Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Redeeming Shrub

Redeeming Shrub
P. Schultz
February 26, 2014

            Ross Douthat has written a piece for the Atlantic entitled “Redeeming Dubya,” in which he argues that “The idea that history might rehabilitate George W. Bush seems too ludicrous to be seriously entertained” is probably wrong. Like other presidents whose actions seemed beyond redemption, Bush II’s actions will find justifications in the future.

            Given the rehabilitation of Richard Nixon I have little reason to doubt that Douthat is correct. But I don’t think Douthat understands why these phenomena occur.

            It is not just a recalibration of the actions of presidents that lead to these rehabilitations. It is a requirement of our political system, of what we take to be conventional wisdom. If we were to really take stock of how most of our presidents have behaved, that is, if we were to be honest with ourselves that Nixon, for example, was not only “a crook” but was far worse, a pathological liar and probably a psychopath, we would have to begin to wonder about the worth of our allegedly “best in the world” democracy.

            That is, we should not be shocked that the world is full of such psychopaths. This is to be expected. But we should wonder at the fact that our political order seems to draw these types into it, rewards them with power, even great power, and then rewards them further for how they use these powers. In brief, were we to be honest in our assessments of our presidents, we would have to begin to question what seems to us now unquestionable, viz., the worth of the political order that was created in 1787 and that has been adapted to its present form.

            Douthat mentions, for example, Teddy Roosevelt and his actions with regard to the Philippines and the insurrection there after we defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War, actions which were described by Mark Twain at the time as inhuman in the extreme. But Douthat, like others, seems to think that these actions were aberrations, perhaps the product of Roosevelt’s idiosyncrasies, his elitism. But what if they were not aberrations. What if they were the product of a type of human being, an inhuman human being, who was drawn into our government and rewarded precisely because he was a inhuman human being? Now that is a horse of a different color, is it not?

            So, yes, Shrub will in all likelihood be rehabilitated. And we will be enable to go on thinking that all’s well that ends well, that our political order is quite satisfactory, and that we Americans are just “fine and dandy.” Anything else would require thought and that is something we Americans prefer to avoid at present.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Psychopaths and American Politics

Psychopaths and American Politics
P. Schultz
February 16, 2014

            In reading the book, Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner [who also wrote a history of the CIA entitled Legacy of Ashes], it occurred to me that most of our politicians are psychopaths [“a person who is mentally ill, who does not care about other people, and who is usually dangerous or violent.”]. There are too many examples or illustrations of this in Weiner’s history so let me just cite one or two.

            J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI for a long, long time, was most definitely a psychopath. I don’t know exactly what being “mentally ill” means but I do know what not caring for other people means as well as knowing what being dangerous or violent means. Hoover was quite content to take on anyone who threatened his power and he did not care what his actions did to those he took on. He kept secret files on other politicians and used them as needed to control them. But the most revealing aspect of Hoover’s mental state is that he was convinced, sincerely and genuinely convinced that those who were opposing the war in Vietnam were under the control of the Communist Party in, now guess where……Yes, that’s correct: In the Soviet Union. American college students, among others, Hoover thought were taking orders from Communists in the Soviet Union!

            Surprisingly, LBJ believed the same thing! Why is this surprising? It is surprising to me because LBJ was a consummate politician and was not an unintelligent man. Neither of course was Hoover unintelligent.  Hence, I would have expected more of these men, even if that more were merely that they used the “Communist threat” as a guise by which to advance their own agendas. But that does not appear to have been the case. Apparently, they could not conceive, literally could not conceive people taking issue with their policies on political, moral, or merely self-interested grounds.

            They had, it would seem, a disease. And this disease was diagnosed by George Orwell as the love of power, their own and that of others. They loved power as some humans love sex and they had to exercise it over and over and over again. Moreover, they feared anyone else with power, thinking that anyone who posed a threat, possessed some power would, if left along, prevail. The power of others must be checked and it must be checked with power, “vigorously” – that is, pathologically - exercised. Anything less, any other strategy is just “pie in the sky” wishful thinking.

