Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Roll of the Dice"

Having just watched President Obama's statement on Syria, in which he both strongly made the case for his belief that the U.S. should launch punitive military strikes against the Assad regime and said he would ask for Congressional authorization to do so, I listened in amazement as the CNN commentators displayed just how poorly they know this president.

Wolf Blitzer kept repeating that this was a "roll of the dice," because by asking for Congressional authorization, Obama was taking the chance that the answer would be "no." In that case, he suggested, Obama risked looking weak.

In short, Blitzer et al simply could not seem to fathom that Obama may have been thinking of this decision in any terms other than the crassly political. It never seems to have occurred to them that he may believe that, however much he thinks that this is the right course of action, he had a responsibility to provide the time for the people's representatives to weigh in before acting. He may have actually believed a Congressional vote was the right and proper thing to do even if the Congress did not approve a military strike.

I've studied American political history and foreign policy long enough to know that presidents are never unaware of or unconcerned with the political ramifications of their military decisions. But that is not the same thing as saying that politics always trumps other considerations.

Over the last 30 to 40 years, we Americans have become so accustomed to presidents justifying the assertion of unilateral power to do nearly anything around the world by referring to their powers as "commander-in-chief" that a president refraining from doing so seems inexplicable, an irrational "roll of the dice."

President Obama made clear that he believes a strike is justified, even required, in this instance. But he did not therefore conclude that he had a unilateral right to do it. Perhaps if Congress refuses to grant the authority, he will act anyway. My guess is that he will not. My belief is that he was saying something that far too few Americans--in the media, and especially in Congress--seem to understand: process matters.

However important he thinks it is for the United States to make a statement that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated, he does not think it more important than that basic principle. In our political life, we have accepted the corrosive idea that the only thing that matters is getting our way, process be damned.

The American system of government, if it is to work again, requires that all Americans recommit to the idea that the most important thing is not that we get our way by hook or by crook, but that we all agree to respect, abide by, and not abuse the process. If we have an election and our candidates and ideas lose, we do not then seek to subvert the result, or hold the government hostage in order to undo the results of that election.

If our ideas are rejected by the majority, we have every right to continue to believe them and advocate for them. But when we connive to impose them on others, when we run roughshod over the process in the name of achieving our desired result, we undermine the only thing that can ever make the system work.

In his deference to Congress today, President Obama has shown respect for process. Now it is up to Congress to show similar respect, have a dignified and intelligent debate, and face the responsibility of making its decision. If it does, regardless of the result, our system of government will be the stronger for it.

And with any luck, some members of Congress might even get in the habit of putting process over results. We can only hope.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Truman and the Minimum Wage

Huffington Post has an article out today on the 1949 minimum wage law. I spoke with the writer
Eleazar David Melendez for about 40 minutes a couple of weeks ago, helping him understand how the law got passed, despite the general opposition to Truman's Fair Deal proposals that year.

I intend to elaborate more on the dynamics of passing this legislation in a future post, but for now, the article does a good job laying out the basics and quotes some of my observations.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Presidential Historian "Branding"

"Branding" seems to be everywhere. The concept of a "brand" began in business, defined by Businessweek as "the genuine 'personality' of your company." But in the increasingly commodified, "Glengarry Glen Ross" society in which we are all expected to "always be selling," the idea has become virtually indistinguishable from marketing and self-promotion.

As a result, to my ear the word "brand" smacks of manipulation. I prefer "reputation," since a reputation carries with it the sense of something earned by one's actions, not fabricated by one's conscious self-promotion.

To a greater or lesser degree, everyone on social media engages in some form of "brand" creation--am I someone who posts regularly or irregularly to Facebook? Are my posts personal, political, inspirational, religious, etc? When I decided to start this blog, I had to decide what (if anything) it might be known for, and since my wish was to apply my historian's perspective to contemporary events, most (though not all) of my posts have roughly fit that category.

