Saturday, March 20, 2010

Low Standards

For the past week I've been mulling over this article on the Texas school board's revision of the state's history standards, trying to sort out some conflicting reactions to it. Some of what was done seems, at least on the surface, eminently reasonable. But other actions taken by the board raise serious concerns that call into question all of their changes.

One of my colleagues noted to me, with some alarm, that one of the changes was that "the ideas in Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address are to be laid side by side with Abraham Lincoln's speeches." On substance, I have no trouble with that at all. Such a compare and contrast exercise can be quite an effective teaching tool. Looking at the argument that does not carry the day can sometimes be much more instructive than the one that does. When I teach the debate over ratification of the U.S. Constitution, for example, I give a lot of attention to the arguments of the Anti-Federalists.

Another one of the changes that has raised hackles is the removal of Thomas Jefferson "from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone." Again, this one doesn't bother me much substantively. One can make a strong argument that Jefferson was not a particularly original political thinker and that the inclusion of other thinkers, particularly John Locke, covers much of the same ground. The list still includes other Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau.

Other aspects of the Texas changes are not particularly susceptible to benign interpretation, however. Another change that was made to the standards, which were proposed by a panel of teachers, was an "amendment stressing that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism." Any attempt to equate the wholesale internment of the Japanese during World War II with the case-by-case internment of Germans and Italians amounts to falsifying the historical record. Although there were relatively few people in the U.S. of Japanese heritage, virtually all of them, about 110,000 people, were interned. By contrast, though there were far more German and Italian Americans, about 11,000 Germans were interned, and only about 1,500 Italians. The facts here are clear: Japanese were interned as a group, Germans and Italians were interned on an individual basis. It is fair to say that all three groups experienced violations of civil liberties, but no reasonable understanding would discount racism as a factor in the difference in the way Japanese were treated.

The attempt to burnish the reputation of Joe McCarthy falls into the same category. Another of the school boards changes requires "that the history of McCarthyism include 'how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.'" I happen to have read the book on the Venona papers that is referenced here. The secret government records do indeed show that there was Soviet infiltration of the U.S. government--during World War II. They also show that this influence was ferreted out (by the very intelligence gathered by Venona) and that by late 1946, the problem had been effectively dealt with. McCarthy did not begin making his reckless and irresponsible charges until 1950, and he said not that there had been communist infiltration in the past, but that there currently was. The Venona papers do not support those McCarthyite attacks. This proposed treatment of McCarthy also amounts to falsifying history.

What these last two examples have in common is that both attempt to take a fairly shameful chapter in American history and whitewash it. This is of a piece with the attitude of American exceptionalism that I wrote about recently. The proponents of these changes either do not know the facts of Japanese, German, and Italian internment, or they willfully ignore them. They either do not know what the Venona papers actually say, or they do know and don't care because it serves their rather overtly politicized agenda. In either case, they show their unfitness to set standards for what children need to learn. The Texas school board should first educate itself.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Platonic Ideal of a David Brooks column

Jonathan Chait at The New Republic captures everything that drives me to distraction about David Brooks. After reading this, you never need to read another Brooks column.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Time to Act

My friend and colleague John Lane referred me (in exasperation) to this piece by Jon Meacham in Newsweek. In it, Meacham argues the value of gradualism. He quotes with favor Robert Penn Warren, who said: "Gradualism is all you'll get. History, like nature, knows no jumps." At first I thought, "well, that's hard to argue with," and I wondered what had gotten John so worked up.

But as I read on, that became clear. Meacham is not merely arguing that change takes place gradually. He is arguing that the American political system's current and frequent paralysis is a virtue because it reflects this gradualism. And that's where he goes wrong.

There's a world of difference between the way any society gradually changes and the inability of a political system to reflect changes that have already taken place, or to lead in changes that need to take place. Meacham never mentions it, but it seems likely that what he has in mind when he says "Better to govern creakily than to be victim of passions moving too quickly" is the current impasse over health insurance reform.