            The “vigorous” exercise of power, embraced by some of those men who were instrumental in the writing of the Constitution, rests on this pathology. Hence, the Constitution, insofar as it sought to create an “energetic” government, one composed of powerful offices, creates offices that appeal to the pathological. In other words, the government created by the Constitution is one that draws and was intended to draw into it pathological human beings. [Benjamin Franklin saw this and said so at the constitutional convention in his speech recommending that the president not be paid. To make that office a place of “profit” as well as a place that would appeal to “the ambitious,” Franklin argued, would guarantee that men “of peace” would neither seek nor occupy it.] One might even say that this aspect of the Constitution illustrates one of the main differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists: The Federalists wanted to draw “the ambitious” into the government, whereas the Anti-Federalists wanted to keep them out!

            Tim Weiner’s book provides the evidence needed to begin to make the argument that the Anti-Federalists were correct. In reading it, I could not help wondering how all these psychopaths came to power and what our lives might be like were they not invested with the great powers granted by the Constitution.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

American "Exceptionalism"

American “Exceptionalism”
P. Schultz
February 8, 2014

From the Big Island

Here is my response to an article posted on Facebook by a friend. The article link is below.

 So, let me get this straight. The United States is or was "exceptional" because it/we were a religious people, who spread or sought to spread freedom throughout the world, while having an essentially "classless" society domestically. And now because these phenomena no longer exist or no longer have the power they once had, we got Obama, whose administration is the result of these changes. Are we suppose to take this argument seriously?

(1) As a "religious people," we Americans managed to practice racial slavery, even using that religion to justify the enslavement of millions of blacks. As a "religious people" we managed to kill lots of native Americans while dispossessing them in the process. And we did this, apparently, because as Newt Gingrich said, we are the only nation who believed power comes from God. Now, to say nothing about the injustice of our slavery and our genocide, how is enslaving people and wiping out or ghettoing other peoples "exceptional?" Seems to me these phenomena have occurred throughout human history. Cf. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

(2) Spreading freedom throughout the world. Oh yes, this is undeniable. We did that in Iran [the Shah was a great lover of freedom], Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba [Batista], Chile, Korea, Vietnam, and supported freedom in Iraq when Saddam waged war against Iran, while today supporting the freedom loving Saudis. In other words, the US has supported dictators whenever it seemed necessary and beneficial. Beneficial for what? For "projecting" our power throughout the world, whether that increased the amount of freedom in the world or not. Again, though, leaving aside any assessment of the merits, the justice, the morality of such actions, there is nothing "exceptional" here at all. The US has behaved precisely as all other powerful nations have behaved throughout human history, Cf. Machiavelli, The Prince.

(3) A "classless" society. Oh yes, this too in undeniable, I mean if we ignore slavery, the treatment of native Americans. the treatment of women, the treatment of gays and lesbians. Of course, typically the focus is economic but even here it is impossible to deny that we have classes, unless of course one is unconcerned with the facts.

Finally, I love how people like Beinart and others, based on almost wholly imagined phenomena, create arguments that are the equivalent of debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. [As Tom Robbins pointed out, it all depends on whether the angels are waltzing or jitterbugging!] There is, in my mind, nothing, absolutely nothing exceptional about the US and how it has acted both at home and abroad. It has had its good moments but it has also committed gross injustices, acts of astounding inhumanity, and just plain dumb ass "mistakes."

But then when people take to waving flags, creating delusions such as all soldiers are virtuous, pounding their chests and chanting, "USA, USA, USA!" what else should be expect? Let me say again, however, that even all of this flag waving, etc., is nothing exceptional. It is as common as the human race. Cf. Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Politics, Machiavelli's The Prince, George Orwell's 1984, and a lot of stuff by Nietzsche. And isn't it interesting that many of those who claim to take political philosophy seriously can see "exceptionalism" in what is only human, all too human?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Nixon's Shadow: More Image Than Reality

Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image
P. Schultz
February 5, 2014

This is a review that I have submitted to Amazon for a book entitled, Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image by David Greenberg.

