Browsing the archives for the American History category.

Why the Democratic Party Is in Bigger Trouble Than It Realizes

American History, big picture stuff, Democratic Party, liberalism and progressivism, Obama Administration, Sanders and Clinton, self-destruction

Regarding the perpetual complaint that young voters don’t turn out for midterm elections, which gives Congress to Republicans — yeah, I used to complain about that too. But try to imagine what the Democratic Party must look like to younger voters.

I’m old enough to remember when Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt were still alive and still influential in party politics. I was in middle school during the Kennedy Administration. For all his flaws regarding Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson initiated genuinely progressive domestic programs. I was in high school when Bobby Kennedy ran for President and was assassinated. I cast my first vote for POTUS for George McGovern. So that’s the Democratic Party I remember — flawed and messy, but still a vehicle for doing the right thing, at least part of the time.

But that party died a quiet death some time back. I’m not sure that other people my age realize this. The Democratic Party now is closer to where the Republicans were during the Nixon Administration than they are to being the party of Truman, Kennedy or even LBJ.

But at least the Nixon Republicans sort of stood for something. You knew where they were coming from. The current party Democratic Party stands for nothing.

I’m not sure when it happened, exactly, but sometime between the McGovern blowout in 1972 and the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the party of FDR, Truman and Kennedy died. Clinton ushered in a fundamental change in the Democratic Party that made it about winning elections on the Right’s terms. It became the party of lowered expectations, learned helplessness and “at least we’re not as bad as they are.” But what does it actually stand for any more, as a party?

I recently got into a sad discussion about how the party abandoned the legacy of FDR. I mentioned FDR’s great 1941 State of the Union address — the “Four Freedoms” speech. This encapsulates what the party should still stand for, I said. A Clinton supporter dismissed this as ancient history. You want to have it both ways, she said. You keep saying it’s not 1972 any more, and now you want to go back to 1941. The Democrats have moved on.

So I quoted this portion of the speech:

Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world.

For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Personally, I think anyone who wants to call himself a REAL DEMOCRAT ought to memorize that passage and recite it daily.

FDR continued:

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement.

As examples:

We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.

We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.

And we’re still working on that stuff. Maybe we’ll always be working on that stuff. As technological and economic conditions change, we’ll have to keep adjusting. But it’s hard to even talk about some of these things now, never mind work on them. We’ve done something about health care, although we need to do more. But looking ahead I don’t see any plans from most Dems except to try to stop what we have accomplished from being further eroded.

Roosevelt went on to say that people would be required to pay more taxes to make these things happen. He was re-elected later that year anyway. And no, Pearl Harbor hadn’t been bombed yet.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants–everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

Compare/contrast to right-wing calls for carpet bombing the Middle East to get rid of ISIS. For that matter, compare/contrast to Hillary Clinton’s “vision” of dealing with ISIS. It’s all about military and anti-terrorist options. There’s no vision there.

Now, some would say that Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war proved FDR hopelessly idealistic. I don’t think so. These ideals lived on in programs like the Marshall Plan, which helped secure a lasting peace in western Europe and which is the sort of thing that would never get past a right-wing Congress today, and which the current Democratic Party would never even dare propose. And FDR was a great war president and hardly a pacifist weenie, btw.

We have to acknowledge that FDR didn’t always live up to his own ideals — the Japanese-American internment, for example — but that doesn’t mean the ideals themselves were wrong.

As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s a good argument to be made that in 1992, Clintonian “triangulation,” moving Right to finesse the Reaganites on their own turf, was the only way a Democrat could have won the White House. But it’s time to drop that strategy now, because it’s holding us all back. The current Dem establishment, never mind Hillary Clinton herself, is stuck in the past and ignoring the realities of the current political climate, which is that the Republican Party is falling apart and the young folks are hungry for a more assertively progressive left-wing party that actually stands for something other than technocratic responses to whatever problems arise. Which is all Hillary Clinton knows.

And when some of us start talking about a real progressive vision, the Clintonistas dismiss us as naive “purists” who don’t understand what’s practical. I guess by their definition FDR wasn’t practical (see: New Deal; victory in World War II).