You can say many things about the history of this issue, but "moving too quickly" is not anywhere on the list. As President Obama has taken to noting, the idea was first proposed by a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, over 100 years ago. FDR's commission on social security proposed including it in that plan in 1935, but the president thought that would be a little too much for Congress to bite off at one time, and was better left for another day. When Harry Truman saw the abysmal state of public health as revealed by the physicals of men who were drafted during World War II, he decided the time was right. Demagogues cried "socialized medicine" and, at the height of the cold war, that was all it took to defeat the idea. LBJ scaled back the ambition, and proposed covering only the elderly and the poor. Exercising his formidable political skills, he got that bill through Congress and signed it in the presence of Harry Truman.

That was 1965. Until last year, only Bill Clinton had dared to attempt significant reform, and he failed. For the last year, the topic has been under active consideration by Congress, and for at least a year before that, it was one of the most prominent topics in the 2008 presidential primaries and general election. To pass a bill now is not moving too quickly. You can object if you will on the merits of the bill, but don't try to couch it in some grand theory of how history moves slowly.

As a nation, we have moved slowly. Too slowly, I'd say. Not just on this issue, but on most issues of great import. It took the bloodiest war in American history to end the moral outrage of slavery. It took the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to get safety regulations in the workplace. It took the worst of economic calamities to start building a social safety net. It took the deaths of countless citizens lynched and one of the greatest grassroots protest movements in history to end segregation.

That last example brings to mind a story that encapsulates Meacham's basic misreading of the past. Addressing what ails us, he says, "is at best a gradual undertaking." When the civil rights movement was building in the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower responded to a church sermon on the need for civil rights legislation by saying "You can't legislate morality." Morality only changes gradually. Martin Luther King responded that while Eisenhower was correct in one sense, he was missing something else: "A law may not make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me." Law can never make a society perfect, but it can make its rules a little more just. The law can't change hearts, but the law can lead.

Years later, Dr. King wrote in his marvelous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" of the cost of waiting. "For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' ... This 'Wait" has almost always meant 'Never.'" Today, calls to "wait," to "start with a clean sheet of paper," mean the same thing: never. Our creaky political system needs to act. If this bill turns out to be flawed, then let it be fixed. If it turns out to be unworkable, then let it be repealed and replaced with something better. But let's be done with pretending that we need to take more time because history knows no jumps. We need to act.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Exceptionally Selective Memory Update

Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru have responded to the many criticisms of their piece on American exceptionalism. Not mine, but those of many other writers. But they do obliquely refer to one point that I made: the complete absence of any mention of slavery in their piece.

"Victor Davis Hanson notes that one reason for American exceptionalism may be that we did not inherit from England 'a large underclass of only quasi-free people attached to barons as serfs.' Sadly, a worse institution took root here, but never became part of the national psyche."

Where to begin with such a historically obtuse statement? Perhaps with the fact that the authors still cannot bring themselves to call the thing by its name: "slavery." They spill another 2,200 words and still never manage to use the word. A "worse institution" is the best they can do. I suppose one should be grateful that they didn't call it a "peculiar institution," which was the preferred euphemism for slavery for so many decades. One might note that one searches in vain to find the word in the Constitution, too. The most benign interpretation of that fact is that the authors of the Constitution were ashamed of slavery and did not want to sully the document with explicit acknowledgement of it. The refusal of Lowry and Ponnuru to call slavery by its name is the best evidence of their awareness that it was shameful and thus a mortal threat to their superficial cheerleading disguised as historical interpretation.

More substantively, anyone who can, with a straight face, assert that slavery never became part of the national psyche has forfeited any claim to be taken seriously. I am writing this piece in a building built by slave labor. Only people suffering from an extreme case of denial could honestly believe slavery never became part of the national psyche.

Even those who fought most valiantly against it, the abolitionists (whom Lowry and Ponnuru seek to claim as their own, without ever saying what they wanted to abolish), had to wrestle with how deeply slavery had embedded itself in the American mind. This is William Lloyd Garrison, writing in 1856, on the effect of slavery on slaveholders: "It has destroyed in them all sense of justice, all perception of right, all knowledge of virtue, all regard for humanity; so that, habitually, they put darkness for light, and light for darkness, and call good evil, and evil good."

When slavery was finally abolished, its advocates sought to reconstitute it in the form of the notorious black codes, which attempted to institute slavery in everything but name. When those efforts were temporarily thwarted by Reconstruction, they tried again, this time under the name Jim Crow, whose "strange career" continued into my own lifetime, and whose legacies live on still.

