Saturday, September 20, 2014

Heart wrenching review of a heart wrenching book

Read it here from the NY Times Book Review. It is an excellent review and made my heart break.

Still, my quibble with the review is the equivalency argument against "liberals" and "conservatives." I'll let "conservatives" defend against the critique of "conservatives" but I will defend the "liberals." Contrary to the reviewer, liberals do understand cultural issues behind the structural economic ones. For goodness sakes, does the reviewer not see who the social workers are? By and large, they are liberals. And sometimes radical liberals.

Michael Harrington's critique of the Great Society, in book form, appeared in "Toward a Democratic Left" in 1968, and that left critique was immediately lost in the American corporate media, despite the fact that it was Dwight MacDonald's review of Harrington's "The Other America" that inspired JFK's administration and then LBJ to try and do something to alleviate poverty. Harrington's original critique to Sargent Shriver was that $1 billion was not nearly enough and the programs were paying people while they were not doing anything, waiting for the private sector to rescue them. Shriver memorably, but still glibly responded, "Have you ever spent $1 billion before?"

Harrington wrote and said at the time that people needed to have social workers work with men, women and children in these impoverished areas to reacquaint them with time management, thinking about and pursuing long term goals and to stop beating on each other. He wanted more marriage counseling. He wanted a society that truly cared about the most vulnerable and met them on a cultural and economic level. He wanted to see money directly spent to rehabilitate buildings and homes, build new buildings and homes, and give people a chance to learn to police themselves.

And really, what solution does the reviewer want? The reviewer does not really say. For the reviewer must know that any solution is going to be seen as "liberal" because the conservative solution is "tough luck," "cut taxes of rich people," and "stop affirmative action." Those are not solutions. Those are public policies of indifference, recklessness and cruelty.

And while both the review and the book tell a powerful human real life story, it is a story too perfect in symmetry, isn't it? How many people went from ghetto to Ivy League who went on to rather normal lives and even successful lives? Shouldn't those examples count for something, especially against the conservatives' argument that culture trumps economics every time. Those examples should count a lot more than what happened here with the lamented Robert DeShawn Pearce. One may sometimes find the perfect example does not explain anything more than the example itself.

I would hope admissions directors at Ivy League schools are not going to deny the next poor minority student a chance based upon what happened with Pearce. Jeff Hobbs, the author of the book and Pearce's Yale University roommate, should feel bad about his own indulgence in marijuana and his lack of an example of someone who eschewed narcotics didn't help. Hobbs would nearly always be safe as privileged white person. Pearce, not so much it turns out.

America is not a hospitable place for a black man. I like that more and more white folks are understanding that fact. However, a bad response is to simply shrug our shoulders and say nothing else can be done, or anything we try to do will backfire. It might. But like with love, if at first you don't succeed, love, love again.

Sabrina Joy Stevens is my hero!

Read her spot on attack on the likes of Michelle Rhee Johnson and Campbell Brown, two elite advocates for the destruction of teachers' unions under the guise of education "reform," here.

I was also going to comment on her push back against those who want to use hurt feelings as an excuse to suppress speech, but decided it would cause us to lose sight of the important points she makes in her article. I therefore note I agree with her on that as well, and thank her for making all of her points so concisely and powerfully.

Friday, September 19, 2014

David Brin on fire...again. The continuing American Civil War.

David Brin is on fire again this week with a succinct and brilliant narrative one is not likely to receive in school, but should be. It is about the eight phases of the American Civil War. See it here.

One may quibble here and there, but Brin is excellent in providing this again succinct and brilliant narrative. For those unfamiliar with Brin, he is an Adam Smith libertarian who recognizes the greatness of TR and FDR, and was in his earlier years, quite cozy with the military establishment. He has credibility with certain elements of the sane GOP that others like myself may not have...:).

It is also interesting to me that Brin was, earlier this week, spot on about confronting the climate change skeptics with the evidence from our planet's oceans (see blog post on Brin's take here). But then, in between the two brilliant posts, we saw the side of Brin where he is less persuasive and less historical. That is where he says it was great that US workers, American industrial capacity and the American middle class were sacrificed to China for its development, as if this was the conscious plan of our leaders and as if the American people consciously approved it. If our leaders did consciously plan it, then they were and remain traitors. Also, we know from polls over the years that most Americans have opposed most of the trade deals that receive "fast track" approval in Congress, and are passed in off election years for the most part so that they are not the subject of high turnout elections. The leading (money) candidates of both parties over the past 25 years have endorsed these treaties, most lying along their way through elections on the subject. Only third party candidates such as Perot, Buchanan and Nader have raised the problems with these treaties. I have long found it shameful that a party such as the Democratic Party, which has since FDR fought more for workers' rights and unions than Republicans, could endorse such corporate oriented treaties.