Greenberg's book on Nixon and the media has the appearance of a thoughtful investigation of both phenomena, Nixon and the media. However, as one gets into it, this appearance is, like Nixon, more image than reality. For example, Greenberg pretty much takes for granted that Nixon was in some way(s) unique, just as do those who disliked Nixon and those who liked him or thought him to be a "statesman." But he was far from unique and the way he and the media interacted was from unique. Like almost all our politicians, Nixon said what he needed to say to get elected and the media pretty much accepted it, while often writing glowing reports of Nixon's virtues, especially early in his career. [This phenomenon reoccurred at the end of Nixon's career as well, when he was dubbed to have "redeemed" himself and proven himself a "statesman," an image that was ratified by his funeral in the presence of every living ex-president.] Hence, when Nixon campaigned in 1968 saying that he had a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War with "honor," the media accepted this assertion without challenging Nixon, something Greenberg and the media find hard to explain.

And this points to another shortcoming of Greenberg's book: His failure to take into account that both Nixon and the media are or were embedded in a "system" and that those who control it seek to perpetuate it. In politics, this means maintaining the status quo, which both Nixon and the media, as sharing control of this "system," wanted to maintain. Hence. as the prevailing political class was under severe pressure in 1967 and 1968, was threatened with being "overthrown," it was incumbent on them to look to someone who would be able to maintain the status quo, someone able to protect the prevailing political order. LBJ was no longer able to do that, so he declined to seek re-election, hoping that Nixon would be elected insofar as he, Nixon, was not the "wimp" LBJ deemed Humphrey to be. Further, Nixon ran as "the peace candidate" even though he had no plan, secret or otherwise, to get peace. But by running as "the peace candidate," Nixon, following Johnson's example, co-opted "the peace movement" which embraced a kind of politics both Nixon and LBJ thought inane and dangerous, both to the nation and to them and their political class. The media went along with talk about "the new Nixon" and his "secret plan" to end the war because it served the interests of the prevailing political order, in which they were invested along with the prevailing political class.

Like another, more recent book,, "Nixonland," Greenberg's book is based on and helps to fortify the view that Richard Nixon possessed some special qualities, that is, qualities not possessed by other, more ordinary politicians. This makes for drama, even for what might be called "tragedy," as in "the tragedy of Richard Nixon, a great man with a tragic flaw." But, in fact, Richard Nixon was little more than an ambitious, manipulating human being whose viciousness and vacuousness was hidden with the help of the media and others. There is no tragedy here, just another illustration of how our politics is, for the most part, smoke and mirrors.

Monday, February 3, 2014

American Politics: Progressives and Renegades

American Politics: Progressives and Renegades
P. Schultz
February 3, 2014

            And, slowly, the light dawns. Things begin to make sense. So let me begin.

            I have been reading three books. First, there is The Bully Pulpit: T. Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Second, there is Island of Vice: T. Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. And third, there is A Renegade History of the United States. And here is what emerged from these three books.

            First, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. This is a rather conventional history of Roosevelt and Taft, although I am more interested in Roosevelt right now than I am in Taft. More especially, I am interested in Goodwin’s account of TR as a police commissioner in New York City in the 1890’s, where he served as president of the police board, a board of four men allegedly bipartisan. Roosevelt and the board were considered to be “reformist” which meant then that the members were not part of Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine that had, on and off, controlled city politics in New York City.

