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Military Power and US Democracy

Originally published in El Pais, 7/18/10

American culture is saturated with military imagery, language, memory and fantasy. The American version of militarism did not originate in the two World Wars or the Cold War, but at the origins of the Republic. Many of the men who led the armed revolt against Great Britain had served her in the war against France that preceded the revolution. The revolt was an incident, if a very large one, in the European conquest of the continent—which required permanent warfare. The new republic made it clear that its army would rule the continent, and its navy was from the beginning charged with a global mission. North American history joins economic and social development with the systematic growth of the most modern military capacities—from our first ship, the USS Constitution (still, symbolically, in active service) to the newest drones. The armed forces were continuously recruited from a changing society, and altered their ethnic, racial and social composition as the nation grew. What also increased was war’s centrality in national myth and political reality. Read more

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Postscript to “The Economic Crisis”

This article was written in July and this postscript early in September. The apparent decline in the President’s political strength and that of the Democrats continues. I say “apparent” because the impression rests on fluctuating opinion polling data, and the shallow reporting of journalists without independence of judgement or an historical culture. Half the electorate still thinks well of the President, but the Congress and the political parties (as we approach November elections) have the approval of fewer than half the citizenry. Since electoral participation in the absence of a Presidential contest is usually low (forty percent would be high), presumably only the most motivated will cast their ballots for the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and some critical governorships.

It is the consensus view that the most motivated voters are now those disappointed with, or angrily opposed to, the President. Voter alienation extends to the conventional, sometimes described as “moderate,” Republicans as well. A number of prominent candidates for the Senate or Governorships, some of the Congressional candidates as well, seek radical reductions in the scope of government, even the abolition of Medicare or privatization of Social Security, an end to the Federal role in education, and an intensification of our endemic cultural wars. They propose to eliminate or reduce the power of the courts and government to protect the rights of women and homosexuals, to allow prayer and religious instruction in public schools, to allow local communities to ban the teaching of a critical, progressive and secular view of American history. The Republican Senatorial candidate in Missouri has expressed  opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which inter alia ended slavery. The group which now controls a large part of the Republican Party is explicitly xenophobic and seeks to deport the illegal immigrants (perhaps eleven million by now.) It rounds off its program by calling for severe restrictions on medical and scientific research.

The Republican right joins the other Republicans in proposing as a remedy for unemployment lower taxes and of course, lower government spending (the military budget usually excepted). That at least a third of the nation subscribes, sometimes viscerally and in any event without a sense of complexity or the burdens of doubt, to the entire complex of views I have described is certain. That another third, or close to it, has opposite views, adheres to what remains of the New Deal tradition of social reform and reliance on government, is equally certain. Why has this third of the nation and its beliefs  sunk below the political horizon, and why does it exercise so little influence on the President, the more so as it constitutes his core electorate and that of many of his closest allies in the House and Senate? Read more

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The Economic Crisis

US Progressivism And The Obama Presidency

One project of contemporary historians serves our understanding of both past and present rather well—an examination of the content and uses of memory in modern societies. Were a distinguished scholar like Pierre Nora to attempt an American version of his very substantial work on France, Les Lieux de Memoire, he would have to deal with several major difficulties. As time moves on, historical memories in the United States are increasingly fragmented. They are strongest where local, or the property of specific groups seeking to legitimize claims to attention, reparation, reward.  They are weakest, or in any event most contested, when they portray our common past. One of the more disconcerting experiences  of many university teachers in the social sciences  is to learn that large numbers of students do not have very clear notions of what grand-parents or great-grandparents or antecedent generations experienced.. Their ignorance or lack of clarity is especially pronounced when they are beneficiaries of upward mobility over several generations—as if their families’ struggles against deprivation, poverty or limited income and wealth were embarrasments  or encumbrances, to be kept at a distance..

