alternative put forward by Senator Lindsay Graham and three others was the most radical yet, eliminating mandates, subsides, and mandatory protection for those with pre-existing conditions, capping medicaid, and putting a major hurt on blue states while helping red ones.  The mainstream media was initially amazed by the emergence of this new bill, since the earlier iterations had proven so unpopular with the medical establishment and the public.  It explained this as an appeal to the "Republican base." So it is, I think--but only if one gives up the idea that the Republican base is composed of voters.  It isn't--it's composed of billionaire contributors, led by the Kochs, who have discovered ways to put their agenda through without reference to the voters.  They control today's Republican Party as completely as the steel industries and railroads controlled our politics in the late 19th century, because they can fund any campaign that they want.

Al Franken, I believe, has commented that only half the Republicans in Congress hold views similar to Michelle Bachmann's, but the other half are terrified to losing their next primary to another Michelle Bachmann.  In recent elections Tea Party candidates have repeatedly toppled establishment Republicans, including long-time officeholders like Richard Lugar of Indiana.  The Kochs periodically hold donor retreats to meet with Republican officeholders, and last June, the Guardian reported, their representative warned Republicans that campaign contributions would dry up unless they passed Obamacare repeal and tax reform this year. That, presumably, is why the latest and worst health care bill arose like a Phoenix during September.  The real question, about which I have seen nothing, is where and by whom the bill was drafted.  I would bet a good deal of money that intellectuals within the right-wing donor network did it first and found the sponsors later.  Graham is smart enough to know the bill would be very unpopular, and Charles Grassley of Iowa has been quoted admitting that it is a bad bill.  Yet the Republicans felt they had no choice but to cave in to their financial, as oppposed to their electoral, base.  So many of them live in one-party states or gerrymandered districts that they have no reason to think about what Democratic voters think, but remain vulnerable to the votes of tea party activists (themselves part of the Koch network) in primaries.

The tax reform proposal unveiled this week is probably part of the same story.  It will eliminated the inheritance tax, which is significant only for multi-millionaires like the Kochs.  It will protect the low rates of many in the financial community thanks to "pass throughs."  And by eliminating state and local tax deductions, it will increase taxes on residents of blue states that have significant income taxes.  The network that is producing these plans is obviously pursuing a conscious strategy of regional war.  And it is powerful enough to have induced Republican "deficit hawks" to swallow a bill that will add an estimated $200 billion a year to the federal deficit.

This week we are learning that the new division in the Republican party isn't between radicals and moderates, it's between two rival groups of mega-donors.  Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, the patrons of Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, were the chief contributors to Judge Ray Moore, who just won the Republican nomination (and therefore, surely, the election) for Jeff Session's Senate seat in Alabama over the Trump-backed establishment candidate.  Today's New York Times indicates that the Mercer network plans to run many Republican primary candidates next year.  The Koch brothers' model of using their billions to field candidates, subsidize media outlets and maintain a retinue of friendly intellectuals is being adapted by other millionaires.  One or two liberal billionaires have even tried it in recent years, but without much success.  In Republican states--and most states are now Republican--such networks can effectively take any meaningful choice away from the mass of the voters.

Donald Trump is not a significant player in the policy battles now taking place, except insofar as he can be relied upon to deny the obvious--claiming, for instance, that his tax plan does not help the rich--and sign conservative legislation.  He and Mike Pence have handed environmental regulation and educational policies over to allies and members of the ultraconservative donor network.  They have also formed an alliance on social issues with the religious right.  Their economic proposals, I believe, are coming from outside the Administration.  If the anti-Trump media really want to make a contribution to our national life they should uncover where the drafts of the health care and tax bills are coming from, and how they will benefit certain specific people.  The Democrats need to speak up on behalf of the whole people.  For the time being, robust democracy is a thing of the past, a victim of the tax policies and conservative activism of the last 40 years.  To learn more, go to your public library or bookstore and get your hands on Dark Money.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What's happening on campus

Last week I know I raised some eyebrows when I suggested that Betsy DeVos and the Education Department might do some good by changing the Obama Administration's Title IX guidelines for university handling of sexual harassment charges on campus.  I based that comment largely on a remarkable book I had read a couple of months back, Unwanted Advances, by Laura Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University.

To make the long story of how the book came to be written rather short, Kipnis became interested the case of a colleague (broadly defined) or hers, a philosophy professor named Peter Ludlow, who had lost his job an his livelihood thanks to accusations by an undergraduate whom Kipnis chooses to refer to pseudonymously as Eunice Cho, and a graduate student she calls Nola Hartley.  Cho, who was only a freshman at the time she got to know Ludlow, never accused him of having sex with her, although she claimed he had spooned against her while they spent one night in hsi apartment after they had been out having drinks together.  Hartley on the other had had a substantial and very well-documented relationship (this is the age of texts) with Ludlow, obviously based upon mutual affection, but had subsequently decided that he had used his power as a professor (even though he was not her professor at the time) to coerce her into the relationship.  What evidently struck Kipnis, a younger baby boomer who is now about 60, was that both cases were based on an idea she had learned to reject in her youth: the idea that women of 18 or older were fully capable of making, and living with, their own decisions about whom to have sex with.  Kipnis, a heterosexual herself, has continued to take advantage of that freedom all her life, she lets us know, and even admits to occasionally having had sex with students.  She wrote an article making this argument for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and was soon informed that she was the subject of a Title IX complaint brought by some women at Northwestern who accused her of creating an unfriendly environment.  Rather than back down, she got more deeply involved in the whole subject.  Meanwhile, university officials had found Ludlow guilty of sexual assault and ended his career.

