Monday, December 23, 2013
This is an archive edition of AHN that first appeared in 2010. The second half of my Milton lecture will appear next week. Best wishes to all for a happily restful holiday week and a productive 2014.
Jim is observing Christmas. Not "the holidays," not "the season," but Christmas. On balance, the United States is probably still statistically a Christian nation, but its elite is largely secular, and that which isn't is religiously diverse.
Insofar as Christmas really is a minority observance among the people whose eyes may cross this blog, I don't regard that as a problem. Notwithstanding complaints on the part of some, there is no "war" on Christmas. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, if not hostile, to Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism (which I practice) in particular. But I don't think you have to be religious or Christian to find hope and cheer in a scenario of a poor child in a remote place coming into the world and transforming it by the power of word and example. And that a few wise men would sense something afoot and seek out the child (as well as a powerful satrap who would be thwarted in the attempt to find and kill a future rival). As would become clear over time, that child was never meant to be a secular king. His work, and his legacy, would prove more durable.
Merry Christmas to all. -- J.C.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Interesting Times (Part II)
The following is the second segment of my 2013 Heyburn Lecture, delivered this month at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. The first segment is below; subsequent posts will follow.
In the faux-Chinese sense of the term, the last interesting time in U.S. history was the Second World War. That war was interesting in any sense of the term: fascinating, frightening, challenging, momentous. It called for the expenditure of blood and treasure on an epic scale unprecedented in our national history. We can talk about some of the details later. But you don’t need me to tell you that the struggle against Japan and Germany in 1941-45 was one of the truly big events in the history of the world and had a tremendous impact on our subsequent national history. You know that. You’ve picked it up by osmosis in the movies you’ve seen, the stories you’ve heard, the classes you’ve taken.
Here are some other things you also know – things you may not have been told but instantly grasp if you haven’t: that a nation waging two wars on either side of an ocean at the same time was a major accomplishment. That in the process, hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the conflict, causing untold grief to their loved ones and depriving the survivors of their talents and untapped potential. And that a lot of developments that happened after the war have origins in the war, whether in the realm of technology (computers, space travel), social change (women in the workplace), or subsequent political struggles (all those Communists).
And here’s something else you’ve always known: our side won. Winning meant some very big and obvious things. Some of those things can be defined in negative terms, in the sense of what didn’t happen or what was stopped: the enslavement of the Koreans and Chinese at the hands of the Japanese; the end of a Holocaust that had already engulfed millions and would have engulfed millions more. Societies that had been liberal democracies before the war, notably Great Britain, were able to resume their way of life.
Other good things that happened can be defined in more positive terms. Our two great adversaries were reconstructed, also as liberal democracies, an outcome that was certainly a matter of self-interest, but also one that led to the creation of prosperous societies that allowed them to take their place in the family of nations with a degree of prominence and influence appropriate to the notable talents of their peoples. More generally, the victory of the United States and its allies in the Second World War resulted in the creation of a world order that was highly favorable to the United States, even if that order seemed continually under threat by its enemies and the long shadow of nuclear destruction.
I should concede: that’s a big “if.” The fear of Communism – from the Soviet Union, followed soon thereafter by the triumph of a Communist regime in China – loomed very large and very dark in the consciousness of Americans in the years following the war. What loomed even larger and darker was the legacy of the Pandora’s Box that got opened when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, an event with terrifying implications that loomed larger a mere four years later when the Soviets detonated nuclear weapons as well. Many Americans were confused and angry that after achieving such a decisive victory, now subject to instant apocalypse at any time. They asked questions like “Who lost China?” as if China was ever really ours to lose.
But in a way that could only be fully appreciated in retrospect (though some observers did sense it at the time), the terrible danger posed by prospect of human catastrophe – captured by the phrase “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) – had the effect of restraining the United States and its rivals, diverting their tensions into a series of smaller wars fought around the globe for a half-century. The people caught in the middle of these struggles – in places like Korea and Guatemala, Iran and Vietnam – were forced to live through interesting times indeed. Some of these struggles seemed more justified for the United States than others (very few of them were truly necessary). And some, notably Vietnam, proved quite costly in any number of terms. But in some literal as well as figurative sense, all these conflicts were far away to most Americans, even if they captured the public’s fitful attention, and even if they pierced the hearts, minds and souls of some Americans some of the time.