Moreover, some segments of the secondary school sector excepted, there is a considerable discrepancy between what our academic historians publish and what finds its way into school texts. To some degree, this is the result of ideological policing by vigilantes. One major consequence of this entire complex of causes is acute discontinuity in political memory.. In particular, the groups once bearers of an inter-generational progressive consciousness float, increasingly, in historical space: they lack the intellectual means to locate themselves in American society as it has changed over recent generations. They are prey, therefore, to the serial deformations and untruths propagated systematically by the antagonists of the progressive tradition—and lack the inner  resources to draw upon the alternative world views which are still available in our nation, but which often are stored or confined in places difficult of access.     .

I designate as progressivism the US equivalent of European social democracy. I do so for historical reasons. The term emerged at the beginning of the last century to express the self identification of leaders, movements, thinkers who sought to substitute for the brutality of American industrial capitalism a considerable amount of regulation, and the provision of public goods. Progressivism drew upon Social Catholicism and Social Protestantism, upon large borrowings from European socialist ideas, brought to the US by immigrants, upon American traditions of social reform going back to the Abolitionist movement, upon even older residues of American politics having to do with local self-governance and extreme distrust of economic and political elites. The term progressive reminds us of the self-identification of the United States as a vanguard nation, engaged in the unfinished task of enlarging the autonomy of its citizens. Progressivism joined in a coalition, not without its internal contradictions, Christians and secularists, farmers and workers, older Americans and newer immigrants, often led by what the historian Richard Hofstadter termed “men of the Word,” the educated, distrustful of the culture and power of money.

The political history of the twentieth century, and indeed of the first decade of the present one, is the story of the life, and at times near death, of these ideas and their transformation under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Projects as diverse as the first Roosevelt’s  New Nationalism, Wilson’s New Freedom, the second Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Johnson’s  Great Society drew upon progressivism for moral continuity. Carter’s and Clinton’s Democratic Presidencies are understandable as  compromises with the considerable resistance the tradition of progressive reform engendered—especially when its beneficiaries had acquired, thanks to the reforms, the sense of having become shareholders in the established order. Read more

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Manhattan, the mosque, the star and the cross

Originally published in El Pais (20 August 2010)

Moments of calm in my native city, New York, are rare. The police had to separate opposing groups of demonstrators at the site of the planned construction of an Islamic community center, to be named the Cordoba center. It is two long blocks away from the World Trade Center, but for enraged defenders of the sacredness of the memory of the attack of 11 September 2001, two miles would be too near. The matter is hardly of primary importance to most citizens, beset as they are with unemployment and the threat of it—but an American majority declares that it wishes the center elsewhere. That may well mean, nowhere. Now the CIA has discovered a threat from Al Queda in the Yemen, requiring yet another enlargement of the war against Islam in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia. The bitter controversy on the Islamic Center in New York is reinforced by our national capacity to find enemies everywhere. (When will an itinerant American call attention to the dangers implicit in the cuisine at El Caballo Rojo in Cordoba?.)

The degredation of our national intellectual standards continues. The latest issue of the august journal, Foreign Affairs, gives space to two writers hostile to Islam whose common trait is their ignorance of it. There is method to their madness: we are experiencing a determined campaign by a segment of our imperial elite for war on Iran. Europeans may be bewildered. Have they not been told (by official and unofficial voices for the US) that we are a model of multi-culturalism, of the integration of diverse streams of immigration into a national consensus?

Actually, it is only since 1964 that Afro-Americans could exercise in the south rights to vote nominally theirs for a century. Until a strenuous legal campaign by American Jewry after 1945 (aided by guilt over our informal Nuernberg laws) Jews were often denied the rights to buy property in many places,employment, and university places. US citizens of Japanese ancestry were put into concentration camps in 1942 and the courts refused them legal redress. Women obtained the vote in 1919, but the southern states (clearly anxious lest the loss of male supremacy undermine white supremacy) did their best to block the process. A series of Chinese Exclusion Acts barred citizenship for Chinese immigrants from 1882 until 1943.

