Saturday, June 25, 2011

June 25, 2011
My dear wife and I play a little game. I suggest that we move to Europe and she shakes her head and rolls her eyes, no doubt wondering why, if I must be foolish, I don’t find a more entertaining format. My motivation has been to save time, expense and discomfort on vacation trips: “if we lived in England, we wouldn’t have to endure nine hours in coach to visit the West Country,” etc. She acknowledges the logic of my argument but points out that housing is expensive there, the dollar is weak, we aren’t exactly wealthy (and even further from that status than three years ago), we’d be thousands of miles from the family, am I going to move all those books and what about the dog? Good arguments all, so I subside.
However, the desire, illogical or not, is growing, and for reasons unrelated to the logistics of travel. I am becoming increasingly depressed about the state of the union and wish — intermittently, perhaps never quite seriously — that I could leave. My remedy may be unrealistic, but the dissatisfaction is genuine and not without basis; here is a brief list:

• wars, costing thousands of lives and driving us into massive debt,
• tax cuts which further increase the debt while creating a financial aristocracy and allowing our infrastructure, physical and otherwise, to crumble,
• cries of “socialism” whenever anything progressive is proposed, such as bringing decent health care to more people,
• a financial system which operates to enrich insiders rather than to support the economy, and which resists regulation but profits from public bailouts,
• conservative rejection not only of compassion, but of the principle of sharing and common enterprise which is fundamental to civilized society,
• libertarian delusions about rugged individualism and minimal government,
• conservative rejection of science and most aspects of reality,
• a flood of guns and libertarian-conservative determination to arm everyone,
• the power of money, hardly a new development, but increasingly dominating politics,
• a Supreme Court content to allow the previous two trends to continue,
• a mania for privatization, in part based on an illusion about efficiency, in part the result of the refusal to tax the wealthy,
• accusations that the President is a foreigner, a communist, a fascist, or the antichrist, many of them masking racial bigotry,
• suppression of unions, undermining of pensions, and denigration of public employment,
• a shallow, often repellant, celebrity-ridden culture,
• ninnies running for the Republican nomination,
• pathetic news media which ignore when they do not abet these developments, and
• a supposedly liberal president who does little to earn the label.
To conservatives, this critique and my proposed solution no doubt mark me as something less than a real American, certainly unqualified to offer opinions about this country, polity and society. I wonder. They too denounce the present condition of the country. Although such true Americans would reject physical emigration, they too wish to escape, into an earlier, more primitive time, dragging the rest of us along.
Like most Americans, I have thought of this as an extraordinary country. I have considered myself lucky to have been born here. I have believed, in the words of the Gettysburg Address, that we are “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” that we have a “government of the people, by the people, for the people. . . .” However, those words no longer describe us, and have been repudiated by Lincoln’s party.
This condition has been developing for decades, but it has come to its full flowering now, and is epitomized, appropriately, by something mundane: the Ryan budget. A book gathering dust on my shelves is entitled Setting National Priorities: The 1980 Budget. Budgets are boring but, as the title states, the federal budget sets, and reflects, national priorities. Ours are a disgrace.
Tony Judt, in his book Ill Fares the Land, noted that “the symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us. Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid, and the uninsured . . . .” He added that these “all suggest a collective failure of will.”59 As to liberals, that is true: will, courage, self-confidence, even real conviction seem absent. As to conservatives, however, the problem is not a failure of will but an ideological inability to address such issues.
Conservatives are fond of claiming that their world view is taken directly from the principles on which the nation was founded, but there is much error and self-delusion in that belief. For example, they refer constantly to “liberty,” but their concept of it is oddly narrow, generally coming down to a defense of business. That does not even have the distinction of being a novel misinterpretation. Judt pointed this out: “Indeed, the thought that we might restrict public policy considerations to a mere economic calculus was already a source of concern two centuries ago.” He noted that Condorcet “anticipated with distaste the prospect that ‘liberty will be no more . . . than the necessary condition for the security of financial operations.’ " 60 Moving from the Eighteenth Century to the Nineteenth, we find that Hegel also criticized this misuse of terminology and concept: “When liberty is mentioned, we must always be careful to observe whether it is not really private interests which are being discussed.”61 Hegel had in mind the landed aristocracy, but his comment applies as well to the plutocracy that Republicans defend in the Twenty-First.
About all one can hope for is that, undeterred by shame, logic or responsibility, the Right will push the new paradigm to the breaking point, and a disgusted public, finally enlightened, will elect rational officials and demand enactment and enforcement of sensible policies.


59. P. 12. Also included in an article in The New York Review of Books, April 29, 2010.
60. Ill Fares the Land, p. 35
61. The Philosophy of History, Fourth Part, Section III, Chapter II, in The Philosophy of Hegel, Friedrich ed., p. 133 (Modern Library)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

June 16, 2011
Recently I came across an apt description of our situation.