Even more than their original post, this rebuttal demonstrates the intellectual, historical and moral bankruptcy of their argument. In that, I suppose they have performed some small, albeit inadvertent, service.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The New Left and the Tea Party

David Brooks' latest attempt at historical comparison suffers from the same superficiality that too often dominates his writing. The Tea Party movement, he tells us, is much like the New Left of the 1960s. That's only true if you rewrite the history of the 1960s.

Let's begin with the way Brooks uses the term "New Left." For him, it is a catch-all phrase, effectively meaning anyone who protested, marched, went to a concert, or got high. The New Left, he tells us, "was bohemian ... was motivated by war ... [and] went to Woodstock." If that's what Brooks thinks the New Left was, he really has no idea what he is talking about.

When I teach the history of the 1960s, one of the first things I make sure students understand is that the term "New Left" had a particular meaning, and that it isn't the stereotypical "hippy" identity that the title of this piece invokes.

The New Left was an explicitly political movement, whose birth is often traced to a political manifesto, the Port Huron Statement of 1962, which in turn was inspired by the work of the sociologist C. Wright Mills, especially his book, The Power Elite.

From the Port Huron statement's first sentence, it is clear that Brooks is wrong in painting the movement as "bohemian" rather than "bourgeois." It states: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit." In short, utterly middle class.

The New Left was motivated by war, in a sense, but Port Huron preceded escalation in Vietnam and was concerned with the general threat of nuclear annihilation. More generally, it reflected a sense of unease, a concern not that things were changing too fast, but that they were not changing fast enough: "Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear."

More specifically, it was motivated by the civil rights movement and sought to bring its ideals of non-violence and the pursuit of human dignity beyond that single cause to all American institutions. It was, at least initially, hopeful and idealistic. But eventually, as the Vietnam war escalated, and the nation became ever more divided, the New Left became increasingly Marxist in its orientation, with the most radical element, the Weather Underground, even advocating revolutionary violence. But through it all, its advocates were ever serious and engaged with politics.

By contrast, the people who were called "hippies" were more often representative of the counterculture, which, while its membership could sometimes overlap with the New Left, was not particularly political. The counterculture's inspiration came, not surprisingly, from cultural influences like the Beats of the 1950s (Jack Kerouac rather than C. Wright Mills). It found its inspiration in music, it was more concerned with social norms than government policies. These are the "bohemians" at Woodstock that Brooks is thinking of. These are the people who retreated in disillusionment to the mountains of Vermont to form communes; they are not the ones who took to the streets.

According to Brooks, "the core commonality" between the movements of the 1960s and today's Tea Party "is this: Members of both movements believe in what you might call mass innocence. Both movements are built on the assumption that the people are pure and virtuous and that evil is introduced into society by corrupt elites and rotten authority structures." What Brooks is really describing here is populism, which goes back at least to Andrew Jackson and his fight against the "monster" national bank, and reached its heyday in the 1890s.

Whatever the New Left was, it wasn't populist. Populism is often reactionary, yearning for an idyllic past (usually one that that never really existed outside the realm of myth). The Tea Party movement seems in some ways to fit that description, with its explicit evocation of the American Revolution and pseudo-libertarian rejection of modern government and modern values. The New Left, by contrast, was explicitly forward-looking. Its goal was to create something self-consciously new, what it called "participatory democracy." It was predominantly a youth movement, while the Tea Party demographic tends to be more middle-aged.

Brooks is right about one thing: the Tea Party movement's radicalism is "anticonservative." It is, in fact, radically reactionary. What he misses in his insistence on the similarity between the New Left and the Tea Party movement is potentially the significant difference between the two: the former never had a realistic chance to control the Democratic Party. It was, in part, the failure of the anti-war movement to change even the Democratic Party's platform in 1968 to oppose the war in Vietnam that led some to advocate violence. By contrast, the Tea Party is making a concerted effort to take over today's Republican Party. The way that even relatively moderate GOP figures such as Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have recently adapted their rhetoric to fit Tea Party expectations makes me doubt Brooks' conclusion that "the Tea Partiers will not take over the G.O.P." In some ways, they already have.

Friday, March 5, 2010