The earliest American film classic, Birth Of A Nation (1915) celebrated the resistance to the granting of civil rights to former slaves by the south—by the hooded figures of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan with time nationalized itself, and in 1925 had three million members spread across the country—with the capacity to elect Congressmen, Senators, Governors. It was virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic as well as against rights for Afro-Americans. When the reformist Governor of New York, Al Smith, son of Irish immigrants, ran for President in 1928 he was humiliatingly defeated. John Kennedy remains our only Roman Catholic President—and presented himself not as a Catholic but as a Harvard patrician and war hero.

The nineteenth and early twentieth century immigration of millions of Irish, Italian, Slavic Catholics, of Orthodox Armenians and Greeks, met bitter prejudice and sometimes violence. It took considerable time before the immigrants and their descendants united in defense of their rights to economic opportunity and civic equality—in the trade union movement and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Those persecuted often responded not with solidarity with other disfavoured groups but with anger at those even more scorned than themselves. Troops from the victorious northern army at Gettysburg had to come to New York in 1863 to stop rioting by the impoverished Irish immigrants against blacks. Those who have seen the TV series, the Sopranos, are aware that US citizens of Italian descent are not invariably depicted as spiritual descendants of Dante. For whatever reason, xenophobic contemporary campaigns against immigrants are sometimes led by Americans of Italian descent.

The most morally brutal figures in US politics, former Governor Palin and former Speaker of the House Gingrich, are amongst those loudly denouncing the project for the Islamic center in Manhattan. Palin may actually believe what she says, Gingrich is totally cynical. To these can be added any number of supporters of Israel, for whom any conflict with Islam is useful. Then there is the old Iraq war party grouped around Cheney. The Fundamentalist Protestants for whom any crusade against others is theologically justified are part of this miserable procession. An intelligent segment of our imperial elite protests that one cannot win support from Islamic populations in their homelands when treating the Islamic immigrants to the US with contempt. The argument would be effective, if our Darwinian culture did not privilege the deepest strains of hatred in our national psyche.

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Why Not Give Them Hell?

(to be published Tribune, UK) April 2010

The decline in American industry has been compensated, in a way, by the rise in the export of services. Surely, one of the most egregious of these has been the vending of electoral counsel by our political consultants. Along with its bastard sibling, lobbying, in Washington and the state capitals, political consultancy is a recession-proof source of income, if not always of status. Consultancy often approximates the dignity and cultural weight usually attached to piano playing in brothels . In the current British campaign, I gather that the parties are using native talents—such as they are.

One person (not a professional consultant but with a certain experience of electoral politics) who could have helped Gordon Brown and our Labour comrades is, alas, long dead. His name is Harry Truman, he was a New Deal Senator from Missouri, a strong ally of the labor movement, Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice-President from January to April of 1945, and then President. When he sought election on his own account, in 1948, he was regarded as defeated before he started. Read more

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Historical Limits

Dear Chancellor, (Published (German and English) Handelsblatt, 12 April 2010)

When you visit, I hope we may be spared the usual pieties about the values which unite us, assurances that we stand together against named and nameless enemies, pledges of cooperation in matters economic and environmental. Certainly, America’s Jewish leaders, shocked by Obama’s even handedness in the Holy Land, will expect you to treat Israel as if it were a state of the Federal Republic. As a friend, perhaps you could ask them to rethink their increasingly primitive ethnocentrism. Indeed, you could exchange the dreary rituals of Transatlantic friendship for its substance. Do us the honor of supposing that we are adult enough to tolerate difference.

Your Presidential host, despite achieving health care legislation which might bring the US into the middle of the twentieth century, confronts a divided nation. The hatred and violence welling up from the bottom reflects not the country you imagined from the other side of the Wall, but a society which, politically, cannot master its social conflicts. We can hardly unite with the Europeans in defense of freedom when we do not agree on what it means. There is something absurd, even spectral, in the platitudes of the Transatlantic experts who people the research centers in Berlin, Brussels and Washington.— they seem to be circling the earth in a spaceship.

We urgently need to begin an exit from empire. Read more

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Two articles from Prof. Birnbaum

I was pleased to receive these two articles recently from Prof. Norman Birnbaum ’46:

Historical Limits
Why Not Give Them Hell?