The poor grow poorer and the rich become richer: “The distance which separates the rich from other citizens is growing daily . . ." “Their share of national wealth [is] enormous.”
Public finance is a sham: “The most extraordinary of all expenditure is that incurred by war. . . financed . . . entirely by loans. No new taxation was imposed . . . .” “Nobody asked about extraordinary accounts, where the real cost of the war was recorded.”
As to the mentality of the public: “Belief in plots and conspiracies” is a “sign of the credulity of the times.” That mind-set seeks “simple, universal formulae to resolve any problem, no matter how complex.”
Of course, you have guessed that I am playing historical games; those are comments on France shortly before the collapse of the ancien rĂ©gime.57 However, there is little that is really new, so the analogy is instructive. As The Preacher put it, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. . . . There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to happen among those who come after.”58 In other words, we will continue to make the same mistakes, forever.

57. Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, pp. 23, 65, 67
58. Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, Revised Standard Version

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

June 14, 2011
Two cartoons sum up the state of political action about the sagging economy and unemployment. Stuart Carlson’s latest 55 shows President Obama as FDR, saying: “I was thinking of launching an ambitious, historic public employment program to put America back to work, but then I thought . . . Naaaah!” Today’s by Tom Toles 56 shows the GOP elephant at a podium bragging “We starved the beast!” Behind him is a dead cat labeled Economic Recovery next to an empty bowl labeled Austerity. There is our choice: inactivity or counterproductive ideology.
Meanwhile, length of unemployment is at an all-time high and the infrastructure is crumbling.


Monday, June 13, 2011

June 13, 2011
This is a postscript of a sort to my posting of June 4. In the last paragraph there, I referred to Page Smith’s use of the term “redemption.” His usage was not casual or unique; the last volume of his U.S. history, published in 1987, was entitled Redeeming the Time .51 The phrase is borrowed from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In the course of advising them how to live and to conduct themselves, Paul said, “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”52 Modern translations drop the word “redeeming,” and produce something like this: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”53 The former is not altogether clear: how does one redeem time? The latter uses more a familiar phrase but it still doesn’t quite track: the word “because” seems out of place; should one not make the best use of time when days are not evil? A more cogent modern version is this paraphrased rendering: “Make the best use of your time, despite all the difficulties of these days.”54
Leaving aside the amateur exegesis, when I read Redeeming the Time years ago, I was puzzled by the intent of the title. Having read Dissenting Opinions, I’m convinced that Smith meant to refer to redemption in a way not far removed from its religious meaning.  The passage I quoted on June 4 is part of this discussion:
In the United States, the Great Depression turned out to be in some ways a blessing in disguise. It broke the spirit and the resistance of capitalism to widespread social reform. Such reforms, it seems clear, could never have been pushed through Congress in "good times.". . . The second great conflict in our history was finally resolved . . . . First slavery was abolished; then labor was given a "fair share" of the bounty or booty of capital.

So there has been not so much progress perhaps but redemption. Redemption from our most deplorable sins. We have a larger, more humane view of our responsibilities toward each other. . . .
This theme of societal redemption is the heart of the final chapter of Redeeming the Time . “I believe that the tendency of history, of all human institutions is downward, toward complacency, decadence, obtuseness, and coldness of heart, and that we are saved only by the often obscure but heroic efforts of men and women whose passion it has been to redeem the world.” It would not be an exaggeration to say that complacency, obtuseness and coldness of heart characterize much of contemporary politics and that the culture shows signs of decadence.
Smith set forth a number of themes which he thought characterized American history. The principal two, as noted, were the abolition of slavery and the achievement of relative equality by black Americans, and “the making of peace in the war between capital and labor.” A subsidiary theme was “the central role of religion in American history, specifically the Protestant passion for redemption,” appearing in various reform movements. This is a liberal, social, version of redemption. Both the secular use of that term and the content of the social version may offend contemporary religious conservatives, but the “social gospel” comes closer to the spirit of Christianity than the libertarian views of the political branch of the religious right.
Despite the positive role that Smith sees for Protestantism, it seems to me that the Protestant ethic has two serious flaws, at least when it emerges in political action, which have some bearing on our present state. One is that its missionary impulse produces a tendency to insist that the world do things our way, sometimes expressed in lectures and sometimes in action, including military adventures. Smith, writing during (although near the end of) the Cold War, recognized that:
[W]e have . . . managed to become what I am sure the Founding Fathers would have deplored (or do deplore) — that is to say, a menace to the rest of the world, or at least we are perceived by the rest of the world as a menace only slightly less to be feared than the other leading brand. That, of course, is not our view of ourselves; we are full of our famous rectitude and self-righteousness, confident that it is our mission to save the world from its own error and folly in the form of communism or socialism. . . . Our real problem at the moment is not how to save the world but how to keep from destroying it with our constantly and loudly professed good intentions . . . .
The other, more domestic, flaw — and here I’m treading close to heresy — is that the Protestant emphasis on personal salvation encourages a self-centered attitude, to the detriment of social responsibility. Smith also recognized that tendency: “The Protestant Reformation re-formed the intellectual and psychological world of the faithful. It created a new human type, the 'individual," a person free from the constraints of traditional society, a person guided by faith and, above all, by will. . . .” That sort of person is not the ideal citizen.
Throughout his history, Smith referred to two philosophies or attitudes which he termed the Classical-Christian Consciousness and the Secular-Democratic Consciousness. The former is embodied in the Constitution; the latter was the philosophy of the Jeffersonian revolution which followed. The former emphasized human fallibility, while the latter, incorporating the ideas of the Enlightenment, was more optimistic about progress. The New Deal and Great Society represent the high point of that reforming, democratizing impulse and though, according to Smith, it has weaknesses as well as strengths, it is still needed: “Inadequate as the Secular-Democratic Consciousness is in its notion of human nature, we can ill afford to lose it because it has been characterized throughout its history by a Utopian vision and a passion for reform.”
We have not entirely returned to the Classical-Christian Consciousness (especially not to the first half of that), but elements of it are evident, and problematic: “The Classical-Christian Consciousness, on the other hand, has often shown itself relatively indifferent to the issues of social justice and reform, frequently taking the line that poverty, for example, is always with us . . . .” Not surprisingly, Smith thought that we needed the best features of each, but we are further from that now than in 1987.

