Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Death of the "American Political Order"

Consider this as a start of a new strand for discussion and development. And the theme is the death of the American political order. Now because we Americans like to say that we live under the oldest constitution, we also like to think that we have lived under only one political order. But in point of fact, we have lived under several different political orders or systems and what we are witnessing now is the death of one of those orders.

I had not noticed this until very recently, helped by the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts and by the recent decision of the Supreme Court regarding corporations and elections. Let me speculate that the political order that is dying was created by FDR in the aftermath of the Great Depression. This would make some sense as it took an event the significance of the Great Depression to kill off the previous political order, which was hanging on by virtue of life support anyway. And let me call this political order the progressive political order which was founded on some basic principles, economic, social, and international. Economically the principle was "freedom from fear," that is, building an economic order which would make economic security widespread and permanent. Socially, the principle was what might be called "integration," that is, a society which minimized the concept of second class citizenship. Internationally, the principle was an "active", that is, assertive and interventionist foreign policy in order to promote world wide the principles of economic security and social integration.

Of course, there were disagreements over the implementation of these principles, for example, over the proper way to guarantee economic security, whether through governmental guarantees or through a rapidly expanding economy which would "lift all boats," as the saying had it. But few, very few, questioned that the goal should be economic security. Again, there were disagreements over integration but no significant disagreement over integration as a goal. And, finally, there were disagreements over foreign policy but no significant disagreements over the desirability of an activist, interventionist foreign policy.

Now, if this political order is dying then there should be and will be significant reservations over these goals. Can it be said that this happening? Well, perhaps. Or perhaps not. But here is what is visible right now. It is clear that the people or most of them are disgusted with "politics as usual." The speed with which the people have turned on Obama is quite visible and interesting. He is not being given the benefit of the doubt, as it were, because he is perceived as embracing "politics as usual." And this is no longer acceptable. Moreover, there are the Tea Partiers, as they are called, who are demanding a basic re-orientation of our politics, for better or worse. Attempts by the Republican Party to co-opt the Tea Partiers have been met with intense resistance by that movement. We have a recent decision by the Supreme Court which overturns decades of precedent with regard to trying to regulate the involvement of corporations in our elections. Whether this decision's impact will be as significant as many have argued is not clear to me. But what is significant to me is that the Supreme Court could make this decision at all. That this was possible is more important than the actual impact of the decision, just as the decision in Brown v. the Board of Education outlawing segregated schools was more significant than the actual impact of that decision. "Conservatives" "going rogue" are also visible and some of these "conservatives" do not fit the mold of leaders that arose with the triumph of FDR's New Deal politics.

In brief, there is a whole lot going on "out there" and it might be explained as the death of one political order, while the birth and characteristics of the next one are not altogether clear. But as was sung in the 60s, "Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear." To be pursued later.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Americans

It is really quite easy to "love" the Americans, because they are so childlike, especially when it comes to politics. Frank Capra made a movie a long time ago, entitled "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the theme of which is that "a simple, honest man can solve everything..." And, apparently, the Americans still believe this, even if they keep changing their "Mr. Smith." After Obama was elected, you would have thought that nirvana had arrived or was just around the corner. Leave aside that Obama was a Chicago politician, basically, and leave aside an even more salient fact that there has not been what might be called a successful presidency since the presidency of Eisenhower from 1952 to 1960. Of course, JFK was assassinated [and of course according to some mythology he was about to end the cold war and pull out of Vietnam!], LBJ was driven from office, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, Jimmy Carter is widely reputed to be among our worst presidents, Ronald Reagan would have been impeached for Iran-Contra had not Watergate occurred with Nixon and Reagan limped out of office, George Bush I was a one term president, Bill Clinton, that genius politician became only the second president to be impeached, George Bush II left the nation less secure than he found it and the economy in shambles....And yet despite all of this, the Americans still hold out the hope that a leader, a charismatic leader, will come along and right the ship of state. And today the euphoria of the Republicans attests to the continued strength of this delusion.

"In the high drama of one simple, honest, stuttering amateur staring down the Senate, the bosses, the cynics, the thugs, and the whole seamy structure of American power, the movie [Mr. Smith] asks us to see that one concerned citizen can carry the hope of the nation, if he's sincere and determined enough." [p. 157, "The Presidents We Imagine,' by Jeff Smith] But Frank Capra was wise enough to see the dark side of American delusionalism. He made another movie, "Meet John Doe," in which he acknowledges "the dark, demagogic side of popular movements founded on simple sincerity." [157-58] Capra knew that is was possible for "the cabal to create a Mr. Smith of its own....Under the spell of such a manufactured hero, whatever abuse the bosses meant to inflict on the public could become the demand of the people themselves." [158] Capra knew that a politics of simple sincerity could cut both ways. "The appealingly guileless everyman can also be a demagogue's best weapon." [314-15]

So, as the latest version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington plays itself out in the U.S. Senate, sit back and watch the show. For I am sure that the politics of simple sincerity will be enough to right the ship of state, as has happened so often in the past.

A Little Kennedy History

"During his time in the White House. . .medical attention was a fixed part of [JFK's] routine. He was under the care of an allegist, endocrinologist, a gastroenterologist, an orthopedist, and a urologist....His physicians administered large doses of so many drugs that [Dr.] Travell kept a 'Medicine Administration Record,' cataloging injected and injested corticosteroids for his adrenal insufficiency; procaine shots and ultrasound treatments and hot packs for his back; Lomotil, Metamucil, paregoric, phenobarbital, testosterone, and trasentine to control his diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and weight loss; penicillin and other antibiotics for his urinary-tract infections and as abscess; and Tuinal to help him sleep. Before press conferences and nationally televised speeches his doctors increased in cortisone dose to deal with the tensions harmful to someone unable to produce his own corticosteroids in response to stress...In 1961 [Dr.] Burkley concluded that the injections, along with back braces and positioning devices that immobilized Kennedy, were doing more harm than good. Burkley and some Secret Service men, who observed the President's difficulties getting up from a sitting position and his reliance on crutches, feared that he would soon be unable to walk and might end up in a wheelchair. Out of sight of the press, Kennedy went up and down helicopter stairs one at a time." Dallek, "the Medical Ordeals of Kennedy."