Because that’s one of the two most important things that the World War II bought for the United States: distance. For most of its history, the nation enjoyed the incalculable advantage of being oceans apart from any people who posed a threat to its territorial security. Instead, it continually encroached on its neighbors, especially native peoples, in every direction. U.S. victory in the Second World War guaranteed secure territorial boundaries – with layers of insulation reaching half a world away – and made it possible, notwithstanding persistent anxiety, that the danger of foreign occupation would be remote. I’m sure you’ve had any number of worries during your high school years. But territorial conquest of your dormitory hasn’t been one of them. And hasn’t been since Milton Academy was founded in 1798, though there was a war scare with France that year.
The other important thing World War II bought the United States was time. It could live for decades off the economic and political gains it reaped from victory in the war. It was this moment, more than any other, where the mass pursuit – and fulfillment – of what I call “the Dream of the Coast” was realized. As I explain, the Coast is both literal (as in West Coast, more specifically California, the epicenter of the postwar American Dream) and figurative (“coast” as a verb, as in gliding frictionlessly from aspiration to reality).
Again: the nation was prosperous before the Second World War, and its international stature had been rising. But the war brought about what one famous journalist dubbed “the American Century,” an era of prosperity and internal stability – a Dream of the Good Life – that is the hallmark of all great empires, whatever political shape they may happen to assume.
This, more than anything else, has been your inheritance. It’s not just that many of the hallmarks of modern life – the interstate highways that stitch the nation together; the World Wide Web that does virtually the same thing; the mass availability of colleges and universities that represent the most concrete embodiments of your aspirations – all date from the Second World War or experienced a turning point because of it. It’s also important to note that the basic governing institutions of your life have been sufficiently functional that the closing of such traffic has been the exception, not the rule. You expect the electricity to work, the stores to be open, the holidays to be observed. Disruptions like terrorism are scary precisely because they’re so extraordinary. That Frisbee that sails across the quad; that dog you’re walking through the woods; that laundry in the dryer that’s clean and warm: it’s all been bought, and maintained, with blood.
It’s not that there haven’t been memorable moments of domestic unrest. Clearly, there have been such moments, some severe. But the most important disruptions in the lifetimes of your older relatives, like the Civil Rights movement – an event that also had deep roots in the Second World War – were usually the product of rising expectations, not falling ones. Prosperity has a way of bringing internal conflicts to the fore.
To a great extent, the gains procured by the Civil Rights movement and other struggles that followed in its wake reflected the persistence, ingenuity, and morality of those who sought to secure and expand social justice. But they also reflected a calculation on the part of people in power that they could afford to accommodate such expansions, a calculation rooted in the dividends paid by victory in the Second World War. This did not necessarily mean such people were enlightened. Nor did it mean that the nation was inexorably evolving in the direction of Progress, though the economic logic of the time suggested that calls for redistribution of wealth could be resolved by making the proverbial pie bigger, not cutting it differently. The margins were somehow wider, the possibilities greater, even if there were limits, as there always are, as to how much those in positions of entrenched privilege are been willing to concede to those who challenge them.
Next: The end of Post WWII Victory culture and what it means for you.
Next: The end of Post WWII Victory culture and what it means for you.
Monday, December 16, 2013
Interesting Times (Part I)
The following is the first segment of my 2013 Heyburn Lecture, delivered this month at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. Subsequent posts will follow.
Okay. So here’s my opening statement: You have not lived in interesting times. Neither have your parents. Nor your grandparents.