But y’know what? We’ve complained for years about how younger voters don’t turn out for midterm elections and let the Republicans take over Congress. I’ve complained about that, too. But try to look at the Democrats through their eyes. They don’t remember Truman or Eleanor Roosevelt or even George McGovern or Hubert Humphrey.  They remember the Clintons. They see Democrats in Congress that sell out liberal values a large part of the time, and who can’t effectively push back against right-wing craziness. Even President Obama — who has done a lot more good than he’s given credit for — has disappointed them often by trying to make “Grand Bargains” with the Right that would have compromised essential “safety net” programs. And his foreign policy hasn’t been all that great, which is largely Clinton’s doing, IMO.

From that perspective — what’s there to vote for? Why bother?

Again, I always do trudge out and vote, if only because the Dems are not as bad as those other people. But the Dems have been coasting on we aren’t as bad as they are way too much and way too long. It’s like they’re using the Republicans to hold us hostage — vote for us or they’ll shoot your dog. And then most of them go about being way too compromised by money and lobbyists and not really responding to the people.

No, they aren’t as bad as the Republicans. But maybe the young folks are right for not settling. And if the Democratic Party doesn’t change, I wonder if it can survive.

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No to Third-Party Presidential Runs

American History, Sanders and Clinton

Now that the Democratic nomination is nearly out of reach for Bernie Sanders, a lot of his supporters are feverishly calling for him to run as an independent candidate. He’s not going to do that, because he’s smart enough to know better. But I thought I’d explain why, knowing I’m going to be ignored as some cranky old stick-in-the-mud by the young folks.

One, there have been eleven significant third-party presidential runs in American history, plus I don’t know how many obscure candidacies.  Most of the time the third-party challenger won so few votes it made no difference to the outcome. The most successful third-party challenges caused the two most popular candidates to split the majority vote, and the third most popular candidate won the election (see 1912, which was good or bad depending on how you feel about Woodrow Wilson). Note that the winner-take-all with no runoffs way we run elections makes this outcome nearly inevitable if a third-party candidate attracts significant numbers of votes.

Over the years there have been a great many third-party contests for governorships and congressional seats, and only a tiny fraction (about 2 percent) of the independent challengers have won.

Of presidential third-party candidates, the most successful were —

  • Theodore Roosevelt, 1912, Progressive Party, won 27.39 percent of the vote
  • Millard Fillmore, 1856, American Party, won 21.54 percent of the vote
  • Ross Perot, 1992, Independent, won 18.91 percent of the vote
  • Robert LaFollette, 1924, Progressive Party, won 16.62 percent of the vote
  • George Wallace, 1968, American Independent, won 13.3 percent of the vote
  • Martin van Buren, 1848, Free Soil Party, won 10.13 percent of the vote

(I left out 1860 because it was such an anomaly. The demise of the Whigs in 1854 and the split in the Democratic Party between northern and southern factions made the whole thing a chaotic mess. The chaos benefited Abraham Lincoln, who won with less than 40 percent of the vote. The remaining 60 percent of the votes were split among the two Democrats and the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party — sort of the “Third Way” of its day. Although there have been several multiple-candidate elections, I believe the 1860 election was the last one in which more than three candidates split electoral college votes. You might also remember that the 1860 election had some, um, interesting repercussions.)

See also: Abraham Lincoln Was Not a Third Party Candidate

The remaining candidates finished in the single digits. Anyway, I submit that unless we institute some kind of run-off election system, a candidate outside of the two-party system has no chance. If Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t do it, ain’t nobody gonna do it. People genuinely loved Teddy.

Might a third party presidential run, even if unsuccessful, play any role in building a lasting movement? Again, I don’t see it. It hasn’t happened yet. Note that Teddy’s Progressive Party of 1912 was an entirely different organization from Bob LaFollette’s Progressive Party of 1924; they just happen to share the same name. Ross Perot tried again in 1996 with a Reform Party, which he and others had hoped to turn into a permanent movement. It may still exist in some form, actually.  Other than the election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota in 1998, they don’t appear to have accomplished anything.