Kipnis discusses the two accusations and how they were adjudicated at great length with the help of the files on the investigation that Ludlow gave her. I will confine myself to some observations of my own.  The most important thing to understand about the new campus doctrine and procedures, in my opinion, is that they are totally contrary to Anglo-American legal traditions as they have evolved at least since Magna Carta in 1215.  To begin with, there is no presumption of innocence for men accused of sexual harassment.  The women who bring accusations are routinely referred to not as accusers, but as survivors, implying that the question of whether a crime took place has already been resolved.  That is connected to a second principle of the new procedures: the survivors, not impartial third parties, decide whether a crime has been committed, based on their own feelings.  That is how Hartley, the grad student, could get a finding against Ludlow despite reams of texts showing that she had been not only a consensual but a very enthusiastic and lovestruck participant in their relationship.  She had subsequently decided that his superior power had coerced her (without the slightest indication that he had tried in any way to use it to force her into bed), and that was that.  That in turn leads us to the whole question of reasonable doubt, one of the standards of proof that the Obama Administration told colleges not to use in sexual assault cases.

When sexual assault activists are asked why colleges cannot simply leave criminal accusations to the criminal justice system, they routinely reply that survivors (that is, accusers) do not want to undergo the ordeal that would result, and that it is very difficult to get convictions there.  That is true, and there are two reasons for it. The first is that much of what constitutes "sexual assault" on campus today, such as simple unwanted touching with clothes on, isn't illegal at all.  But the second is that our criminal justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which by definition is most unlikely to be available in what is referred to as a "he said, she said" situation.  When the accused tells one story and the accuser another, and there is no very damning evidence ot undermine the credibility of either one, there is very little basis for a jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that one of them is telling the truth.  That in turn requires them to find the accused innocent.  That, for many sexual assault activists, is an unacceptable outcome.

The nature of the argument we are having is confirmed by an op-ed and a letter in the New York Times of Monday, September 18.  The op-ed by two grad students in sociology protests possible changes in the Department of Education's sexual assault policy. The article by Miriam Bleckman-Krut and Nicole Bedera begins as follows: "Who should have the right to define rape: survivors who have experienced sexual violence or those who are accused of perpetrating it?"  Later, they add that "accused men's pain does not excuse rape, and men shouldn't be the ones defining it."  We have never had a criminal justice system, as it happens, in which either the accused or the accuser gets to decide the case.  The question of whether a crime has been committed has always been the province of third parties, chosen to be as impartial as possible--that is, judges and juries.  A letter to the editor from an attorney, Marian E. Lindberg, makes the same argument: "Whether one agrees with a preponderance-of-evidence standard turns largely on whether one thinks that women are more likely to lie about sexual abuse, or men more likely to lie about consent."  Our whole legal system--which, to be sure, has never functioned perfectly--is designed to substitute the impartial judgment of third parties of the facts of a particular case for blanket rules such as "believe the woman."

The Obama administration advised campuses not only to ignore presumption of evidence, but also to discard another standard, one of "clear and convincing" evidence that charges were true.  Instead they ordered them to make judgments based on the "preponderance of evidence," the standard used in a civil suit.  Even that standard, obviously, isn't much help when the evidence consists of opposing statements by an accuser and the accused--unless one decides that in these situations, women are inherently more credible than men.  The files Kipnis quotes show that the college bureaucrats charged with investigating these cases and the lawyers whom colleges often hire to investigate them routinely believe the accuser and disbelieve the accused.  And they do this, often, because of preconceived notions of how men and women do, and do not act.  Here an analogy is in order.  Kipnis does refer frequently to witch trials, but she never mentions what is to me a much more apt analogy: the Stalinist justice of the 1930s and 1940s and Mao's justice during the cultural revolution.  In those days, any class enemy was automatically guilty of any accusation against him and her, by virtue of who he or she was, regardless of the specifics of what they had done, or not done.  Indeed, justice in those regimes wasn't even supposed to be impartial: it was a front in the class struggle.  Now unfortunately, for at least three decades, university humanities have been teaching that the history of mankind is the history of the oppression, by white males, of everyone else.  Thus, when Cho (whose credibility on many points was shredded by cross-examination) said that she had spent the night with Hartley spooning, while he said that he had put a pillow between them, the administrator simply decided to believe Cho and find him guilty.