Perhaps this strikes you as a strange, if not ridiculous or pointless, assertion. You may be willing to concede that not all that much has happened in your short, twenty-first century, lives. You had pretty much just arrived, and barely remember, September 11, 2001, a truly terrible day in our national history – and “terrible,” whatever else it may be, certainly qualifies as “interesting.” Maybe you’d point to what seems to have been a fairly rapid social change in law and attitude regarding gay marriage. Or wars in Iraq or Afghanistan – these were big, long conflicts that have affected the lives of lots of people.
But even if you would concede you have not come of age in interesting times, you’re less likely to concede the point on behalf of your elders: they have had some interesting times. The creation of the Internet. Feminism. The Civil Rights Movement. Surely these events count as interesting. The mere fact that you, who will avow that you really don’t know all that much, have at some point been told about such things suggests that they count for something. And even if they did not, you could point to a relative who had a struggle or triumph that would qualify as “interesting” in more than a narrow way, because such a personal drama – financial setbacks, discrimination, entrepreneurial success, whatever – took place against some larger historical backdrop.
I take the point. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of these events at a personal level, any more than I want to diminish my own lived experience or that of my own parents and children. It’s not that such things don’t matter; they matter a great deal, not only on an individual level but also as emblems of the American experience more generally. That poor treatment your grandmother suffered as part of the larger saga of exclusion or inequality in our national life; that business your dad started as a little piece of the American Dream: they’re reflections of a shared national experience. But again, the fact that such stories unfolded in the last 75 years means that they haven’t happened in interesting times.
Maybe by now you’re zeroing in on “interesting”: what’s that supposed to mean? Maybe you’ve heard the reputedly ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” In that understated way we westerners sometimes associate with Asians, we grasp the irony that “interesting” is actually a euphemism for “chaotic,” or “dangerous,” or just plain “horrible.” Ironically, there’s little evidence that the aphorism is widely known among the Chinese; the clearest recent documentation of the phrase that I’ve found comes from the correspondence of a British diplomat in China in the 1930s. Reeling from decades of colonial exploitation, ripped apart by civil war, overrun by foreign invaders: times simply don’t get much more “interesting” than they were in China during the thirties. Even the greatest, most stable civilizations are subject to moments of great upheaval, and China has had several in its storied history. But this was surely among the worst. There aren’t many people alive in China who lived through those days, but the collective memory of such events are what make the nation’s revival a source of shared pride.
By comparison, there haven’t been all that many “interesting” times in American history. The earliest days of colonial history certainly qualify in terms of danger, brutality, and uncertainty. So does the American Revolution. And the Civil War. As do any number of serious economic downturns before the calamity of the Great Depression in the 1930s. All through and between these periods, there were groups of people who subjected to systematic suffering: their times never ceased to be anything but interesting. Yet their stories, real and rich as they are, were woven into the fabric of nation’s master narrative only recently. They have not been deemed interesting in the more conventional sense of the term: commanding the attention of others to the point of being documented and recollected. History is in some sense the conversation between a shifting cast of characters who are understood to constitute a people at any given time. Part of which involves the discovery or recovery of that which was perceived as lost.
Next: The last interesting time: World War II.
Next: The last interesting time: World War II.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Place in Time (Part VI)
What might all this discussion of regionalism mean for you? That of course depends at least a bit on who “you” are, i.e. where you’re coming from in some literal or figurative way. (I, for my part, am the grandson of an Italian immigrant whose extended family, much of it Irish, is almost exclusively Mid-Atlantic by birth. But by marriage, education, and temperament, I am decidedly a Yankee in cultural affiliation.) Insofar as these regional themes I’m talking about have any reality, they include plenty of exceptions. You can find Chinese food in Tulsa (maybe not good Chinese food), and hear good bluegrass music in Manhattan (maybe not real bluegrass). Even overwhelmingly Republican Texas has Democratic pockets – which may soon become more than pockets as the racial complexion of the state changes. There are plenty of reasons, and ways, the nation-state will hold. Like our motto says, e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”).