So, there’s nothing in history to show us that there’s anything to gain by attempting a third-party presidential run. Such an attempt most probably would use up a lot of money and energy and accomplish nothing.  Plus, I must gently suggest that if Sanders couldn’t win enough votes to secure the nomination — however that happened — he’s not exactly a sure thing in the general, much as we might wish otherwise.

Note that Bernie Sanders himself would probably argue that he didn’t run because he wanted to be President, but because he wanted to push the country Left. Eyes on the real prize, folks.

Another option is to build a party from the ground up that might someday displace one of the other two. That’s happened once before, when the Republican Party stepped into the niche vacated by the Whigs in the 1850s. Given the current state of affairs it’s not impossible that something like that could happen again, so I wouldn’t put that option completely off the table. But it’s a long shot.

And the other option is to keep organizing and supporting progressive candidates running as Democrats, and eventually taking over the party. This is possible. But it won’t happen overnight.

However, I do hope a sustained organization can come out of this election, because I think there will be much political upheaval in the next few years that might offer opportunities if we are ready. And please note that I’m not talking about doing anything violent. But if the Democrats continue to be weakened by their internal issues and stubborn resistance to acknowledging the will of the people, opportunity might arise.

Having said all that, I know some will want to ignore me and will prepare all kinds of charts and data to show that Bernie really could win the general election as an independent candidate.  If you live long enough, eventually you learn that not everything you want to believe really is true.

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Nancy Reagan, 1921-2016

American History

I’m sure she’s already ordered new china and is planning to replace the celestial draperies.

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The Constitutional Anchor Baby Crisis, Revisited

American History, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

On the Right the Shiny Object de la semaine, if not du jour, is birthright citizenship. This is the legal right to citizenship of all babies born in the U.S. regardless of the status of their parents. From time to time conservatives get whipped up into a Nativist frenzy and demand that birthright citizenship be ended, and now is one of those times.

It’s widely believed that birthright citizenship is established by the 14th Amendment, and that it would take a constitutional amendment to change it. But many on the Right deny this. They don’t think the 14th says what it says, and they think birthright citizenship could be ended through an act of Congress. For example, Edward J. Erler wrote in National Review,

A correct understanding of the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment and legislation passed by Congress in the late 19th century and in 1923 extending citizenship to American Indians provide ample proof that Congress has constitutional power to define who is within the “jurisdiction of the United States” and therefore eligible for citizenship. Simple legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president would be constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.

I don’t have time to write a long post explaining why Erler is wrong. Fortunately, I already wrote that post, more than five years ago. In the earlier post (The Constitutional Anchor Baby Crisis) I respond to a George Will column that made nearly identical arguments to Erler’s. And those arguments are taken pretty much wholesale from the minority opinion in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898) . The detail that Will and Erler both hope nobody notices is that the majority opinion in Wong Kim Ark disagreed.

Erler also tries to argue that Wong Kim Ark only applies to children born of legal aliens, but I read the Wong Kim Ark opinion, and that’s not apparent to me. For one thing, I’m not sure “illegal aliens” was conceptualized then as we conceptualize it now. In any event, Wong Kim Ark was a man born in the U.S. to Chinese laborer parents who were considered “subjects of the Emperor,” at a time when Chinese laborers were strictly excluded from the U.S.  But Wong Kim Ark claimed citizenship by right of birth, and the Court agreed with him.

So here’s most of the earlier Anchor Baby post, and you can substitute “Erler” for “Will” if you like.

Now, most legal experts say that because of the 14th Amendment, Congress does not have the power to deny citizenship to so-called “anchor babies.” Doing this would require a constitutional amendment. But righties are arguing no, because the 14th Amendment doesn’t say what it says. This argument was presented by none other than George Will a few days ago, and it is a tortured argument, indeed. But when I read Will’s column I didn’t have the time to research what he was saying to see if it could hold mayonnaise, never mind water.