He enclosed the following note:

Dear Ronit,

Just to keep them coming (I do not know, at age 84, when higher powers will intervene, do not know which higher powers, in fact…): an open letter to Chancellor Merkel, published in the German financial daily Handelsblatt in time for her to read it on Luftwaffe Eins on the way to Washington, and some (entirely unsolicited) election advice to Gordon Brown, about to be published in Tribune, the traditional Labour weekly. I began to contribute to Tribune, whose literary editor was once George Orwell, in the fifties–so long ago that as a faculty member at the London School of Economics at the time, I was giving seminars with the British political scientist Ralph Miliband, now alas gone, but with two sons in the outgoing British cabinet.

If you consider that the articles constitute a danger to the health of readers who might suffer apoplectic attacks, of course humane considerations would require not publishing…

Regards,
Norman

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The President’s Struggle To Take Command

The conflict between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is in fact a struggle by the President to take command of his own government. The egregious Israel Prime Minister, the cynical Israel political class are not his primary antagonists. These are in the US, where parts of the foreign policy apparatus, the Congress, the media believe or claim to believe that the interests of the US and Israel are identical The President has now sided with the diplomats, military commanders, foreign policy thinkers who for decades have sought, at risk to their careers, a Mideast policy which takes Palestinian rights seriously.as a precondition of an alternative US role in the region and the Muslim world.

The antagonists confronting the President are by no means exclusively or primarily Jewish. The President knows of the deep divisions within American Jewry .Many liberal and secular (and younger) American Jews reject the unthinking attachment to Israel of the leaders of most American Jewish organizations. The President’s Jewish supporters identify themselves with the US . They are quite aware of the paradox of contemporary Zionism. So far from serving as a spiritual home and potential refuge for the Diaspora, Israel is dependent upon the Diaspora for political support—and many of its own citizens, with dual passports, are already part of the Diaspora. .

What has made the Israel lobby so strong in the US is its connection with major themes of American history. A Calvinist reading of Exodus as anticipation of the white conquest of North America made honorary Yankees of the Israelis. American guilt over inactivity during the Holocaust has been sedulously exploited by Israel. The Jewish state has been, since the nineteen sixties, a Cold War ally and asset of American power. The campaign against “terror,” with all of its deformations and historical distortions, has reinforced Israel intransigence. The President has his own, different, reading of modern history. The speech in Cairo and now the conflict over East Jerusalem suggest that he will not renounce it.

Few in Europe will have heard of an “American Coalition Against a Nuclear Iran,” a well funded lobbying group. Its directors include the President of the Conference of Major American Jewish organizations, and the former CIA Director James Woolsey (a loud proponent of the fraudulent allegation of an alliance between Baathist Iraq and Al Quaida) and a miscellany of Democrats and Republicans living by such wits as they possess..It is reminiscent of “The Committee on the Present Danger” –a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who responded to the defeat in Viet Nam by demanding confrontation with the Soviet Union. The Committee’s domestic antagonists were not only the Viet Nam peace party but Kissinger, Nixon and Ford, who after all, had evacuated Saigon and then pursued arms control with the USSR. The Committee, included partisans of Israel who demanded that any agreements with the USSR be conditional upon the Soviet Union allowing Jewish emigration. The Committee did not seriously intend this: the USSR could not stand the loss of intellectual capital entailed in Jewish emigration, which would also have destroyed its alliances with the Arab nations. The actual situation of the Soviet Union and the well being of its citizens was of no interest to the Committee.

Similarly, the directors of the “American Coalition Against A Nuclear Iran” have no concern with or knowledge of Iran or its people. They seek immediate confrontation as part of a permanent American mobilization. The Iran question solved, one can easily imagine them applying the same rhetoric to China a decade hence. Here, the interests of Israel and those who have ideological and material interests in unrelenting increase in American power coincide.