On the other hand, there’s no reason to think the borders of the United States will remain permanent. Considered solely as a matter of topography, there’s nothing particularly cohesive about a stretch of continent that’s marked by large stretches of forest, plains, desert, and mountains, and which over the course of the last few thousand years has been the home of a wide variety of peoples who interacted with each other was well as lived in relative isolation. And many of our state boundaries – consider the rectangles that constitute the Dakotas, for example – are really matters of fictive convenience. Should the pressures, internal or external, become great enough, different pieces of the nation could break off or recombine in ways that are hard to foresee, but not exactly random, either.
Does that thought sadden you? At times it saddens me, though I’ll confess I find myself exasperated enough with the kinds of things I hear or see coming out of South Carolina and find myself thinking our lives would be a lot easier if we went our separate ways. I get annoyed at the way Idahoans complain about the intrusiveness of the federal government, even as they depend on it for the roads, jobs, and markets that keep it afloat. In recent years I’ve heard secessionist noise coming out of Texas, to which I feel inclined to say, “erring sisters, go in peace,” especially since I regard the circumstances by which Texas entered the Union to be highly dubious. On the other hand, I’m not sure any of the rest of the nation was much, if any, less so as a matter of moral legitimacy.
The real point of this particular conversation is less about making predictions or arguing for the value of one part of the country over the other than it is asking you to consider what you consider important about your national identity. What do you think it means to be an American? Is it a landscape, a set of habits, or a series of ideas? Are the things you value rooted more in one part of the continent than another? How bad would you feel if some part of it were to break off? And lastly, and more importantly: where – and how – do you want to live? If you’re lucky, you may have some choice in the matter. Try and exercise it wisely.
Friday, December 6, 2013
Freely Unequal (Part V)
The following is the final post in a series on freedom and equality in U.S. history. Previous posts are below.
There are two answers to the thorny problem of maintaining equality of opportunity while allowing for inequality of outcomes in contemporary American life. The first is to refurbish the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity with a new term: meritocracy. The idea here is that your going to this school, or getting that job, is a matter of deserving it after a fashion – not having earned it exactly, but indicating a degree of promise that makes conferring privilege a safe bet. But how does one measure this notion of fitness? Supposedly with things like grades and test scores. But they often raised as many questions as they answered. (Does the test measure what matters? Can it be gamed? Is it ethnocentric?) People whose job it was to serve as gatekeepers of privilege took the edge of any obvious or suspicious sense that the game was rigged by defining merit not simply as a matter of empirical things like test scores or grades, but having had experiences of adversity that one can plausibly believe will season one for success. So it was that Affirmative Action and meritocracy came of age together in the last third of the 20th century, even though they really represent distinct, and perhaps conflicting, bases on which to measure merit.
My point here is not to challenge the worthiness of any particular beneficiary of this system. (A scholarship boy who rode good grades into a decent living, I am in many ways a beneficiary of it.) My point here is that whatever its benefits, meritocracy has served to make inequality stronger. Stronger, I think, than it really should be. We should be more suspicious of inequality, less lulled into a sense of complacency that it isn’t slavery.
Again: I recognize that inequality may not only be inevitable, but actually useful. Certainly there are advantages to everyone in rewarding talented people whose skills, inherited and acquired, stand to benefit all of us. And given the inevitability that privilege is always going to be parceled out in arbitrary ways – to quote the truism, life is unfair – we need some mechanism for sorting people. The problem is that we tend to have more faith in this system than we should. For one thing, talent and skill isn’t always, or even often, enlisted to benefit all of us. For another, that mechanism can create the impression that life is more fair than it really is. The result is that we tend to give inequality a pass in way we don’t when it comes to slavery.
Here’s a thought experiment for you. Let’s say we did away with the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity and accepted the reality of inequality of condition as the more pervasive and fixed reality that it really is. Instead of telling you that there’s nothing you can’t be, you would be told not to follow your dreams, that dreaming is a foolish and even counterproductive proposition, and that you belong in a fixed stratum of society. The key to success in your life would be understanding your the possibilities and limits of the role you have been assigned. Part of that understanding would involve a sense of reciprocal responsibility: the people “above” you, whatever that might mean, would have obligations to you, and you would have obligations to those “below” you. People wouldn’t necessarily meet those obligations, but you would at least have that standard by which to measure them.