It occurred to me, as it didn't to Kipnis, that the practice of hiring attorneys to conduct investigations and report their findings, upon which the university then acts, has another huge problem, which is also related to how our judicial system really works. Attorneys are not trained to investigate situations impartially; they are trained to represent the interests of their clients, and they instinctively slant every fact in favor of their client.  In these cases they seem to wind up representing the accuser. I raised this point with a very experienced attorney of my acquaintance. He agreed with me, but he added that there were two kinds of attorneys, mediators and arbitrators, who are accustomed to listening to both sides of the question, and who would do a better job.  Mediators and arbitrators, however, use impartial procedures--the only reason anyone would hire them--and colleges and universities, threatened with the loss of federal funds under title IX, aren't interested, clearly, in impartial procedures that respect traditional principles of American justice.

Late in the book, Kipnis makes another critically important point about sexual assault on campus.  Many complaints, of course, involve situations in which both parties have consumed large amounts of alcohol.  Campus officials now argue routinely that no one can really consent to sex when under teh influence of alcohol (how much alcohol is required to deprive one of that power, I do not know), and therefore, sex with an inebriated woman is rape.  Leaving aside the question of whether this really makes any legal sense, what Kipnis argues--and she is clearly right--is that such rules criminalize what has become normal behavior on many campuses.  It is very clear that both young men and young women to go parties to get more or less drunk and "hook up."  They know they are going to drink, and that they may have sex, when they arrive.  But the adults who claim to supervise their lives have declared this behavior to be criminal--but only for the man, in a heterosexual encounter at least.  I do not think this is a healthy situation for anyone concerned.  For the record, if I had a daughter (which I never have), I would tell her in no uncertain terms never to get drunk with anyone she did not trust.

It is something of a miracle that Kipnis's book was ever written. The sex crimes bureaucracies on campus, she makes clear, also try to impose a high degree of secrecy on their proceedings, try to prevent the accused from keeping thorough records of them (for instance, by recording hearings or bringing attorneys with them), and say very little, normally, about how decisions were reached.  Publicity worked for Kipnis. Her acocunt of her own case suggests to me that the Northwestern hierarchy realized that it could do a lot of harm, and she was found innocent of creating a hostile environment rather quickly after she became nationally known.  Others, however, might not be so lucky.  There is not the slightest doubt that if I were still teaching on campus, this blog post could easily be cited by any member of the university as an actionable attempt to create an unfriendly environment.

I had planned this post for some time, but this morning I was delighted to find that I am not alone. The Boston Globe, whose coverage of campus sexual assault usually reflects the new orthodoxy, included a long story this very morning quoting a large number of liberals, many of them women, who, like me, believe that the Education Department does indeed have to reform its title IX guidelines.  I hope that readers here will be able to break through the firewall.  It's a good story, and it suggests that, thank heaven, reverence for our legal traditions is, even now, far from dead.  We still need a two-party system to remedy the excesses of both sides. This is one case where, even now, this might work.


Friday, September 08, 2017

Struggling through the Crisis

We are now passing through the fourth great crisis of our national life, parallel to the American Revolution and the Constitutional period (1774-94), the Civil War (1860-8) and the Depression and SEcond World War (1929-45.)  This was what William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted 25 years ago, and they were right.  Like the other crises, this one is cutting us loose from our political moorings and making it very hard--like a battle--to keep a clear head.  Let me try to make our predicament, as I see it, just a little clearer.

Each of these crises, it seems to me, has had two different dimensions. To begin with, they all involve a very real struggle over the shape of America's future, and an attempt to replace a dying old order with a new one.  In the 1770s and 1780s this drama played out twice, first as the colonies overthrew British rule, and then as they replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution.  In the 1860s we struggled over whether we would remain one nation, and whether it could continue to allow slavery.  The New Deal established new and critical roles for the federal government and changed the relations between labor and capital.  Now, we are fighting, and have been for some time, to see what, if anything, we shall preserve from the largely vanished New Deal leadership.

Yet each crisis had another even more important dimension as well: the question of whether a national government could either be created, or whether the existing one could continue to function at all.   Only barely did the Continental Congress and the state governments manage to keep the revolutionary armies in the field after 1775, and the constitutional convention convened in 1787 because the nation was sinking into anarchy.  Federal authority seemed to be disappearing when Lincoln took office, and he used emergency powers to preserve it.  A complete economic and political collapse seemed possible when FDR took office in 1933, and three years later the functioning of the federal government seemed to be threatened by a recalcitrant Supreme Court.  Because our forefathers overcome all those challenges, the United States still exists today.

Events this week suggest to me that we have been so preoccupied with the first aspect of our own crisis--the struggle over the future of America--that we have lost sight of the second--the possibility that our government might fail to function at all.  And for that reason, a relatively promising development--President Trump's deal with Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over the debt ceiling--has been attacked by partisan Democrats and Republicans alike.