The President relies on veterans of our long series of imperial misadventures: Secretary Gates, National Security Advisor General Jones, and Senior military commander Admiral Mullen. Unlike the desktop belligerents of the opinion pages, Jones and Mullen know war at first hand. They can also count. Adding up our many wars since 1945, the two the US has has won were against Granada and Panama. One understands their resistance to attacking Iran. Our imperial managers are clear: their primary task is to prevent new disasters.

The President’s demands on Israel are also, then, a response to the Israel attempt to involve the US in war against Iran. In fact, Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had made the threat from Iran the central theme of the Prime Minister’s visit. The President’s obduracy in putting first things first took them by surprise. AIPAC did obtain the signature of not quite three hundred of the 435 members of Congress to a letter stating that since US and Israel were so close, public discussion of differences was highly inadvisable. Seldom can members of a parliamentary body have so summarily renounced their rights.

A week after the confrontation, both the NY Times ands the Post in their Sunday editions were silent about it—but offered their readers familiar matter on Iran. The Times published a series of surmises on the Iranian nuclear project, with a ration of speculation to fact of about twenty to one. Its Washington bureau chief recapitulated a trivial Brookings Institution war game of an Israel attack on Iran, extensively reported months ago. The Post published a column by William Kristol in which he urged war on Iran, recycling every cliche of the past half century. General Petraeus’ warning on the dangers to the US national interest of total alignment with Israel was not mentioned. True, the politically agile general had telephoned the Israel chief of staff to say that his report was “taken out of context”—-but in context, it is unequivocal.

The Israel elite, meanwhile, is in a state of shock at the thought that Obama may actually mean what he says. The American Jewish leadership is no less stunned, and seems unable to grasp that the fictions that it has long purveyed are now matters of debate. The President would be helped by a strong European contribution to the debate. More than a half million Israelis are flying to Europe this week for Passover holidays. Much would be gained were they to return with the impression that more civilized standards are required of Israel. Whatever he says, even so ordinary a figure as Netanyahu knows that since his White House visit, nothing will be the same.

This article was also published in today’s El Pais

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Intelligence?

The Obama government is being severely criticised for its failure to prevent the young Nigerian of the Christmas Day attack from flying to the United States. Some critics assume that the Kingdom of the Netherlands recently joined the American Federal union as the fifty first state, and that Amsterdam airport like Boston or Chicago is under direct control of our government. Their ethnocentrism is telling. The anger at the lapse reflects a persistent American belief: if we are not invulnerable to the misfortunes that beset other nations, we should be.

The performance of the Bush administration before 11 September of 2001 was miserable. A judge denied the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s request to listen to the telephone of one of the later 11 September attackers, on grounds that the FBI kept asking for wire tap warrants in cases it could not sustain. President Bush himself instructed his National Security Advisor, Dr. Rice, that he had heard enough of Al Quaeda’s threats and wished to hear no more.

The American combination of arrogant complacency and administrative ineptitude has historical precedents. Read more

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Is There An Imperial Exit?

(this article by Prof. Norman Birnbaum ’46 was originally published in El Pais, 28 February 2010)

We know, thanks to biographers and historians (and novelists) how the United States constructed its modern empire. Now that its costs are so high, however, and the nation increasingly divided again on how to deal with the world, we Americans know neither how to keep it or withdraw from it.

After continental conquest and continuous warfare, our modern imperial epoch began in 1898, at Spain’s cost. US participation in the war of 1914-18 (like the war with Spain) provoked domestic opposition. German and Irish immigrants were instinctively dubious, agrarian populists and urban socialists were ideologically so. Still, war intensified the assimilation of the millions of Europeans who had arrived before and after the turn of the century. Wilson, the son of a Calvinist pastor, depicted the US as a new Israel—chosen to write history anew, and most Americans assented.