My guess is that this doesn’t sound that attractive to you. But it’s not chattel slavery – the owner of the slave has no obligation to his property – and in fact resembles some relationships in everyday life today, like that of parent and child. It sounds a feudal in its dynamic of lord/vassal relations, but as a matter of fact, such an order has prevailed for most of human history in one form or another (typically as a class system). To be sure, it has its oppressions, and the history of western life in the last 250 years has essentially been one long rebellion against it, a rebellion in which the United States has long been at the vanguard and which has been substantially, though not completely, successful (again, in large measure because we are at least partially drawn to that against which we rebel). But it doesn’t lie – or at least lie in the same way – about what inequality is, how it works, how and attached we are to it. It also establishes a standard of accountability by which inequality can at least be rejected, and re-established on a sounder basis.
I doubt this pitch of mine is convincing you, and as an elite white man who has been a beneficiary of the status quo, it’s unseemly for me to tell you that you shouldn’t want what I have and/or that you’d really be happier with an order where you knew, and accepted, your place. My real goal here is less ideological than historical: I want you to see the social order in which you live as a socially contingent one that came about for a series of specific reasons based on things that happened in the past. That social order has a logic to it – there are good reasons why things are the way they are. Not good in the sense of virtuous; good in the sense of understandable. Actually, there are aspects of the way things are that are not good in any moral sense, that reflect collective dishonesty, hypocrisy, fear. Knowing that things have been different – that other societies have not made the mistakes we have, and have not been subject to the same hypocrisies – doesn’t necessarily make them better. Almost always, there are tradeoffs involved. Chances are you’re going to want to stick with what you know. In all times and places, this is what humans tend to do. As no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson explained in the Declaration of Independence, “all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” That’s why a little rebellion can be a good thing. (A lot of rebellion tends to replace one form of oppression with another.)
And that’s what I suggesting here: that when it comes to inequality, you should be a little rebellious. You simply don’t have the power to change all that much, and even if you did, you have a deeply human desire for distinction, to savor the experience of inequality. But you should try to resist it. That’s why I invite to ask yourself when you find yourself in a formal or informal social situation: What kind of inequality is taking place here? What realities does it reflect? Do I like what I’m seeing? Do I need it? Is there anything I can do to make it better, whether in terms of word, gesture, or act?
I know: this isn’t going to happen all that often. But it doesn’t need to for you to achieve the best kind of distinction in a democratic republic: that of a good citizen.
One last thing. I need to point out that however great his hostility to slavery, Abraham Lincoln believed deeply in the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity. He experienced is as a living reality, and described it with typically vivid, simple prose the year before he became president – prose that helped him become president:
There is no such thing as a man who is a hired laborer, of a necessity, always remaining in his early condition. The general rule is otherwise. I know it is so; and I will tell you why. When at an early age, I was myself a hired laborer, at twelve dollars per month; and therefore I do know that there is not always the necessity for actual labor because once there was propriety in being so. My understanding of the hired laborer is this: A young man finds himself of an age to be dismissed from parental control; he has for his capital nothing, save two strong hands that God has given him, a heart willing to labor, and a freedom to choose the mode of his work and the manner of his employer; he has got no soil nor shop, and he avails himself of the opportunity of hiring himself to some man who has capital to pay him a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. He is benefited by availing himself of that privilege. He works industriously, he behaves soberly, and the result of a year or two’s labor is a surplus of capital. Now he buys land on his own hook; he settles, marries, begets sons and daughters, and in course of time he too has enough capital to hire some new beginner.
It’s a beautiful vision. And it may even be true in the 21st century. I want to believe it is. But I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that it’s not as easy as Lincoln makes it sound. I believe that were he around today, Lincoln would say that if inequality is not wrong, it’s wrong more often we’re willing to admit. And that we should fight its spread. That, I think, is what Lincoln would do. You agree?