But lo, yesterday, while researching something else entirely, I ran into a discussion of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898) (see also Wikipedia discussion of Wong). Wong Kim Ark was a man born in the United States of ethnic Chinese parents. At the time, the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect. You probably remember that this barred anyone of the Chinese “race” from entering the U.S., and it denied citizenship to ethnic Chinese people already in the U.S. Wong challenged this law, and in a 6-2 decision the Supreme Court agreed with Wong, and said he was a citizen of the United States by virtue of being born here. And it seems to me there’s a made-for-television movie script in there somewhere.

Anyway, as I read about the Wong decision I realized that the dissenting argument in the Wong case is exactly the same argument being made today by Will and the Republican lawmakers.

The dissent was based on an interpretation of the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” Will and the two SCOTUS dissenters (John Harlan and Melville Fuller) say this phrase means “and not subject to any foreign power.” In their dissent of Wong, Harlan and Fuller point out that native Americans were (at the time) not citizens of the U.S. because the Civil Rights Act of 1866 had given citizenship to “all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed.”

This act became law just two months before the 14th Amendment was proposed. So, the argument is, this wording gives us insight into where lawmakers’ heads were at the time. And thus, if the parents are subjects of a foreign power, then their baby born in the U.S. is not eligible for citizenship. This was the dissenting opinion in Wong in 1898, and Will repeated this same argument in his Washington Post column. Will doesn’t bother discussing that pesky Wong majority opinion, however.

Will argues further,

What was this [the jurisdiction phrase] intended or understood to mean by those who wrote it in 1866 and ratified it in 1868? The authors and ratifiers could not have intended birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants because in 1868 there were and never had been any illegal immigrants because no law ever had restricted immigration.

As far as I know, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first attempt to render any sort of immigration illegal, and it didn’t become law until 1882. Congress had passed an earlier version of the exclusion act in 1878, but this was vetoed by President Hayes. But the Wong majority decision says plainly that an act of Congress making Chinese immigration illegal, and denying citizenship status to ethnic Chinese, did not override the clear language of the 14th Amendment.

So, whether Will and the Republican lawmakers like it or not, SCOTUS already nixed their argument.

The majority opinion in Wong is based partly on English common law, which said that babies born in England are English, with the exception of the children of diplomats and children born to hostile forces occupying English territory.

In addition, at the time native American tribes were not considered subject to U.S. jurisdiction and were therefore not citizens. Another case decided in 1884 (Elk v. Wilkins, 112 U.S. 94) had declared that a native American who left his tribe and went to live in a white community didn’t automatically get citizenship, although he could be considered a citizen if he went through whatever naturalization process existed at the time and paid taxes.

Will leans heavily on the example of non-citizen native Americans to argue that the 14th Amendment was not intended to confer citizenship to babies of foreigners who happened to be in the U.S. at the time. But the Elk decision (which Will doesn’t mention, either) did not consider Indian tribes to be foreign states. A tribe was an alien political entity which Congress dealt with through treaties, but not the same thing as a foreign nation.

So, it seems to me the Wong decision — the majority opinion, anyway — more closely speaks to the circumstance of babies born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants than does the Elk decision. And I think I just blew by nerd blogging quotient for the day.

Update: Read more about Wong Kim Ark in “The Progeny of Citizen Wong.”

And thank goodness for archives.

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The Anniversary

American History

Today is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. The New Yorker is republishing John Hersey’s essay Hiroshima, which originally appeared in the August 31, 1946 issue. The essay centers on six Hiroshima residents who survived the blast, giving us as intimate a view of the devastation as language can provide. Recommended.

Salon is running an essay arguing that America has never owned up to Hiroshima. The author, Christian Appy, argues that the bomb was unnecessary and was dropped purely as an act of cruelty. Appy is a historian, although the body of his published work is on Vietnam, not World War II. I’m not a historian, but I have some familiarity with the sources he cites as well as some he didn’t cite. The phrase “cherry-picked” comes to mind; I’ll come back to this in a bit.