Now there is no question that this crisis has a third, nearly unprecedented dimension: the personality of Donald Trump, who is manifestly unfit for office.  The only parallel from history is Andrew Johnson, the President from 1865 until 1869, who immediately fell into a conflict with the Republican leadership in Congress, did what he could to stop Reconstruction from changing the South, and was nearly removed from office.  But Trump did not begin the battle for the future of America that is now waging, nor is he only one on his side waging it now.  The Republican Party, after accepting the New deal from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, declared war on it once again in the 1980s, and that war has only escalated ever since.  Corporate America and corporate money now dominate our politics and critically influence both of our political parties. Economic inequality has increased steadily for 40 years, the antitrust laws have become almost a dead letter, and most of our state governments are in the hands of politicians dedicated to the free market.  While New Deal ideas like single payer health care and free education are gaining ground in the left wing of the Democratic Party, their chances of coming true seem quite slim.  In my opinion we will be fortunate if we get out of the crisis with our economic arrangements more or less as they are right now, and real reform will have to wait perhaps another generation.

Meanwhile, however, the government has to keep functioning--and there are very real threats to it as I write.  One is a possible constitutional convention called at the behest of state legislatures, many of whom have already asked for it.  The Republicans control 32 state legislatures, and only 34 could call such a convention into existence. But the more immediate threat by far would be the Congress's failure to authorize an increase in the debt ceiling, as many of the extreme right wing Republicans in the House have long wanted to do.  That would affect not only our government, but the whole world economy.  And that was the possibility that President Trump and minority leaders Schumer and Pelosi joined together this week to stop, successfully tying an increase in the debt ceiling to the passage of relief for hurricane Harvey.  Many Republicans are furious, and Speaker Ryan felt outmaneuvered.  But some Democratic commentators, such as Michael Tomasky, are already worried that this might be the prelude to another deal with Trump, one that gave him some billions of dollars for his wall while reinstating some kind of DACA program to stop the deportation of "dreamers."

Meanwhile, on another front, a group of Democratic state attorneys general are trying to delegitimize the president's authority altogether. Their lawsuit to stop him from ending  the (entirely optional) DACA program that President Obama put in place argues, among other things, that the President should not be allowed to stop the program because he expressed hostility towrads Mexican immigrants during the campaign. While I feel very strongly that Dreamers need to be put on a path to citizenship immediately, I think it is entirely unreasonable to expect the courts to rule that our duly elected President is debarred from exercising lawful authority because he has expressed views that many, or even most Americans, find repugnant.  The political process is supposed to reflect the views of the American people. It has failed to do so on immigration, but that does not mean that we can count on the courts to stop the executive from functioning the way conservatives counted on them to stop the New Deal in its tracks during Roosevelt's first term.

If we want us to remain one nation--which I for one most certainly do--we must accept that many of the views of those who elected Donald Trump and the Republican Congress will now be put into effect.  The only cure for the ills of democracy, as Al Smith said, is more democracy.  In a few instances--such as the Education Department's plans to rewrite university guidelines for handling accusations of sexual assault--the Trump Administration might even do some good.  (I will be discussing this topic soon, based on Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis's book, Unwelcome Advances.) Those will never be anything more than exceptional, but I am not going to criticize the Democratic congressional leadership for taking steps to allow the government to keep functioning--the kind of steps that their Republican counterparts were so opposed to while Barack Obama was President.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Our Fall of France moment?

For several years now I have corresponded and spoken with my young cousin once removed Ezra Silk, who works for a non-profit called the Climate Mobilization.  They believe that coping with climate change and putting the whole world on a new energy footing will require a mobilization on the scale of the Second World War, when an extraordinary percentage of our GDP was devoted to the war effort.  My last book, No End Save Victory, described how the country became committed to that course, under President Roosevelt, in 1940-1.  Such a mobilization, I have no doubt, would do enormous good for the United States (and the rest of the world) for reasons not directly related to global warming.  Because it would cost so much, it, like the Second World War, would force us to impose confiscatory marginal tax rates on high incomes.  The amount of GDP devoted to public goods would increase.  So, presumably, would employment.  All over the world, private gain would become less important while societies put huge resources into a truly common objective.  This would renew that precious resource, civic virtue.  It is the kind of mobilization Strauss and Howe predicted 20 years ago when they wrote The Fourth Turning--but nothing like it has happened yet.

To understand how it might, I return to my book and to the moment in the late spring of 1940 when the American war effort really began.  I found in my research that Franklin Roosevelt had anticipated a new world war at least since 1937, and that he would have been willing even late in that year to undertake joint naval action with the British to persuade the Japanese to halt their aggression in China.  He also anticipated American participation in a European war, he told the British Ambassador, should one break out as a result of the crisis over Czechoslovakia in 1938.  But when the war did break out in 1939, the most he could do was to persuade a reluctant Congress to allow France and Britain to buy arms from the United States for cash.  The vast majority of Americans did not yet regard the European war as a threat to the United States, and a significant minority opposed US involvement in an overseas war in any case. 

It took an earth-shattering catastrophe to change their minds.  In April 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Denmark and Norway, using surprise, speed and air power to counter British sea power, one of the cornerstones of American security. Then, on May 10, while the battle in Norway was still raging, the Germans attacked in Holland, Belgium, and France.  Within two weeks they had broken through the allied lines and reached the English channel, trapping the British Army.  France was clearly collapsing, and a great deal of informed opinion expected that Britain would be invaded if it did not agree to make peace.  Although Dunkirk saved most of the personnel of the British Army, all its heavy equipment had been lost, and the Germans briefly appeared invincible in the air.  I discovered in the archives that Roosevelt had asked an Army and a Navy planner to estimate what happen if the British Navy and the British Empire, assisted by the US, tried to carry on the war from the western hemisphere after Britain had been invaded.