Monday, December 2, 2013
Freely Unequal (Part IV)
You’re probably familiar with a very old and tiresome debate about whether the Civil War was really fought over slavery or holding maintaining the Union. The key to understanding Lincoln’s achievement as a politician, military leader, and moral visionary is the way in which he was able to convince most of the American people that the only way to save the Union was to end slavery, because the people who were trying to rend the Union were using their slaves to aid the cause, and that only by depriving them of this resource (by emancipating their slaves, enlisting African Americans in the armed forces, and putting the whole issue to rest by ending slavery everywhere) could the nation proceed.
In the long run – certainly not right away, when he lost political support and suffered military setbacks – Lincoln won that argument. He won it as a matter of military policy (the Emancipation Proclamation), as a matter of law (the Thirteenth Amendment), and as matter of enshrining as common sense that slavery simply didn’t work anymore, urging his fellow Americans to dedicate themselves, as he put it in his Gettysburg Address, to a “new birth of freedom.” Within a few years of the end of the Civil War, even the seceded Southern states accepted this proposition, however grudgingly, as the price of their reintegration into national life.
Not that former slaveholders, or their many non-slaveholding allies, became any less racist. Indeed, in many cases there were more determined than ever to keep the newly freed slaves in their place, to use a phrase much favored by such people. Denied slavery, they turned to the next best – maybe even better – thing: inequality. The principal, but by no means only, avenue by which it was achieved was racial segregation. At first, given the efforts of Northern, especially abolitionist, politicians to hold the defeated region in check, segregation was primarily a matter of social inequality, practiced on a local level. Later, as U.S. public opinion became fatigued by the cost, literal and figurative, of the process of Reconstruction, segregation became increasingly political as well. By the end of the 19th century, a Jim Crow regime with pervasive legal, economic, and personal dimensions was cemented in place, and would remain there for a half a century.
But it wasn’t slavery. That’s what we kept telling ourselves. Poll taxes, literacy tests, even lynchings: not slavery. Nor were other forms of inequality: discrimination against immigrants. Exploitative wages that approached, if not crossed the line, into wage slavery. A refusal to let women vote. You might not like these policies, they might even be wrong. But they’re not slavery. Not chattel slavery, anyway.
For some kinds of inequality, particularly those where it wasn’t easy to draw clear lines of race or gender that could be used as an obvious basis of discrimination, there was another tool at hand to justify the status quo: the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity. Of course, not everyone is rich, this doctrine goes. But anyone can be rich. Or go to an elite school. Or whatever. Equality of opportunity does not necessarily mean that one can attain these things easily, or that it won’t be easier for some people than for others. It simply says such things are possible – effortlessly for some, perhaps, but attainable for anyone who wants them badly enough. So it is that the principle equality of opportunity allows the reality of equality of outcome.
Which, again, we all want too badly to let go of. In fact, we want it so badly that we’re willing not to peer all that hard about just how we define opportunity or just how broad it is. Having it remain a little fuzzy makes inequality of condition easier to maintain.
In the twentieth century, however, those old, seemingly clear, lines of race and gender became increasingly problematic. The doctrine of Equality of Opportunity didn’t apply if there were formal rules in place that barred you from even playing the game. In such cases, the gap between theoretical inclusion and the reality of exclusion became glaring, even frightening, in terms of what it might portend if allowed to continue, especially on the part of elites anxious to justify their unequal status to themselves, other Americans, and foreigners. Thanks to the Civil Rights movement, many of these formal barriers were removed. No longer could inequality be officially justified on the basis of race – or race alone. Women and people of other races began appearing, usually in small numbers, at exclusive sites of privilege – schools, clubs, neighborhoods – whose appeal, whose actual essence, was inequality. The question now was how to protect minority status when anyone – even those other minorities – could in theory participate.
Next: The uneasy marriage of meritocracy and affirmative action as partners in the quest for equality today.
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