            What Goodwin writes about is TR’s commitment to “reform,” which meant, for the most part, going after corrupt policemen, drinking, prostitution, and dancing. Roosevelt and the board shut down, or tried to shut down, the saloons on Sunday because that was what NY law required. And this is, as noted above, all quite conventional on Goodwin’s part, as is her assessment of TR’s activities that sometime read like she takes herself to be Roosevelt’s publicist. For example, Goodwin writes that TR was “convinced….that the only way to pry out…the taproot of corruption in the police force was through the strict enforcement of the law requiring that saloons be closed on Sunday.” [p. 209] Nowhere does Goodwin question this conviction, presenting it as a fact and grounding it in the expertise of Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens, two of New York’s most prominent and competent journalists.

            But through it all, and especially after reading Island of Vice by Richard Zacks, who goes into much more detail about Roosevelt’s time as police commissioner and who gives a much fuller picture of the controversy TR and the board created in the city, it is the intensity of TR’s actions that left me puzzled. And in Zacks account, unlike Goodwin’s, the discriminatory character of TR’s actions in, for example, closing the saloons on Sunday is crystal clear. That is, the reforms that TR was pursuing fell much more strongly on the middle and lower classes than they did on the upper classes, who could still drink on Sundays in their private clubs because they were private clubs.
            Zacks also provides context that Goodwin does not, especially about the job that the police were expected to do at that time, thereby rendering their “corruption,” as it were, more understandable. The police were expected to perform various functions they no longer perform today, such as inspecting buildings and overseeing elections. They were also, as patrolmen, required to work through the night, walking beats alone, for not a lot of money and with little time to recover or recuperate.

            So, given these circumstances, I was left puzzled as to why TR and others took the cause of “reform” so seriously, pursued it with such intensity, and defended it with such vitriolic rhetoric. In one meeting, Roosevelt compared those who disagreed with his campaign to close the saloons on Sundays to “lynchers and white-cappers (i.e., white-hooded Klansmen)” and he said that selective enforcement of the laws in these matters “inevitably lead to anarchy and violence.” [p. 139]

            But then as I read A Renegade History of the United States, by Thaddeus Russell, this intensity, this agenda and its purposes began to make sense. As Russell wrote: “Looking back from the twenty-first century, it may be hard to imagine that most Americans in the nineteenth century believed materialism was evil, thrift was virtuous, and the pursuit of pleasure was dangerous at best.” [p. 208] That is, what lay at the base of what is called “progressivism” was a concern with “the amusement problem.” For example, in 1875, Carroll D. Wright working for the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics, found in studying the spending habits of ordinary Americans a bothersome, for him, tendency to spend on pleasure. “Most troubling was the quantity of alcohol being consumed, its effects on general spending habits, and the resulting aggressiveness of workers for higher wages.” [ibid.] These phenomena, Wright contended, undermined sobriety, industriousness, and thriftiness.

            As Russell summarizes: “This ascetic ideal was one of the criteria of respectability in nineteenth century America. Indulgence in luxury was seen by both the wealthy and large portions of the working class as un-American.” [p. 212] And this last phrase is, it seems to me, the key. What the progressives were after was the “Americanization” of everyone, a result that meant that all would behave in certain socially acceptable ways and would identify themselves – or their “selfs,” it might be said – with being “American” through and through. The pursuit of pleasure, for example, the pleasures of drinking or dancing, was an obstacle to this “Americanization” of the self. Read the following, written by one progressive investigator:

“The longer and the intenser the hours of labour, the more debasing the forms of recreation become…the saloon will exist as long as there is overwork…Dancing is another of the pleasures of the senses, innocent and delightful in itself but often debased to the most vicious uses, and, when accompanied by drinking, as is the case with public dance halls, is frequently provocative of sensuality. Dancing is often loved as drink in loved. It is the element of abandon, of relief from the absolute deadness that comes from overwork that can find pleasure only in the most highly stimulating forms of amusement.” [p. 213]

            As Russell summarized: There was “bourgeois disgust over the new working-class culture [that] took the form of well-organized campaigns against drinking, prostitution, and venereal disease, and in the moral condemnation of working-class spending habits.” [p. 214] And this seems an apt description of TR’s and the police commission’s “reforms” and their motivation. In this light, the intensity that was puzzling seems to evaporate in understanding. Dancing and drinking are phenomena that are inconsistent with being, through and through, an American insofar as Americans are defined by an ascetic ideal that privileges work over leisure and “Spartan simplicity” – the phrase is that of Henry David Thoreau – over pleasure. And, most importantly then, the intensity of TR’s “reform” spirit is explained not by moralism but by the fact that these reforms were part of a political agenda intended to change American life by purifying everyone of any “un-American” tendencies or practices. This is, of course, important work.