The German blitzkrieg convinced the Congress and the American people that the United States itself was in peril.  Even if Britain did not fall--but especially if it did--the Germans could use their air power to leapfrog across the Atlantic from Norway to Iceland, thence to Greenland, and thence to Labrador and Newfoundland.  They might also send forces through the Pyrenees and Spain and Portugal (both ruled by Fascist dictators), into North Africa, and all the way to Dakar, in Senegal, only 1500 miles from Brazil.  The Japanese might simultaneously strike in the Far East.  The new situation called for a drastic response.  From June through September, Roosevelt called for 50,000 new aircraft, for a new naval bill that would nearly double the size of the Navy within five years, and for the first peacetime draft in US history.  The Congress passed them all. 

For some time now--and especially since the election of Donald Trump--I have been telling my cousin Ezra that only a "fall of France moment"--one or more environmental catastrophes that persuaded a critical mass of Americans that we needed drastic action to preserve our way of life--would allow us to begin the huge effort it wold take to stop global warming.  The question now is whether Hurricane Harvey might do the trick.

In many ways, a more inspiring weather event could hardly have been designed by Bill McKibben himself.  Like Hurricane Sandy, Harvey is in  many ways completely unprecedented.  It has broken many records for rainfall and may well create the largest floods of any storm in history.  And while Sandy struck the true blue northeast, Harvey has devastated the largest city in red America, inundating rich and poor neighborhoods alike.  Indeed, it seems certain to get a small-scale mobilization effort going on its own, simply to repair the damage and allow Houston to return to something approaching normal life.  That will take years, during which it will be impossible to forget what it did.  Meanwhile, a scientific consensus holds that global warming has indeed contributed to the unprecedented severity of the storm.

Unfortunately, as Jane Mayer showed in Dark Money, the Koch brothers and their allies have built up an impressive climate denial industry--parallel to the isolationist lobby in 1940-1--over the last two decades.  They are committed to further reliance on fossil fuels and to climate change denial, and I do not think this is going to make them give up.  Given that the Kochs and their allies dominate our Energy Department and the EPA under Trump, it seems very unlikely that this Administration will turn tail and propose action on climate change.  In 1940 we had the leader--Roosevelt--who knew how to take advantage of the situation we faced to make things happen. Today, we do not.

Thus I do not believe that even this will provide an adequate Fall of France moment, much less that within two years we will have embarked on an all-out effort against climate change.  This is a good opportunity, however, for the Democratic Party to unite behind an unambiguous call for action based on the idea that Harvey is only the last of a whole series of devastating weather events.  The natural enemies our civilization faces today are at least as relentless as the Germans and Japanese in 1940-1.  They will strike again.  I shoed in No End Save Victory that Roosevelt's administration had figured out what had to be done to defeat our enemies months before we entered the war. That is what we must do now.  The logic of events may well do the rest.

Friday, August 18, 2017

More Charlottesvilles?

The events last week in Charlottesville threaten to kick off a new chapter in American political history, one comparable in some respects to the student revolts of the late 1960s.  As usual, my perspective seems to be a bit different from most.  I shall try to share it.

I have no doubt, and have had none for at least the last ten years, that the United States is in the midst of a great political crisis.  Yet I am increasingly convinced that this crisis is not mainly a matter of left vs. right, but rather a crisis in our institutions and the relationship between our elites and the people which threatens either to plunge us into anarchy or even break up the United States.  The election of Donald Trump was a symptom of the crisis, in my opinion, because a demagogue without any background in public service, a man who had never been successful at anything except establishing and trading off of his own celebrity and his extraordinary neediness, and won the nomination of a major party despite the opposition of its entire leadership, and then squeaked into the White House without even a plurality of the popular vote.   The crisis was bipartisan, in a sense, because the Republican Party could not stop his nomination, while the Democrats could not come up with a candidate that could beat him.  By the time he took office Trump was firmly in alliance with the network of right wing donors led by the Koch brothers that I discussed at length two weeks ago.  That alliance, which also dominates Congress, is now working at dismantling more and more of the federal government.  Meanwhile, Trump's unstable behavior threatens war at almost any moment.

In the midst of this, two small but genuine grass roots movements have started something new.  A coalition of right wing groups, including Nazis, the KKK, and other white nationalists, decided to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA.  A larger number of people from the left decided to counterdemonstrate--and Antifa decided to show up to fight. There is really no doubt about that, and it is foolish for liberals to try to deny it.  Today both of my newspapers, the Boston Globe and the New York Times, have stories about Antifa quoting members who believe in violence against the right wing.