The US emerged from the First World War as global banker and manufacturer. The nation plunged into consumer capitalism, and Armstrong, Chaplin and Hemingway carried our culture nearly everywhere. The isolationists between the wars were not a coherent bloc. Some were motivated by ethnic resentment of the Anglo-Saxon elite, others by politial suspicion of the ruling class, others were ancestors of the later unilateralists. Unimpeded by much public attention, three very internationalist Secretaries of State from the older elite, Hughes, Kellog, Stimson, extended American power by enlisting finance and industry in the task. The military prepared assiduously for the next Great War. Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 began his Presidency as a cautious internationalist.When he succeeded in bringing the nation into war in 1941, he drew upon the banks, law firms and universities to command the new warfare state. The public, remote from the conduct of foreign policy, agreed that war was necessary to defend the economic and social substance of the nation. Read more

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The US And Iran

This essay, by Professor Norman Birnbaum ’46, was originally published in the Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung (taz) as >>Krieg gegen Teheran?< <.

The Iranian leadership is learning, haltingly, the aggressively manipulative flexibility occasionally shown by the USSR in relations with the west. When, under Khrushchev especially, it indicated a willingness to discuss a western proposal, the western capitals became confused, even panicked. The Iranian offer to discuss uranium enrichment abroad has provoked the US and the ever dutiful Europeans to denounce Iranian deceit. There is no western strategy for Iran—only non-negotiable demands, and condemnation, provoking Iranian erraticism.

The US has three immediate options with respect to Iran. The unilateralists nostalgic for the ideological simplicity of Bush and Cheney and,the Israel lobby (it could be renamed the Likud lobby, as signfiicant segments of American Jewry doubt the competence of the Israel politicians now in power) propose to attack Iran, with no delay, after demanding instant cessation of Iran’s nuclear projects. That Iran is developing nuclear weapons is an item of faith for those who make no apologies for using falsified evidence to justify war on Iraq. For them, a prior attack by Israel is neither necessary or desirable. The Israel elite doubts that Israel by itself can successfully attack Iran, and prefers to let the US do so. The previous Israel Chief of Staff, the air force general who led the inconclusive war with Hezbollah, has just warned his nation against over estimation of its capacity to strike Iran.

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The Plurality of One

A message from Wendy Shalit ’97 in response to this post from Professor Norman Birnbaum ’46.

I don’t typically respond to personal attacks. When you try to get people to consider a different angle on a topic, being attacked comes with the territory and sometimes it can even be a compliment.

However, Professor Norman Birnbaum’s gratuitous and entirely inaccurate attack on me exemplifies a larger disease in our society. This disease typically has four stages:

1. Defining tolerance so narrowly as to render it meaningless: “If someone agrees with me, I will tolerate him, but not if someone’s views threaten my own.” In fact, tolerance is only meaningful when two people disagree. Yet for some, disagreement creates too much cognitive dissonance and the idea of reexamining–and potentially, having to abandon–their preconceptions is too painful. In order to feel better about themselves, they must find a way to lash out at those who dare offer an opposing viewpoint. Read more

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Episodes of alumni concern

From a note originally sent by Prof. Birnbaum to DK, republished here with permission – Ronit


Dear David,

Re the matter of Mr. Moore, I note that the discussion has ebbed somewhat—although of course it is entirely understandable that alumni and parents and friends would be distressed by the news. In my own contacts with persons from higher education, no one has mentioned it—perhaps because everyone is too concerned with difficulties at their home institutions. I ran into the Georgetown Law Dean of Admissions the other day, but he did not inform me that he was subjecting Williams applications to special scrutiny.

In brief, the world goes on……

Of course, there are any number of memories evoked by alumni interest. I recollect a period at a sister institution, when alumni and trustees were convinced that faculty were taking liberties with academic freedom. Amherst’s President at the time, a former faculty member and fine Americanist, Bill Ward, invited some faculty and some alumni and trustees to dinner. The discussion proceeded on familiar lines, until a Trustee said that he thought that the President “ought to run a tight ship.” A faculty member thereupon identified himself as a navy reserve officer, declared that a liberal arts college had to be distinguished from an aircraft carrier, and noted that in any event under the theory and practise of combat command in effect in the Navy, a good deal of decentralization and independent initiative by officers, petty officers and ratings was called for. Bill held no more such dinners that year…..