In recent years, no one has been more successful at this than "presidential historian" Michael Beschloss. He's a regular on PBS and NBC, and recently he has made something of a splash on Twitter, (@BeschlossDC). His account was named to Time magazine's "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2013" in the category of "Politics," though it is really more historical than political.

Beschloss has specialized in tweeting interesting photographs, and so it might be more accurate to say that he is doing a kind of history through photography. My friend, the attorney Bill Carleton, who follows Beschloss on Twitter and has an interest in intellectual property and new media, noted to me awhile back that it seemed odd that Beschloss almost never identified the sources of the photos or the photographer.
The Twitter profile of Michael Beschloss

Carleton has tweeted Beschloss on this subject, and last week he wrote a blog post about it. He made his point with this brilliant mock photo credit:
Pictured, from @BeschlossDC: Truman and LBJ in 1965. It's remarkable that Michael Beschloss would have had both the access to the Presidents and the facility with camera equipment of the time to pull this photograph off. From the camera angle, we can infer that he was unusually tall for a child (he would have been 9 years old in 1965)
Despite the tone, the issue Carleton raises is a serious one. Beschloss has added "Twitter photo historian" to his brand, and gained some fairly high level exposure for it, such as this Gwen Ifill interview from December 2012. But it is hard not to notice how Beschloss artfully ducked Ifill's question about how he finds these photos by talking instead about why he finds them interesting.

More recently, Beschloss did the same thing in this interview with Jonathan Karl when asked directly (about 5 minutes into the interview) "where do you get these photos?" Beschloss explained when he does it (on the weekends) and why does it. When asked a follow-up about where he found a specific photo of Lou Gehrig and Frank Sinatra, Beschloss said it was from "archive that was connected I believe to Lou Gehrig who has a lot of fan sites." Finally, Beschloss simply said that he relies on his memory: "I remembered seeing that image somewhere and I went out and grabbed it."

Historians will know where I'm going with this. When it comes to citing primary sources, "I went out and grabbed it" does not cut it. In his books, Beschloss--like all authors--has to credit the photos he uses, in the same way that a historian is trained to cite all primary sources.

As a blogger who occasionally likes to use photos with a post, I can sympathize with Beschloss. The internet has made the replication of images easy, and it can be difficult to track down the original provenance of every photo one would like to use. (Thinking about this issue has convinced me of the need to be more vigilant about using citing photos in future blog posts). It is also the case that in the classroom, we teachers frequently make use of photos pulled from the internet in our Powerpoint presentations without crediting them.

At what point does the size of the audience matter? Beschloss now has over 60,000 followers on Twitter. When he tweets photos, is he more like a teacher using them in a classroom or more like an author publishing them in a book?

Complicating the issue further is the fact that the greater the notoriety that Beschloss gains, the more the photos he tweets in some sense "become" his photos to followers.  For example, the CBS Sports web page made the Sinatra/Gehrig picture its "Photo of the Day," and said it was "Courtesy of presidential historian Michael Beschloss."

Given all of the above, it is good to see that Beschloss (probably because of the prompting of Bill Carleton and others) has now started to credit most of his photos, and promises a future website which will have the sources of the images. I do wish that he had openly acknowledged the change, however, and offered an explanation to his Twitter followers. That, too, could have been a form of educating the public, by letting them know that crediting the original sources is a value historians hold dear.

Unfortunately, it does not seem that Beschloss is overly interested in acknowledging mistakes. Last month, he tweeted a picture of Andrew Jackson and wrote: "Andrew Jackson tday [sic] 1832 vetoed Bank of US renewal ending tradition of veto's use only against unconstitutionality." As soon as I read that, I knew it was wrong: Jackson had explicitly argued in his veto message that he believed the Bank to be unconstitutional.

I tweeted Beschloss a quotation from Jackson's message ("the powers and privileges possessed by the existing bank are unauthorized by the Constitution") and included a link to the full text of the statement. There was no reply, but I later noticed that the tweet was gone. Fortunately, I had done a screen capture of the original tweet, pictured here.