            So, what’s the light that dawned? Well, that this project is on-going even today. As those who follow my blog know, I have been arguing that most political activity in the U.S. can be explained, understood as dedicated to maintaining the status quo. And such dedication is, I think, very real, especially in the aftermath of the latest “recession” after which there was a lot of popular unrest as reflected by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Some changes were required. The trick was to limit these changes to the periphery and to ensure that those changes that were made, such as Affordable Care Act, not go too far and thereby undermine the prevailing order.

            But now it seems to me that there is more to the prevailing political activity in the U.S. than simply preserving the status quo. The goal is to “Americanize” the American people, that is, to have them identify as nothing more than human beings who are part of a social order and who draw their sustenance from that order while committing themselves to it wholeheartedly. We the people must put aside any characteristics or loyalties that are not, fully and deeply, American. “Blacks” are or become “African-Americans,” while gays and lesbians will be offered the opportunity to become full-blown Americans by marrying, as marriage was and is one of the allegedly defining characteristics of “Americanism.”

            In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when women were entering the workplace with increasing frequency, the “reformers” were concerned because they saw these women as “dangerous, renegade ‘women adrift” because they refused “to limit themselves to the obligations of daughters, wives, and mothers.” [p. 216] “By 1910…’women increasingly frequented saloons’” and it was even noted by some “reformers” that “not all the women in a West side saloon were prostitutes.” [p. 217] To quote historian, Kathy Peiss: “Far from inculcating good business habits, discipline, and a desire for quiet evenings at home, the work place reinforced the wage earner’s interest in having a good time.” [Quoted in Russell, p. 217] And in this light, it is interesting that Roosevelt, in defending his efforts to close saloons on Sundays, saw this as a way of ensuring that families would spend Sundays at the parks, together in peace and harmony.

            Today, as illustrated by legitimation of gay and lesbian marriage, the challenges are different but the project is, I think, the same. But in many ways, the challenges are not different at all. For example, in the early 1900s it was necessary to get Americans to accept our budding empire, as evidenced by our occupation of the Philippines and our frequent interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America, including the building of the Panama Canal. Today, for the same reasons, we are inundated with the heroism of our soldiers and with arguments that the U.S. is the indispensable nation in the world.

            Moreover, even our alleged “conservatives” want to nationalize our schools’ curricula, ostensibly for the sake of “reform” and “improvement” of education as measured by standardized tests. It is, however, pretty easy to see that the real motivation is “nationalization” and, of course, in that regard “standardization.” And the movement for charter schools, it is rather interesting to note, seems to present no challenge to this standardization or “Americanization.” Almost no proponent of charter schools that I know of has defended them as facilitating less standardization. The arguments are almost all couched in administrative or bureaucratic terms or in terms of lessening the power of teachers’ unions.

            In fact, I think a good argument can be made that both political parties and both our “liberals” and our “conservatives” share a commitment to this project of “Americanization.” Hence, almost no one in the current political class is willing to take on our “militarization” or the current patriotic fervor so evident in the nation. But even if liberals and conservatives  might choose different means by which to “Americanize” us, they still may be said to share that common goal. Both want to make individuality or what Russell would call “renegadeness” disappear into a life-long and almost all consuming commitment to being “American.” And as TR knew so well, a little war – or even a rather long war – every now and again is a great way to submerge people in the nation’s cause. It is then that individuality disappears and that people recognize the need to sacrifice, even to sacrifice themselves, for the sake of America.