What also makes Brin terribly mistaken here is that he appears to assume China could not have developed itself without trade with most of the world. Yet, China is large enough to have developed internally and not have need for massive exports to the US or Europe. And it would have been better for China's workers who would have been able to earn more for what they produced. In other words, there would have cropped up more Henry Fords in China who knew that workers who could buy their own products were creating a win-win for capitalists, and for society as a whole. China is again simply that large in population to have promoted and developed itself internally. It has 1.6 billion people now, more than 3 times the entire US population, including undocumented workers.

China, it should be noted, has followed a mercantile program that Alexander Hamilton slightly more than Adam Smith would have understood (see Hamilton's Federalist Paper no. 11, for starters, and then his Report on Manufactures). And where England was Hamilton's target in his day, so were we China's target these past thirty years. I am not bashing China. It has seen spectacular growth and its workers' wages are recently improving. But still, much of the wealth is not trickling down in many places in China and one does not see much hope for a New Deal, owing to the political fascism or remnant of Maoism in Chinese leadership. I am also not saying Brin is apologizing for China's political corruption and repression. I am, however, saying he is too sanguine about what has happened economically in American society these past three or four decades, and that the continuation of the American Civil War into a new phase is related to the thing he most admires, which are the pro-international corporate trade policies which have undermined American industry, the union worker and the middle class overall.

That is part of the narrative which he would see if he agreed with my point about the horrible trade policies our country has promoted these past several decades.

But again Brin has written a narrative that will immensely help Americans navigate through the public policy disputes in our nation, and hopefully see the need to support people who also recognize the importance of holding our nation together, and to restore a faith and respect for our national government to act on behalf of the American people. Although we come from somewhat different political spheres, we both see the need for a new FDR even more than a TR. And that is a confluence we hope will spread among the electorate. But my sense is that Brin does not like Bernie Sanders or Liz Warren all that much, which is unfortunate as they understand Hamiltonian policies quite well, and Liz is well read enough to understand the depth of Adam Smith's analyses.

Oh well. We start from where we start, and we do our best to move forward.

Oliver Sacks on libraries, private and public, and the loss of books in the public sphere

This article from Oliver Sacks at Three Penny Review was a link over at 3 Quarks Daily, and I would never have seen the article but for that prestigious blog site.

Sacks is definitely one of our modern Renaissance men.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ken Burns' The Roosevelts: It coulda been a contender

The Roosevelts series aired again tonight, its fifth episode entitled "The New Deal." I have watched all five episodes so far, more out of curiosity than anything else.

As I feared from the opening night episode this past Sunday, Ken Burns failed again to recognize the success of the New Deal in bringing down unemployment to 3-4% by 1939, when one counts those doing the great public works Burns does show, which are the roads built, the rural electrification, the dams, reforesting and irrigation to produce a food basket no nation has ever achieved in the history of humanity. Burns, had he been interested, could have informed Americans in his documentary that opponents of the New Deal had successfully demanded, in the compromises of the early to mid-1930s, that those working on public works programs would still be considered "unemployed," but would be no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. This compromise with these dark forces had the effect of making the official unemployment figures worse than they were.

Instead, Burns' viewers were confused as they heard William Leuchtenberg talk of the magnificent public works across the country, and yet Burns later has the narrator talk of the New Deal failing to help many people. It is incongruous because the latter statement is simply not true. The New Deal lowered unemployment from nearly 30% in 1933 to 3-4% (depending upon the monthly snapshot) in 1939. That by any honest measure is a success.

While Burns mercifully did not allow Will or anyone else to say it, it is important to say here that it is a lie to believe that most of the New Deal programs were "make work." The work performed had use, the work performed left a legacy and the work resulted in the re-development and further development of our nation.

And really, folks, whether we build a tank for war or a library for our own town with a government program, it's a stimulus and it has value. To therefore say World War II ended the Depression is itself a misnomer, as the war was itself a continuation of government stimulus for work. Both are consistent with Keynesian economics and both are consistent with Hamilton's original vision for the nation.

Which brings us to something else: Burns let George Will AGAIN say FDR undermined the US Constitution when FDR supposedly said there were "implied" powers of the federal government. In fact, and let's emphasize the word FACT, the idea of "implied" powers was precisely set forth in the early Republic's jurisprudence of Chief Justice John Marshall in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) and M'Culloch v. Maryland (1819), and certainly Hamilton's vision of a vibrant central government was, as he reminded James Madison, based upon a view that Article 1's statement of Congressional power was not crabbed or limited--or "enumerated"--in any way whatsoever. As FDR recognized, the purpose of the federal government is to promote the arts and sciences, build roads, bridges and canals, and develop the nation's economic strength as a whole. It is 100% wrong for Will to have made that statement, yet Burns allowed Will to make it twice without refutation.