Upon learning of his mistake (no doubt from others as well), Beschloss merely deleted the tweet and thus the evidence of his error.

I don't blame Beschloss for getting something wrong, particularly given the volume of tweeting he does. But the fact that he did not acknowledge and correct the error strikes me as beyond the pale. Errors of fact should not just be dropped down the technological memory hole.

I noticed the tweet was gone and I followed up: "I like how you use Twitter, but I think simply deleting the erroneous Jackson tweet is insufficient. Anyone can make a mistake-But a historian has an obligation to correct mistakes. You have nearly 48,000 followers--how many saw it and thought it true?" Beschloss neither responded nor issued a correction. He just removed offending tweet from the record.

Perhaps by making his mistake disappear, and by belatedly (though without explanation) beginning to credit some of the photos he uses, Beschloss is protecting his "brand." But at least for this historian, his reputation has suffered.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Egyptian Tiananmen

In light of today's horrors in Egypt, Andrew Sullivan, Marc Lynch, and others are now calling for the cutting off of aid to Egypt. While that is the right thing to do now, it is a classic case of too little, too late.

The time to end the aid was after the coup, as the law required. By twisting itself in knots to pretend the coup was not a coup, the Obama administration signaled to the Egyptian generals that it valued its relationship with them more than the democratic process. The military no doubt took that as effectively a green light for today's events.

The administration allowed a simplistic idea of realpolitick to convince it that the worldy-wise way to approach the coup that removed Morsi from power was to finesse the situation. It would maintain its influence with the generals by showing that it had faith in their intentions to restore democracy. Lynch writes:
It seemed prudent to many in Washington to wait and see how things would play out, especially given the intense arguments of those defending what they considered popular revolution. It didn't help that neither the United States nor other outside actors knew quite what they wanted. Few particularly wanted to go to the mat for the Muslim Brotherhood or a Morsy restoration, and Washington quickly understood that this was not in the cards. But they also didn't want a return to military rule.
What Obama should have done instead was use the law requiring an aid cut-off as a way of pressuring the Egyptian military to restore quickly a legitimate government with a popular mandate. Obama would have had the excuse of saying that the coup left him with no options. Secretary of State Kerry then could have quietly made assurances that the aid would be immediately resumed once an elected government was in place.

Such a course would have given the administration actual leverage. Instead, its refusal to call a coup a coup sent precisely the wrong message.

What should have been clear before is now undeniable: when the military acted to remove Morsi from power, it was not acting on the popular will. It was rather exploiting the anti-Morsi protests to do what it wanted to do all along: decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood. By not objecting, the administration implied that it shared that objective. Was it really so odd that the Egyptian generals believed that if they could remove an elected president without consequences, they could also violently disperse protestors?

In academic discussions of American foreign policy, there is a common division between those who argue that U.S. diplomacy should be guided by ideals and those who say it should only serve material interests. In this case, that is a false choice. A stable Egypt, with real respect for democratic process, in which the Muslim Brotherhood has a stake in electoral politics, is in America's interest, but today that result seems sadly unlikely. By taking an allegedly "hard-headed" approach focused purely on interests, the Obama administration has served neither American ideals nor its interests.

As Ethar El Katataney says in the tweet pictured above, "Pandora's Box is wide open. How are we going to close it?"

Q & A on Jaron Lanier's "Who Owns the Future?"

I spent the last week in Seattle, visiting my college roommate and good friend Bill Carleton (@Wac6 on Twitter). Bill is a lawyer with expertise in securities and intellectual property law, and lots of experience with start ups.

Bill Carleton
Over cigars and scotch, we had a long discussion/debate over the NSA revelations, which then morphed into a discussion of how private companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook are amassing big data on all of us as well. Bill referred me to the work of Jaron Lanier, a technologist and author of You Are Not a Gadget. He also gave me his copy of Who Owns the Future?, which I read.