51. Vol. 8 of A People's History of the United States
52. Ephesians 5: 15-16, King James Version
53. Ephesians 5: 15-16, Revised Standard Version
54. The Letter to Ephesus 5:15 et..seq., in Letters to Young Churches , J.B. Phillips translation

Friday, June 10, 2011

June 10, 2011
Two recent columns by Jonathan Bernstein on the Washington Post 49 web page put forth a neat summary of Republican primary-election strategy. With the partial exception of the libertarian candidates, who probably can’t be nominated, those running are “all one version or another of standard-issue conservative.” Standard issue in this reactionary age, that is. How then does any of them break away from the field? Pandering to noisy groups such as The Club for Growth or Tea Parties is one method, but “for the most part, Republicans have already pledged to do whatever their interest groups want.”
So each candidate pushes the envelope because, as Mr. Bernstein puts it, what primary voters want “is a candidate willing to be as radical as they think of themselves as being.” Happily for the candidates, the radicalism needn’t make sense. In fact, the more a notion is ridiculed by the usual suspects, such as the “liberal” media, the better: it feeds the illusion that the right is fighting a valiant battle against the forces of darkness. “Call it the Paul Revere strategy, after the Sage of Wasilla’s skill in turning anything foolish she says into evidence that liberals and reporters are out to get her.”
Bernstein summed it up as follows: “expect to see . . . candidates . . . embrace positions, or say things, that earn them scorn and ridicule from editorial boards and people acquainted with, uh, facts.” Or, as Harold Meyerson put it, “Today’s Republican Party is so whacked, so loony, so fey in the attic, that winning its nomination requires taking positions that will render the nominee unelectable come November 2012.”50 I think that this describes the general picture well. The Republican base is, or is perceived to be, up in arms, fearful of creeping socialism, convinced that the American Way is in jeopardy, yearning for a return to Eden. Most of the candidates are adapting to this image, some because they don’t need any urging to be irrational.
However, the front-runner appears to be Mitt Romney, who hardly fits the extremist mold. True, he’s had to seek forgiveness for views held earlier, and the ultra-right may yet push him into some mild form of nuttiness; on Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh declared that Romney’s candidacy is over because he believes in man-made global warming. However, if he’s lucky he can retain a sane image and still satisfy the base by blaming everything they fear and despise on President Obama.