It took only one crazed right winger in his car to turn the Charlottesville protest into something bigger, by killing Heather Heyer.  But fatalities in such confrontations could happen in many other ways, and probably will. Many of the right wing marchers carried firearms; some of the Antifa people carried clubs.  There are many other controversies over monuments brewing around the country, and other pretexts for marches as well. Tomorrow 500 police and 100 state troopers will deploy around Boston Common to separate a right wing march for free speech from the larger number of leftists who plan to oppose it. By the time many of you read this tomorrow I suspect the Boston Common march will be dominating the news. (I won't be there.)

The concept of "space", promulgated by Jurgen Habermas, is central to postmodernist thinking, modern left wing thought, and contemporary liberal activists.  That is why they are so determined not to allow small numbers of far right activists to march unimpeded. But in my opinion, they are wrong.  Postmodern concepts of space and oppression are at odds with more traditional concepts of liberty and law.  The far right groups have the right to peaceful protest and other citizens do not have the right to impede them.  Should they become violent it is the responsibility of law enforcement to stop them, and I am confident that, in the vast majority of cases, they will.  In any case, these groups are still much too small to be any threat to our liberties, and they should be allowed gradually to return to the obscurity which they so richly deserve.

I do believe that Confederate monuments should come down.  Some months ago I devoted a post to Mayor Landrieu's speech on the occasion of the removal of the monuments in New Orleans, which I thought marked a milestone in American history.  A white southern politician not only endorsed, but embraced, the removal of the statues from a prominent outdoor location on the grounds that the Confederate leadership was on the wrong side of humanity and history.  I believe other white southern politicians, as well as many black ones, will follow his lead.  I have been shocked this week to discover that there were Confederate monuments in Baltimore and in Lexington, Kentucky, for the simple reason that neither Maryland nor Kentucky was ever part of the Confederacy.   The Baltimore statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, it turns out, came from a bequest from a man named Ferguson and went up after his death in 1948.  Their presence was endorsed, disgracefully, by Mayor Thomas d'Alessandro of of Baltimore, who happens to have been the father of Nancy Pelosi.  Just today Pelosi has asked for the removal of Confederate statues (including one of Jefferson Davis) from the U.S.Capitol. Those statues were sent by the states, each of which was entitled to select two citizens to memorialize.  I don't know exactly when they went in, and I would be curious as to whether there was any effort to keep men who had taken up arms against the government of the United States out, but I don't think Congress should insist on their removal. They came from various states (Davis from Mississippi), and the states should remove them. And I think there is a chance that they will.

The United States needs above all to rediscover a functioning government that can command the allegiance of its people. A long round of battles between white supremacists and Antifa activists around the country will not get us any closer to that goal.  I believe the Democratic Party and its adherents should try to lead by example.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Perspectives on the Korean crisis

This week President Trump essentially threatened North Korea with an attack--possibly a nuclear attack--if it did not stop its attempts to develop intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads.  His intemperate language--once again so reminiscent of the Emperor William II of Germany--was new, inappropriate, and further proof of his unsuitability for the office he holds.  Yet the crisis that we face has much deeper roots than the election of 2016.  It reflects the new nuclear weapons policy developed by my own Boom generation, abandoning the saner strategy which our parents had bequeathed to us.

From the moment that the A bombs went off over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the leadership of the American government took the position that this new weapon had to be brought under control. This was particularly the view of Henry M. Stimson, the Secretary of War who had overseen the Manhattan project and stopped the military from dropping the first A-Bomb on the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto.  The result was the Acheson-Lillienthal plan to put fissile material and nuclear weapons under international control--but the Soviets rejected it, preferring to develop their own nuclear weapons.  The British, humiliated by their new dependence on the US, decided to go the same route, as did the French during the 1960s and the Chinese in the early 1960s.

Yet having negotiated the Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the three victorious powers in the Second World War--the US, Britain and the USSR--went ahead and negotiated the non-proliferation treaty that was eventually signed in 1968.  Non-nuclear signatories pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons, while nuclear states--in a provision of which few people are still aware--pledged to do away with them.  Unfortunately, the nuclear arms race was at its height, it was another twenty years before the two superpowers took real steps in that direction.  By that time China, Israel and India already had nuclear weapons as well. Pakistan also went to work on them, eventually successfully.  The US and Russia agreed on very large cuts in their arsenals after the fall of the USSR, but proliferation continued.

The George W. Bush Administration was the first in which the Boom generation dominated national security strategy, and it came in determined to abandon the limitations of the Cold War in favor of a new vision of American power.  Believing, against all evidence, that defense against ballistic missiles was possible, they denounced the ABM treaty.  Then, in the 2002 National Security Strategy it released, the Bush Administration specifically abandoned deterrence as a strategy against new nuclear-armed states.  "The United States," it read, "has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction— and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."  This was, of course, the heart of the rationale for the attack on Iraq that began a few months later--even though it turned out that Iraq neither had weapons of mass destruction nor any program to develop them.