It is a shame that Burns appears forced by his corporate funders to let ignorant people such as George Will on the show to speak about FDR in general tones, while relegating those who better understood FDR, such as historians Geoffrey Ward and William Leuchtenberg, to speak only about specifics and in a more narrow way. One need not have avoided all conservatives. For example, Burns could have approached Conrad Black, who wrote the best biography of FDR with the perspective of a CEO rating another "CEO" (FDR as president), and Black would have mesmerized American audiences with his knowledge and understanding of what FDR meant to not only Americans at the time, but to the rest of the world.

The show has, nonetheless, been decent and has some good moments. For example, Burns showed tonight how nearly 85% of Christian/Catholic America opposed letting Jews from Europe into the nation, and yet FDR defied those folks as best he could to allow more German Jews to extend visas and come to America. Burns could have gone further and noted how FDR ensured that nearly 40% of German Jews came to America during the 1930s, and that FDR often used European immigration quotas to put in Jews from Europe, defying the State Department, who had powerful connections in Congress, who yelled every time FDR took action to protect Europe's Jews in the 1930s.

The Roosevelts documentary could have been so much better. It could have re-acquainted Americans with the true history of our nation, one that placed the Roosevelts within the thread that starts with Hamilton and Gallatin, and goes through Clay and Lincoln, and Carl Schurz and even Eugene Debs. Instead, Burns wanted to create a silly exceptionalism as if the Roosevelts appeared out of thin air and were a departure from the history of our nation. They were a departure from the presidents who immediately preceded them, certainly (that is, McKinley and Hoover). But they were instead a restoration of that thread of which I write. Tonight's show did, however, emphasize the importance of leadership and using again the bully pulpit as TR spoke of. Would that our current president understand that. FDR was shown visiting people in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and Burns could have shown FDR visiting dust bowl areas. FDR knew the importance of showing up where regular folks are. God bless Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.

One Brownie or Burns point in favor of the series: Burns uses Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," one of the most beautiful pieces of music from an American composer, as the show's theme song. Good for Burns on that at least!


Monday, September 15, 2014

David Brin takes on climate change skeptics...again

David Brin on fire or is he acidifying like the ocean?

That has been my argument when I am at some event and hear a climate change skeptic or denialist. I say, talk to oceanographers. They will tell you the ocean is acidifying. They will tell you the ocean is warming. The methane is being pulled loose. These all have, shall we say, consequences. Maybe we ought to be "conservative" in the sense of cautious or conserving...and say maybe we should do something from a legislative and public policy standpoint.

Oh well.

As Brin writes, we are in a new phase of the continuing American Civil War.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Michael Walzer pivots back to demanding Israeli-Arab peace talks

Michael Walzer, as usual, gave a nuanced but still pronounced support for the Israeli government actions against Hamas in Gaza this summer, even as he criticized Netanyahu for undermining the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. See here.

However, Walzer has just penned a strongly worded demand to Netanyahu and to the same Israeli government to start peace talks, and accuses Netanyahu of consciously undermining the goal of the two state solution. He even reaches back in time to rip Netanyahu for refusing to condemn calls for Rabin's murder back in the months before Rabin was assassinated in 1995. The piece is published by Americans for Peace Now and is a solicitation for money for that venerable organization. To put it another way, Walzer's gloves are now off and he is ready to fight back against Netanyahu.

All I can say is, as someone who has often been disappointed in the past with Walzer's earlier formulations on behalf of Pax Americana and Pax Israelica (I just made up the latter phrase!): Wow.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

US military legal issue that should not be difficult at all...except...

A young atheist officer is suing the Air Force after being denied re-enlistment for crossing out the words "so help me God" in the enlistment form. See here. Before October 2013, the Air Force allowed a person to cross out those words on the enlistment and re-enlistment form. I looked up the law upon which the form was based and it states in black and white that one must say "So help me God." I thought, Wow. Here is the law known as Title 10 U.S. Code section 502:

§502. Enlistment oath: who may administer

(a) Enlistment Oath.—Each person enlisting in an armed force shall take the following oath:
“I, ____________________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

(b) Who May Administer.—The oath may be taken before the President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of Defense, any commissioned officer, or any other person designated under regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Defense.