49. only-the-beginning-of-the-craziness/2011/03/28/AG4xYIKH_blog.html; and

Monday, June 6, 2011

June 6, 2011
In May, 2010 I looked up the Washington Tea Party chapters on the Tea Party Patriots web site 46 to see how any of my fellow citizens were members. At that time there were 44 active chapters and a total of 437 members.47 I checked back yesterday and found 50 chapters listed, of which one was in Virginia. Does the increase from 44 to 49 groups reflect a larger membership? There is no way to tell. Each group’s web page is in identical format, with five topics: About Us, News, Members, Events, and Projects. The Members page for each is blank. Either membership has fallen to embarrassing levels or the tea party patriots have gone underground.
The former might be the case; membership never matched the pretense that the Tea Party “movement” reflected mass opinion and, as noted below, fewer people seem to be joining than a year ago. I looked at the Events and Projects pages for a few of the sites and found nothing. On some of the sites there were posts by a few people, presumably members, but certainly no indication of great activity or interest.
Some of the groups have their own web sites, in addition to the uniform sites provided by the parent organization, and some of those reveal membership. One, Sno-King 9-12 Commission, lists 123 members. I counted 124, no doubt my error. Of those, 70 joined in 2009, 45 in 2010,and 9 this year. The Moses Lake-Grant County Tea Party Coalition lists 93 members, of whom 37 joined in 2009, 55 in 2010, and only 1 this year. The Puget Sound Conservative Underground claims 586 members. I counted 576; the difference probably is due to a few entries for married couples. Of my 576, 249 joined in 2009, 266 in 2010 and 61 this year. In each case, members are being added at a much slower pace than in the first two years.
There also is a web site for The Washington State Tea Party Movement,48 containing a list of 47 group names, of which 3 are dead links. Presumably it is affiliated in some sense with Tea Party Patriots, as it tells viewers “For more information about the Tea Party movement, go to” However, the list of Washington groups is not the same on the two sites. Of 49 on the national site, 15 do not appear on the state page. Of 47 on the latter, 11 are not listed on the former.
Not all of the groups call themselves Tea Parties; 15 do not on the national list, 21 on the state list. Several are “912" groups; as one site describes its members, they are “patriots and fans of the 9/12 Project, inspired by the vision of Glenn Beck.” Some of the sites on the state list do not mention the Tea Party, and others barely do. It is a conglomeration of right-leaning groups.
I may be trying too hard to make sense of this. The definition of a Tea Party organization is loose and we are not talking about large numbers. Tea Parties really are the organizational equivalent of Sarah Palin: their ideas are neither new, nor sophisticated, nor really populist nor, for the most part, useful; their stance is primarily negative; they are ill-informed about government; their influence is less than they like to think, but everyone treats them as if they were significant.


47. See post of 5/14/10.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 4, 2011

Page Smith, the author of an eight-volume history of the United States, also published a collection of essays entitled Dissenting Opinions. They were written between 1954 and 1983. Some still reflect our circumstances, some not.
One of the early essays, from 1955, is a review of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.41 Smith’s critique could be a comment on current American political conservatism. The “new conservatives” inspired by Kirk, he said,
offer us a jugful of miscellaneous ideas labeled "conservative thought" and tell us that we must take the mixture for our own good—it is the only thing that will cure us. But we do not swallow ideas like medicine. Ideas . . . must be judged by their historic effects, not by reference to some archetypal truth. But the new conservatives do not know this. They are idealists, Hegelians, for whom the only realities are those ideas that they have poured into their conservative jar.42
The economic notions of Congressional Republicans certainly are examples of this tendency: abstract principles devoid of context and adhered to despite their actual effects.

Smith described the appeal to some of those theories, a description even more on point today than in the Fifties.
[A]t a time when people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the inadequacies of the old liberal view of the world, they will turn to a set of ideas that are labeled conservative and hope to find refuge there from the terrible dilemmas of our time. . . . . [W]e are tempted by an attractive new orthodoxy that contains much less than the necessary truth and that at worst may simply bestow a spurious intellectual respectability upon political reaction.43
The uncritical response to Rep. Ryan’s nostrums seems to be an illustration of this despair and desperation; certainly the GOP budget is an exercise in conferring respectability on reactionary policies.

The disillusionment with liberalism is only in part a reflection of the shortcomings or excesses of liberal policies. It is as much the result of the decades-long assault by conservatives, abetted by compliant, commercialized news media and accepted by a public with little understanding of government and an institutional memory limited to about six months.
Although conservatives like to pretend that they are somehow preserving national traditions and preventing the conquest of the American Way by foreign ideology, they are in fact proposing to repeal much that characterizes that way, such as economic opportunity and a reasonable degree of equality and security. Merely calling a program “conservative” does not establish its virtue; as Smith noted, “there is nothing about conservatives or about conservatism that contains any built-in immunity to decadence.”44
Those impressions of conservative philosophy apply as well to 2011 as to 1955. However, some of Smith’s later comments show their age. He seemed to think that such reactionary proposals had been rejected, that the gains of the Thirties had been preserved. Writing in 1983, he saw permanent progress or, as he put it, “[r]edemption from our most deplorable sins. We have a larger, more humane view of our responsibilities toward each other. We have jettisoned a considerable baggage of outmoded and unjust notions about society and our fellows. We have chastened if not tamed capital. . . .”45 No longer; we are returning to the Twenties and beyond.  

41. I set out my impressions of that book — at tedious length — in a posting of November 4, 2009.
42. Dissenting Opinions , p. 27
43. Id. at p. 35
44. Ibid.  
45. Id. at p. 94
Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day