During his last year in office, Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, in a courageous act of statesmanship, negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran to keep it from developing nuclear weapons.  Yet in previous years Obama had essentially endorsed the 2002 strategy, declaring again and again that Iran would not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon.  The last two administrations, in short, had abandoned the concept of national sovereignty insofar as it relates to weapons development, and argued that no nation on earth would be allowed to have weapons that the United States did not believe they should have.  This is an unprecedented claim to world domination--one that President Trump has now revived.  There has never really been a national discussion or debate on whether we have the right to assert such power, or whether this claim really serves our interests.  It makes for an interesting contrast with the Non-proliferation treaty, which recognized that states could not be expected to foresake nuclear weapons if established nuclear powers insisted on retaining them.

President Trump is now threatening a pre-emptive nuclear attack on North Korea.  This strategy also has deep roots.  Just as General Turgidsen (George C. Scott) argued in Dr. Strangelove, if nuclear war is perceived to be inevitable, it obviously makes sense to go first.  US targeting plans against the Soviet Union would have also encouraged going first in a crisis, since they were designed to eliminate Soviet nuclear capabilities, which meant using ours before they used theirs.  But I have another perspective from which to view the nuclear saber-rattling of President Trump and his contemporary President George W. Bush--also born in 1946--before him.  It comes from my late friend Bill Strauss, the co-author with Neil Howe of Generations and The Fourth Turning.

Bill was among other things a playwright, and sometime around 2000, I believe, he asked me if I might want to help him on a play he had in mind.  That project unfortunately did not get off the ground.  Bill and I were very close friends with enormous mutual respect, but our initial exchanges convinced me that we would not be able to collaborate successfully.  (He had collaborated with other people on all his books; I never have, except with William Young, who had died when I took over his project about Sacco and Vanzetti.)  But the idea Bill had still haunts me.

Set in New York, the play would have had two acts: the first on the day of the stock market crash in October 1929, and the second on the day after the Hiroshima bomb in 1945.  It dealt with a distinguished New York family, led by a member of the Missionary generation who seemed to me to be modeled on Henry M. Stimson, although I think he was an academic.  Let's call him Michael.  The family also included his father Gus, an aged civil war veteran; his Aunt Polly, Gus's younger sister, who remembered Lincoln's death; and two sons, Larry and George.  Larry was about 30 in 1929, while George was only a teenager. (Studnets of generational theory will perhaps realize the pattern behind the names.) Act I was designed to portray an atmosphere of frenzied speculation and irresponsibility, parallel to what was happening around 2000 when Bill conceived the idea.  It was a portrayal of an Unraveling, or Third Turning, as Bill and Neil defined them--the profligate, partisan era that leads to a crisis in which new leadership takes the country in a new direction.

Act II, on the other hand, hoped to convey the atmosphere of the Second World War, in which the country had pulled together and devoted unprecedented resources ot the common good.  Gus was dead, but Polly, now very old, was still with the family. Michael had been working in a high position in Washington. Larry had become a bomber pilot but was now at home.  George, a physicist, had not gone to war--he had been doing secret work for the Manhattan project.  In one of the revelations of Act II, George learned for the first time that his father was among those who had convinced President Roosevelt to undertake the development of the atomic bomb.

I tried to imagine the conversation the family might have about the atomic bomb, just before the last moment of the play, which Bill had already planned.  Michael would have explained that it was now our mission to put the bomb under international control, to make it the foundation of lasting peace.  George, who had helped develop it--from the generation of Kennedy and Nixon-- would have agreed.  Larry, his older son, from the cynical Lost generation, would have chuckled at this misplaced idealism. "Next time," he said, "it won't be dropped on the last day of the war--but on the first day."  But Polly, a pacifist whose hero had been Woodrow Wilson, would have sunk to the depths of despair.  She would have remembered Michael's idyllic childhood and his work in settlement houses in the 1890s--only to have it all come to this.  "We never believed after 1865 that we could live through another war like that," she would say.  "It was a few years after that, Michael, that you were born.  We had so much hope for you and your generation, especially after President Wilson came along.  And how you've done this horrible, horrible thing."

At that point, in Bill's formulation, the door opened, and Gretchen, George's wife, entered, crossed the room, and give her husband a hug.

"I'm going to have a baby," she said.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Dark Money and the new American politics

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

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

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

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

Changing the intellectual climate was step 1 in the program.  Another spectacularly successful front was opened within the American legal system, Started in 1982 with money from the Olin Foundation and affiliates of the Scaifes and the Kochs, the Federalist Society has become a behemoth, an organization of conservative legal thinkers that includes all the conservative members of the US Supreme Court.   That is not all. The Olin Foundation has sponsored two week seminars on Law and Economics for sitting judges, somewhat reminiscent of the seminars drug companies hold for physicians at major resorts.  There they have exposed sitting judges to the evils of regulation and the glories of the free market—and this may explain some of the more extraordinary decisions that federal courts have handed down lately, such as one that limited the legal definition of insider trading to narrowly as to make most prosecutions for it impossible.

Nor is this all: the foundations have not hesitated to challenge liberal intellectuals in their own presumed stronghold, universities.  Using the irresistible lever of their wealth—which no American university, in this day and age, can resist—they have established beachheads such as the Olin Center at Harvard University (promoting conservative ideas on foreign policy) and several institutes at George Mason University, conveniently located in the Washington suburbs.  These have opened career paths for conservative public policy intellectuals—at the same time that mainstream academic departments have been going in directions largely irrelevant to real politics.