Monday, January 18, 2010

More from Charlie Wilson's War

One reason the Russians ended up pulling out of Afghanistan was, of all things, Russian mothers. As Crile, the author, points out, Russians "go to extraordinary lengths to honor their patriotic heroes." To this day, those who served in WWII, "the Great Patriotic War," are honored even by the very young. But, because of propaganda, "the Soviet veterans of the Afghan war did not exist. By official policy for more than five years, they were not fighting a war." Hence, when the bodies were shipped home in planes called the Black Tulips and presented to the mothers for burial, they, the mothers, were told that they could not put on the tombstones that their sons had died in Afghanistan. "A mother would be told that her son had not died in combat in Afghanistan and that he couldn't be awarded a medal for valor because there was no war." This was mistake, a big mistake. Eventually, other men returned home who knew there was a war going and then "the ugly whispers and the agonized drunken stories that the thousands of young men were bringing back with them year after year. By 1986 it started to achieve a critical mass...."

The denial of valor did not go over well with the mothers of these dead. And in 1985 at some time these mothers began to organize and the veterans began to organize. And the Russian vets did not return, as ours did during Viet Nam, as individuals but rather as units, often from the same town. As a result, "they met at night to drink, to take drugs, and to recite poetry and sing songs of their experience. The songs contained the entire secret history of the war - an explicit account of all that the government insisted had not happened and was not then continuing. They told of the invasion, of the storming of Amin's palace. They told of the devilish Dushman and of their comrades who had fallen in battle. There were songs about the Black Tulips and the tin coffins and the instructions to the mothers to lie for the state." [pp. 486-87]

Even the system created by Lenin and Stalin, which was built to maintain discipline, could not control or overcome these protests, such as they were. "Everywhere the mothers were talking and complaining and asking questions. Worst of all, these young veterans now walking the streets were missing legs and arms, limbs lost in a war that never early 1986 everyone, everywhere, knew something of the horror of Afghanistan....By the winter of 1986, a poison was loose in the spirit of the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev and his inner circle knew it." [488]

Lo and behold, the Russians are not so different than the Americans, who also came to see, with the help of the media, the horror that was Viet Nam and its war. And, apparently, it is not even necessary to have an intrusive media presence for people to know, eventually, of the horrors that one's government is committing. And, moreover, along with attributing the fall of the Soviet Union to the "greatness" of Ronald Reagan, he has to share the credit with the mothers and the veterans of that union. It would not be the first time that mothers had helped to unseat a government.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Charlie Wilson's War

A book recommendation, Charlie Wilson's War, upon which the movie by the same title was based. However, the book is better because more complete and because it is more complete one learns more about our government and how it actually - that is, not textbook how - works - or doesn't work. Of course, the war referred to was in Afghanistan waged by the jihads with the help of the CIA. But not only the CIA. The jihads who were killing Russians - some in the CIA saw this a payback for the Russians helping to kill Americans in Vietnam - were also aided by, get this, China and even Israel. It was however the largest, most expensive and intensive covert war ever undertaken by the CIA and, in the end, it was "successful." The accounts of the battles fought in Washington between those who like Congressman Wilson, a womanizing, hard drinking, fast talking Texan, wanted to help the jihads "kill Russians" and those who did not, including some in the CIA [who thought such a campaign might lead the Russians to invade Pakistan] are fascinating. And, of course, the story reveals some really weird personalities, like that of Gordon Humphrey, Senator from New Hampshire, who had an office where he went by himself and communicated with his staff via computer! And this covert war was being undertaken with little opposition from those on "the left" even though it overlapped with Congress' putting the kibosh on Reagan's "covert war" in Nicaragua. As noted, it is fascinating account from which you can learn a lot about government and politics in the United States. Enjoy.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thoughts on "Conservatism"

Been away for awhile having some bodily things cared for. Feeling better now.

Here is a passage or two from one of my favored authors, Christopher Lasch, and this from his book "The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics." The following is about Thurman Arnold one of the quintessential New Dealers who wrote two books of political satire, "The Symbols of Government" and "The Folklore of Capitalism." As is usual for Lasch, he finds the most interesting people to write about, even when he, Lasch, does not share their points of view.

"Arnold's analysis of the quasi-governmental powers exercised by allegedly private corporations, though not especially original, was penetrating and important. The point he was making can hardly be made too often, since it is the collectivization of private property that deprives it of the moral virtues formerly associated with it. The refusal to recognize this dooms American conservatism, so called, to complete irrelevance in any serious discussion of the moral implications of modern capitalism. Conservative opponents of the New Deal often used rhetoric vaguely reminiscent of 19th century republicanism or producerism, but they never faced up to the obvious differences between private property as it existed in the 19th century and the modern corporation, which cannot possibly confer on its stockholders or employees the independence and resourcefulness classically said to go with proprietorship. Conservatives opposed legislation regulating corporations on the grounds that it penalized 'initiative, courage, hardihood, frugality, and aspiration,' as if those virtues had any place in corporate life." P. [431]

The more things change, the more they stay the same.