As for Williams itself, historians could produce any number of episodes of alumni concern. Sometime in early modern history, before internet, a somewhat overwrought young lady attending Williams wrote an article for the monthly Commentary. She objected to unisex dorms, and to feminist ideas in the classroom, since (she explained) she was from an Orthodox Jewish family and offended by these things. No doubt, but she did know about these aspects of Williams life before coming and could have enjoyed the relative tranquillity of the women’s college of Yeshiva (academically excellent, too.) The article attracted the attention of a Washington journalist named John Leo and he wrote a column on ideological oppression at the liberal arts colleges, with Williams in the dock. The fact that Leo did not trouble to visit the campus, or to make any other effort to inform himself of the situation, seemed not to bother any number of alumni who promptly wrote to the Alumni Review—their worst fears having found confirmation…..

In my own time, I was once shown (1946, I think) a letter from an eminent alumnus to President James Phinney Baxter of revered memory. He said that he and others were profoundly worried. Younger graduates were coming to their investment firms apparently convinced that Sir John Maynard Keynes was right about the economic cycle. The US was then about to enter, despite all fears of post-war depression, one of the most sustained and broadest periods of economic growth in our history—not least due to the Keynesianism of the economists advising the government. Given present arguments, one can only say, plus ça change……

Very best regards and thanks for posting my efforts,
and thanks as well to those who took the trouble to comment,
Norman

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The Prisoner in the White House

At my request, Norman Birnbaum ’46 will be sharing some of his articles with EphBlog. Here is the first. – DK


After a year in office, the President seems—rather like most of his predecessors—a prisoner in the White House. The New York Times, not conspicuous for its irony, has just written that, other matters permitting, he hopes to do something about unemployment.

Failure to reverse it would indeed make his re-election very difficult in 2012, and is likely to result in large Republican gains in the Congressional elections of November 2010 when the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate will be at stake. The victory in the special election to choose a successor to the late Senator Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts (held exactly one year after the President’s assumption of office) of an unknown and not visibly gifted local politician who campaigned as exponent of the ordinary people’s virtues against the vices of the political elite, shocked the Democrats—who became aware of the danger too late to avert it. The President’s approval ratings in the public opinion polls are not worse than that of many of his predecessors at this period of the Presidency (at the end of January, half the public thought he was performing to their satisfaction) –but the contrast with the large expectations he evoked earlier, the returned confidence of the Republicans and demoralization and pronounced division amongst the Democrats, is very striking.

The relationship between domestic and foreign policy in American Presidencies follows no very standard pattern. In general, a President whose standing in domestic matters is high is freer to maneuver in foreign affairs. That is not always the case, and Lyndon Johnson, a very successful and major domestic reformer, knew that the Vietnam War was unwinnable but did not act on his insight because he feared being attacked as weak. Yet in 1964 he had won a very convincing victory against his opponent, Senator Goldwater (whom he charged with planning to do what Johnson promptly did in 1965, expand the war in Vietnam.) Nixon, per contra, entered the White House in 1969 with a reputation for unmitigated bellicosity, and proceeded to open relations with the People’s Republic of China (refused by the US, absurdly, since the Communists’ assumption of power two decades earlier), engaged in serious negotiations with the Soviet Union, and in effect abandoned our south Vietnamese client state to its fate. As the last President Bush became increasingly mired in what struck an American majority as an interminable and for many, unnecessary, war in Iraq he found that despite his re-election in 2004, he had no majority for his domestic priorities, permanent and structural rather than incidental reductions in expenditure for the American welfare state.

The Obama Presidential majority of November 2008 clearly sought a new beginning in our politics, but how many of the President’s voters shared his complex and differentiated foreign policy perspective is not at all clear. He took his election as a mandate to announce policies which would have been inconceivable under Bush and unimaginable had McCain won: reconciliation with the Islamic world, new beginning of cooperation with China and Russia, an end to hegemonic bullying in the western hemisphere, an invitation to the European Union to propose its own initiatives in world politics (of which it proved incapable), US cooperation in serious measures to control environmental destruction, a new US initiative to bring Israel and the Palestinians to a settlement, and negotiations with Iran on its nuclear project. Read more

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