This vast intellectual infrastructure works in tandem, of course, with the right wing media, led by Fox News and Clear Channel Radio, to shift public opinion on key events.  The alternative media outlets are largely self-financing, of course, but I was very surprised that another key rightwing organization, Freedom Works—funded largely by the Scaife foundation—had paid Glenn Beck more than $1 million a year to allow them to write his monologues.  And this infrastructure has not only convinced many Americans, and probably most better-off Americans, that social programs do more harm than good, but it has also convinced millions that lower taxes on the wealthy increase economic growth—and, critically, created real doubt as to whether man-made global warming exists.  Mayer traces the campaign against global warming effectively.  It employed some of the same personnel and used the same playbook as the tobacco companies’ earlier effort to create doubt as to whether cigarettes caused cancer—but evidently with far more significant results.  (I am leaving out of this essay the names of many key operatives within the network who have organized particular legal, lobbying and electoral campaigns.  They are the battlefield commanders of our new political struggle.)  The intellectual infrastructure also carries out campaigns against academics and journalists who stand in its way—including Mayer herself.

The other long-running campaign waged by the new right was the attempt to undo a century of regulation of spending on political campaigns. At the dawn of the Progressive Era a consensus emerged that the influence of money on politics had to be restricted, and Watergate had reinforced that lesson. But the counteroffensive against regulation began in the decade after Watergate, won various victories, and culminated in the Citizens United decision, the Kochs’ and their allies’ greatest and perhaps most influential triumph.  The floodgates are now open, and the results are clear for all to see.

The right wing network gained much power over the Republican Party by 2000 and was rewarded by very friendly Bush Administration policies towards the energy industry, which turned fracking loose and set the US on the path to energy independence.  It could not prevent a groundswell of negative feeling against the Bush Administration in its second term, however, or stop the election of a Democratic Congress and Barack Obama.  But it went into high gear to stop Obama from accomplishing very much.  To begin with, implementing a long standing plan to form a mass base, the Kochs and their allies took advantage of the financial crisis to get the Tea Party movement going in 2009.  Their newly won financial power under Citizens United allowed them to intimidate virtually every Republican Senator and Representative with the threat of primary opposition, bringing them all into line for total opposition to the President. The Kochs now hold seminars every year for Republican officeholders, where they are informed in secret of the party line.   They convinced millions of Americans that the financial crisis was really the fault of the federal government.  When Obama threatened the carried interest tax loophole, their lobbying organizations found new allies among private equity titans and hedge fund managers on Wall Street.  All this enabled the Republicans, backed by this network of plutocrats, to win their extraordinary victory in the 2010 elections.  After redistricting was finished with the help of techniques provided by the same set of conservative donors, the Republicans probably had secured control of the House of Representatives for the rest of this decade.

The Koch network has also made a huge and successful effort at the state level, making the Democratic Party irrelevant in large parts of the nation.  Originally founded with Scaife money in the 1970s, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) now writes draft anti-government, pro-business legislation for state legislatures all over the country.  Local Kochs have also sprung up, such as Art Pope, a North Carolina discount store owner who in the last decade has taken over the state Republican Party and orchestrated its (now partial) takeover of the North Carolina state government.  At the national level, ideological loyalties are still strong enough to allow Democratic candidates to win the popular vote in 4 of the last five Presidential elections, but at the local level, in red and some purple states, there is no alternative force that can stand up to the Koch-led network. And the ultraconservative domination of state legislatures poses perhaps the greatest threat to our democracy of all: a constitutional convention called by those legislatures which could rewrite key provisions of the Constitution along more “libertarian” lines.

Another chapter of this story does not appear in Mayer’s book.  She finished it when Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy had just begun, and he initially exchanged insults with the Kochs, who did not trust him.  Six months into his Administration it seems to represent an unqualified victory.  The Kochs had a long-standing connection to Mike Pence. The DeVos family—the founders of Amway, an organization that has escaped serious legal trouble more than once—has also been a long-standing member of the megadonor network with a particular interest in education, and they have provided Trump with his education secretary.  The EPA and the Department of Energy and firmly in the hands of Koch allies and are now taking the skeptical line on climate change.  New rounds of tax cuts are being prepared.  The Kochs are undoubtedly unhappy about the failure to repeal the ACA, but they now hold more levers of power than they ever did. 

A political revolution has been in progress for more than four decades, a reaction to the New Deal and the more just society that it created.  Fueled by successive rounds of tax cuts, this revolution has created a tiny group of billionaires that now control most of our political life.  This is way, as a widely cited study by Marin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page discovered, the beliefs of average American citizens and broad-based activist groups on key issues have very little influence on policy outcomes, while the beliefs of interest groups have a great deal. It's also why most Republicans will vote for legislation that will clearly hurt far more of their constituents than it will help. This is, I believe, the new America that our current Fourth Turning has created, and like the Gilded Age, it will not be overturned, in all probability, for a very long time.