(Emphasis added)

I thought immediately, "How long has that 'So help me God' been there?" I found the following from the free online legal website,, which helpfully annotates the code with the legislative history. It states in part:

1962—Pub. L. 87–751 substituted “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same” for “bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America; that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies whomsoever” and inserted “So help me God” in the oath, and “or affirmation” in text.

Effective Date of 1962 Amendment

Section 3 of Pub. L. 87–751 provided that: “This Act...does not affect any oath taken before one year after its enactment [Oct. 5, 1962].”

Hmmm....Wonder what occurred in 1962...The U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer in the public schools in Engle v. Vitale. I have a sense if we did any review of the Congressional Record for this amendment that it was another clumsy attempt to introduce a religious test (contrary to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution) that had begun with the insertion of "God" into the Pledge of Allegiance and onto coins in 1954, and that the Congress and President Kennedy, bowing to that populist sentiment and knowing that either Engle had come down or was likely to come down against public prayers in schools, added the language.

So this "tradition" is only about 50 years old, and funny, all the wars fought before that with volunteer or drafted soldiers for the United States did not require a single soldier to say "So help me God." And most important, until October 2013, there was a failsafe against unconstitutionality for the soldiers of our nation to allow Air Force soldiers to cross out the words "So help me God," so that the forced oath of monotheism for soldiers is not even a year old.

One would like to think the U.S. Supreme Court will easily find the law to be an unconstitutional abridgment of the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment and a violation of the "religious test" provision in the U.S. Constitution (" religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."). But with the five man line up in the U.S. Supreme Court, it is not a so easy to think that. My sense is that Justice Kennedy is likely to join with the three women Justices and Justice Breyer in holding 10 U.S. Code section 502 unconstitutional for adding the words "So help me God." But again one never knows with the mercurial Justice Kennedy.

And I would not count on Congress or even this President to wade into this one or even restore the language that existed in the regulation before October 2013 that allowed air force personnel to cross out the words "So help me God."

Bonus point: I wonder if the "faith" in the Constitution section still offends Jehovah's Witnesses? If we recall, the 1940s settled the point that Jehovah's Witness members do not have to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Oh well. A legal lesson for today.


Saturday, September 06, 2014

AJ Langguth (1933-2014)

I missed that historian AJ Langguth fled the mortal coil this week. He was a reporter who later became a history professor, teaching at USC for many years. He is one of those writers who began as fairly conventionally-minded, but then became more radicalized as he delved further into the early years of our Republic.

Langguth's book on President Andrew Jackson's removal of Native Americans is a much needed attack on Jackson and helps us understand why we should revere John Quincy Adams and even Henry Clay if we want to begin to understand what is called the American Antebellum period. Langguth's book on the topic is almost Zinn-like in its perspective.

Langguth's now last and posthumous book, ready for release by Simon & Schuster in the next week, is a review of the Reconstruction period that upends most of America's views of the period, and helps us understand what a few writers have understood for a long time: WEB DuBois, Rayford Logan and Eric Foner are three historians upon whose work one may reasonably assume Langguth relied. Langguth has--er, had a way of writing that is accessible, dwelling first and foremost on personalities rather than systems, yet illuminating what happens within systems. And as an older white fella, Langguth's persona is friendlier to that set of white relatives many of us have who are, well, shall we say, not as liberal as we are.

On a personal note, I had posted a defense of his Jackson Native American removal book on this blog. Somehow Langguth found it, and publicly commented to me his thanks under the blog post. He later emailed me to say he was appreciative of my knowledge of the era, knowing I had not yet read his book. I did purchase his book and read it, and admittedly found it a bit too focused on the personalities, though nicely drawn on a subject most Americans have a hard time reconciling with their largely positive view of Andrew Jackson. It is for that reason that Langguth's book was and remains so vital.

I am deeply saddened by Langguth's death. I would have loved to have met him at a book signing for this latest and perhaps may be his most radical book. It will be interesting to see how his Reconstruction era book will be greeted at the NY Times and elsewhere, as his book on Jackson received the sort of muddled reviews conventional historians and hagiographers write in order to discredit such works, so as to cause people to shy away from reading.

Hail AJ Langguth. He is already missed.

Chomsky channels Vonnegut and Randy Newman...

Chomsky channeling Vonnegut, with a theme of self-extinction.

Of course, there is a Randy Newman song that sums up lots of this in about three minutes....

But hey, it's all okay. Aren't we ready for Hillary? For Jeb Bush? For more entitlement "reform?" Fighting ISIS by invading somewhere which may or may not even be relevant to stopping ISIS? More trade deals that help bankers and beggar workers? Oh yeah. The real bi-partisanship going on below the surface of polarization.