In Rethinking Religion I have a section on “moral clarity,” defined as “a state of mind achieved by staking a fixed position on a presumed moral high ground and then ignoring the details of human life that fog the view.” My primary example of “moral clarifying” are the anti-abortion activists who argue incessantly for the sacredness and rights of the fetus while barely mentioning the woman carrying the fetus in her body.

Appy, and many other liberals, try to pull something like that with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They stake the moral high ground that dropping the bomb was absolutely evil, and then revise history six ways from Sunday to “prove” that the men who chose to drop it were just evil and callous and had some nefarious end other than the stated one, which was to end the war quickly and avoid a ground invasion of Japan.

I do not know if the bomb was militarily “necessary” or a better or worse option than the ground invasion. I don’t think anyone can know such a thing for certain. You can find all kinds of arguments made later, by both generals and historians, for both options. What I do sincerely believe is that the men who were faced with making the decision did not have the “benefit” of moral clarity. Based on the information at hand and recent events in the war, there was no “good” option in front of those men that would clearly have avoided a massive loss of life, including Japanese civilian lives. Many liberals today fervently want to believe otherwise, but I think that’s revisionism.

Yesterday I read arguments that Japan was just about to surrender, anyway (not according to any history I’ve read). I read arguments that the Japanese people could just have been starved until they surrendered. I fail to see why that would be a more moral option, especially considering the loss of life probably would have been even higher.  One genius commenting on Appy’s article was absolutely certain the bomb was dropped to intimidate the U.S.S.R., whom the commenter imagined was about to come to the aid of Japan. Why the U.S.S.R. might have done that I can’t imagine; the U.S.S.R. still needed the Allies, and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), in which Japan pretty much handed Russia its ass, had not yet passed from memory. Another  theory was that the bomb was about the Cold War, and was dropped as a warning to the U.S.S.R. But the Cold War hadn’t really begun yet and wasn’t really on anyone’s radar in 1945, I don’t think.

If we’re discussing the morality of something, there’s an understandable human tendency to want to find oneself on the side of the angels, whatever that might be. The knee-jerk tendency of some is to cite Japanese atrocities committed in World War II to argue that Japan “deserved” Hiroshima, but I reject that as a moral argument. It’s not up to us to judge what other people, especially civilians, “deserve.”

The knee-jerk tendency of others is to seize the moral high ground by deriding the decision itself, to portray the dropping of the Bomb as utterly evil, unnecessary, and proof of the moral depravity of the U.S. government and military.  This position allows one no end of indulgent self-righteousness while appearing to be “smart” about what that sneaky government really is up to. But that’s a post-Vietnam view of things.

So why was the bomb dropped? By June 1945 the U.S. had made elaborate plans for a ground invasion of Japan, fortified by blockades and bombardments. Several invasion scenarios were on the table. The Joint War Plans Committee prepared casualty estimates for each. The Committee emphasized that any number they might give could be wildly off. Appy cited one of these estimates, 40,000 killed. That was a lowball; the Committee also said that the deaths could total as many as 220,000 if the Allied troops were forced to seize all of the island of Kyushu and the Tokyo plain. The staffs of generals MacArthur and Nimitz also prepared death estimates in the quarter million range. Appy doesn’t mention that.

Soon after these estimates were provided military intelligence learned it had drastically underestimated the number of Japanese troops on Kyushu, the island chosen for the initial invasion. The invasion plans had assumed there were 300,000 Japanese troops on Kyushu that June; on August 2, an MIS report stated there were at least 534,000 troops on Kyushu, and possibly more. [source]

Put another way — by the first week in August, the estimated total of Japanese army and naval combat troops on Kyushu alone was more than six times what it had been on Okinawa. Note that the combined death toll of Allied and Japanese troops and civilians on Okinawa is still disputed, but could have been as high as 240,000. Nearly a quarter of a million. Most of those casualties were civilians, many of whom committed suicide.

By the first week in August, the old casualty estimates had been pretty much tossed out the window. Appy doesn’t mention that.

President Truman said after the war that Gen. George Marshall had told him an invasion would cost “at a minimum one quarter of a million casualties and might cost as much as a million.” Truman may have been making excuses for himself, but the quarter million number was consistent with other estimates.