Lanier's argument, as I see it, is essentially this: these companies seduce the user with the lure of "free" services, and then mine all of us for valuable data. Lanier refers to these as "Siren Servers." The information we voluntarily cede has value, which those companies then convert into profits. But we users are never compensated for that valuable data. Lanier proposes a new model, which would acknowledge the monetary value that data has, so that each time we surrender such data, we receive a "nanopayment" to reflect that value.

Our resulting discussions led to this Q & A, which Bill has posted on his blog, William Carelton, Counselor @ Law.

I intend to expand on these preliminary thoughts on MOOCs in a future post here, but for now, this gives some sense of where I'm heading.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

British Diplomacy and Royal Baby Mania

A new heir to a powerless throne was born last week, and a portion of the American public went into a collective tizzy over it. Predictably, another portion went into a tizzy over that, and muttered some variant of "George Washington [or some other Founder] must be rolling over in this grave."

As an American of Irish descent, I don't go in much for British royalty worship, but I suppose it is no more harmful than many other types of American celebrity adoration. But these two types of responses got me thinking about the nature of the American relationship with the former mother country.

For the vast majority of living Americans, it has always been the "special relationship," but that is actually of fairly recent vintage, forged in the crucible of World War II (and visually captured by this image of FDR and Churchill, meeting on a British naval vessel in August 1941, singing "Onward Christian Soldiers").

As so often happens, the memory of the living is incomplete.

One need not go back to the Revolution to find Americans who would be appalled at the sight of last week's American attention to a British royal birth. For at least the first century after American independence, Britain was the enemy of the United States: at war from 1812 to 1815, at odds for most the next few decades (including a near-war over Oregon in 1846), no other country caused 19th century American presidents more consternation than Britain.

Not even fighting on the same side in the first World War completely changed that. American Anglophobia was still alive as FDR and Churchill were meeting in the summer of 1941. The United States was in the midst of the Great Debate over the extent of American involvement in World War II. Pearl Harbor lay months in the future, and isolationists continued to argue that the United States should not enter the war. There were plenty of Americans who rejected the idea that there was any "special relationship," or that American interests overlapped much with those of Great Britain.

While their arguments against American involvement were numerous, one is particularly relevant here: it would mean fighting for British imperialism. In April 1941, in a nationally broadcast radio debate, Fay Bennett, executive secretary of the Youth Committee Against War said: "if you have any faith that the British Empire is going to bring peace and democracy to the world, I would like one bit of evidence to that effect."

A particular focus of this line of argument was British rule in India. Gandhi's independence movement had put the British in the awkward position of fighting German imperialism in Europe while defending their own in Asia. As Churchill later said in November 1942, "we mean to hold our own. I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire."

The isolationist argument that America should not assist British imperialism was so common that an interventionist anticipated it in one debate: “I don’t think the present regime in England … and even what is going on in India—I suppose some of you people will want to bring that up—can in any way compare to the world we would have to live in if Hitler were the victor.”

The defenders of aid to Britain often resorted not to appeals to any "special relationship," but instead fell back on the idea that the British were simply the lesser of evils in this fight.

Pearl Harbor ended all that, as the German declaration of war brought the U.S. fully into the war on the same side as Great Britain, and Churchill came to the U.S. and lived at the White House for several weeks.

That result was no accident, however. It was the product of over 40 years of wise diplomacy by the British Foreign Office, which surveyed the world situation in the 1890s and made a conscious decision to cultivate American friendship. It saw three rising powers in the world: the U.S., Germany, and Japan. It could not successfully oppose all three, so Britain choose to accommodate the rise of American power and hoped to enlist it in the fight to thwart the other two. In December 1941, Britain saw that decision pay off magnificently, as America joined forces with Britain to defeat the designs of Germany and Japan.

I'm quite confident that officials of the British Foreign Office never anticipated American "royal baby mania" in 2013. In some sense, however, the unthinking American adoption of the British royal family witnessed last week is also an unintended product of their diplomacy.