Meanwhile, the bomb itself was an unknown factor. From what I’ve read, for example, pretty much everyone underestimated the danger from fallout. We’ve had 70 years of living with nuclear weapons as a fact, and of watching movies and reading novels in which humankind destroyed itself with thermonuclear weapons. The Bomb has had 70 years to take its place in our collective subconscious as the mythical One Forbidden Thing; the thing that must never be done. But in 1945, nuclear weapons weren’t unthinkable yet.

So, knowing only what Harry Truman knew in August 1945, looking only at the options he had in front of him, what do you do?

I’m not sure there was a “right” decision. There was no clear, easy out. Any decision made would have resulted in unbearable loss of life. I think it’s entirely possible that if the bombs had never been dropped, today we’d be complaining that America has never apologized for the bloodbaths on Kyushu and Honshu, and if Truman had just dropped the bomb much of that could have been avoided. We’ll never know, of course. It’s also foolish to assume that if the U.S. had never developed the Bomb there’d be no nuclear stockpiles today.

My larger point, though, is that if we’re going to own up to something, we need to own up to how difficult a decision that was to make. Real-time, real-world moral decisions often are very, very difficult. Often, “moral clarity” is achievable only if we close our eyes to most of the facts. Often there’s no “good” solution. This is how it is. It’s childish to assume everything sorts itself into good and evil, and we can just choose good and remain pure.

It’s also estimated that the incendiary bombs dropped on Japan by B-29s could have resulted in as many as 200,000 civilian deaths, and many people were burned alive. Yet, somehow, we’re never asked to don sackcloth and ashes about those deaths, even though they seem just as terrible to me. This speaks to the unique place the atomic bomb occupies in our collective subconscious, I think.

For the record, the official estimates of killed and wounded in Hiroshima (150,000) and Nagasaki (75,000) are no doubt conservative and may have exceeded the loss of life from firebombing. But we don’t know for certain.

But to my mind, arguing about the morality of the bomb is the wrong argument. We should be thinking about the morality of killing, by any means, as an instrument of policy, period. That would be the better way to remember Hiroshima.

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The Lost Cause Is Losing

American History, Republican Party

As political support for keeping Confederate flags flying over statehouses evaporates, and as even Wal-Mart has declared it will stop stocking Confederate flag merchandise (current inventory is moving at a brisk pace, though), the Moonlight and Magnolia bitter enders are filled with despair.

“This is the beginning of communism,” said Robert Lampley, who was standing in the blazing sun in front of the South Carolina State House shortly after the legislature voted overwhelmingly to debate the current placement of the Confederate battle flag. “The South is the last bastion of liberty and independence. I know we’re going to lose eventually.”

“Our people are dying off,” he went on, before encouraging a white reporter to “keep reproducing.”

They’re worried that some tidal wave will destroy Confederate monuments and force the re-naming of all the (Nathan Bedford) Forrest Avenues to Malcolm X Boulevards. Heh.

One guy suggested removing the Confederate flag from statehouses and replacing it with another flag associated with the Confederacy (there were several) but not associated with racist movements.

“You’re asking me to agree that my great-grandparent and great-great-grandparents were monsters,” said Greg Stewart, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the executive director of Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis.

No, we’re asking you to agree that your great-grandparent and great-great grandparents lost the freaking war and surrendered their flags to Gen. J. L. Chamberlain at Appomattox 150 years ago. The Lost Cause is really, truly lost. Try to adjust.

Some of them are complaining that the change is coming too fast. Too fast? It’s been 150 bleeping years.

Today the governor of Alabama ordered a Confederate flag be removed from state capitol grounds. Sen. Mitch McConnell requested that a statue of Jefferson Davis be removed from the Kentucky state capitol. Well, he’s still got most of a six-year term to serve; he probably feels safe. Governors of several states are requesting that Confederate specialty license plates be redesigned.

My guess is that these guys realized this was going to have to happen sooner or later, and they might as well do it now while they’ve got some political cover.

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Grant Versus Lee

American History

Going back to Appomattox — Jamelle Bouie has an excellent article at Slate that I urge people to read. Bouie is spot-on correct in both his historical facts and his analysis of how we remember Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant the way we do.

From the end of the Civil War and through the rest of the 19th century, U.S. Grant was one of the most popular and respected figures in American life and history. According to many accounts, his death in 1885 threw the nation into the same depth of grief as had the death of Abraham Lincoln. People around the country donated money to build him a grand memorial tomb, and when it was dedicated in 1897 there was a huge parade and vast crowds of people turned out to pay their respects once again.

On the other hand, R. E. Lee’s generalship was more flawed than confederate apologists will ever admit. Some time back the British military historian J.F.C. Fuller wrote an analysis of the generalship of Grant and Lee, and Fuller found Lee highly overrated. In Fuller’s view Lee was second-rate in most regards. (Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship is still in print and is very readable. If you’re into military history I recommend it highly. See also Fuller’s The Generalship Of Ulysses S. Grant.)

But a few generations later, people remembered Grant as a stupid, drunken brute and Lee as nearly a saint. Bouie explains why and how that happened. Much of it has to do with Grant’s policies as President during Reconstruction, namely that he took equal rights for the freed people seriously and tried to protect them. Bouie writes,

As best as possible, President Grant was a firm leader of Reconstruction America. Faced with the titanic challenge of integrating freedmen into American politics, he attacked the problem with characteristic clarity and flexibility. He proposed civil rights legislation (and would be the last president to do so until Dwight D. Eisenhower, nearly a century later) and deployed troops to hot spots across the South, to defend black Americans from white supremacist violence.* And while there were failures—at times he was too passive in the face of white violence, too paralyzed by petty politics—there were real victories too. After Congress passed the Enforcement Acts—criminal codes that protected blacks’ 14thand 15th Amendment rights to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws—Grant authorized federal troops to confront the Ku Klux Klan and other groups of anti-black terrorists. Declaring them “insurgents … in rebellion against the authority of the United States,” Grant and his subordinates—most notably Attorney General Amos Ackerman and the newly formed Department of Justice—broke the Klan and restored some peace to the Republican South.

In using federal power to prosecute white supremacists and support Reconstruction governments, Grant had tied his fortunes to those of freedmen and their allies. They were grateful. Grant won re-election in 1872 with the vast backing of black voters in the South, as well as former Union soldiers in the North. Appalled by his use of force in the South, his enemies dogged him as an enemy of liberty. Indeed, for as much as scandal plagued his administration, it’s also true that many cries of corruption came from angry and aggrieved Democrats, who attacked military intervention in the South as “corrupt” and “unjust.” Opponents in the North and South reviled Grant as a “tyrant” who imposed so-called “black domination” on an innocent South.

Unfortunately, in the early 20th century some confederate sympathizing historians got themselves into leading positions in American academia and saw to it that history as cranked out by scholars of the day reflected their biases. In the latter part of the 20th century some historians began to turn this around and correct the record, but much of the correction hasn’t trickled down to primary and secondary education or undergraduate history classes.

The Gone With the Wind version of Reconstruction history, in which poor destitute Scarlett O’Hara was reduced to eating raw radishes (from the garden she still owned next to the mansion she still occupied), apparently because the “servants” had run away and she had never learned to cook, is still being foisted on schoolchildren around the country. I have found young people who still believe that Reconstruction was “punishment” for the South because of the Civil War or because Lincoln was assassinated, or some such thing.

The truth is that the freed people were being terrorized and slaughtered wholesale by white mobs, sometimes by the hundreds. Freedmen frequently were shot for trying to vote. In one particularly horrible massacre in New Orleans, 1866, whites —  including police and city officials — stormed a peaceful political convention of people who wanted to end the black codes, killing 238 people, mostly African American.

General Grant, who in 1866 was something like the Joint Chiefs of Staff in one person,  had stationed Phil Sheridan in that district to keep the peace. Fake reports of violence in Texas drew Sheridan out of New Orleans, allowing the massacre to take place. By all accounts, Grant was furious and suspected Andrew Johnson’s administration of being complicit in the fake reports.

And that’s why President Grant ordered troops into the South. It had nothing to do with “punishing” anybody for Lincoln’s Assassination.

The best history of Reconstruction is Eric Foner‘s, but recently when I recommended Foner to some young folks on the Web they dismissed him as a “socialist.” So, because they don’t like his politics — which they probably don’t understand — they assume his history is bunk. Never mind that other historians regard him as the preeminent historian of the Reconstruction era of his generation. Thus are the ignorant kept ignorant.

Lee was a complicated guy whose choice to fight with the Confederacy was possibly more motivated by restoring family honor than defending slavery. The Lees of Virginia had been patrician and prominent for generations. But Lee’s father, Revolutionary War hero Light-Horse Harry Lee, somehow spent the fortunes of two wealthy wives — gambling and other vices are hinted at — and when Harry was in debtor’s prison Lee’s mother took toddler Robert and his baby sister to live with her wealthy family near Arlington. So he was raised in the plantation class but wasn’t entirely of it, since he had no inheritance or property of his own. At the same time, an older half-brother, a son of Light-Horse Harry by his first wife, got into some sort of big, splashy sex scandal, I believe with his wife’s sister. I suspect that what really motivated Lee was a need to prove he belonged in the patrician class he had been born into. Note also that R.E. Lee married into the Custis family, descendants of Martha Washington by her first husband.

Confederate apologists like to point out that Lee never owned slaves, but the fact is Lee never owned much of anything except through his marriage. But he married into a slave-owning family and appears to have not minded that.

Let it not be forgotten that when African American troops were captured by his army, saintly Robert E. put them to work building fortifications where they were within range of Union fire. White troops, on the other hand, were traded for Confederates in prisoner exchanges. Grant and Lincoln both felt that soldiers were soldiers and should be treated alike, and when Lee refused to exchange black prisoners the prisoner exchanges stopped, causing much human misery for which Grant and Lincoln, but not Lee, have been blamed.

One more note about Grant’s alleged drinking — that’s the one thing people know about Grant, was that he was a drunk. But these days historians say otherwise. There are some credible accounts of binge-drinking when he was a young officer stuck on the Pacific Coast away from his family, but the stories of his drinking during the Civil War mostly come from one uncorroborated source, or have been proved to be unfounded. The one fact about Grant all his biographers agree on is that his marriage was very happy, which is not generally the case with alcoholics. Accounts of White House dinners suggest he was able to drink a glass or two of wine and then stopping, which is not generally the case with alcoholics. So let’s put the “Grant the Drunk” slander to rest.

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America the Obstructed

American History

Timothy Egan on Lincoln:

Now think of the legacy on this anniversary of the American passion play. Think of free land for the landless, the transcontinental railroad, the seeding of what would grow into national parks, the granting of human rights to people who had none. …

… But beyond: Could the Republicans who control Congress in 2015, the party of no, ever pass a Homestead Act? That law, which went into effect the very day, Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln’s wartime executive order to free slaves in the breakaway states did, carries a clause that very few Republicans would support now.

Former slaves, “famine Irish,” Russian Jews, single women, Mexicans who didn’t speak a word of English — all qualified to claim 160 acres as their own. You didn’t have to be a citizen to get your quarter-square-mile. You just had to intend to become a citizen.

In that sense, the Homestead Act was the Dream Act of today. It had a path to citizenship and prosperity for those in this country who were neither citizens nor prosperous.

Consider the vision to stitch a railroad from east to west, an enormous tangle of infrastructure. In 1862, Lincoln signed legislation spurring construction of the transcontinental railroad. That same year, he approved a bill that led to the creation of land grant colleges.

And so on. He also signed a bill that allowed California to protect the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias from being developed by private enterprise. President Ulysses S. Grant would later make Yosemite Yellowstone the first National Park in the history of the world.

All these things were essential to building the United States into the economoic powerhouse it would become in the 20th century. And Egan’s point is that today’s Republican Party would have just obstructed all of it.

Today, Congress will not even approve enough money to keep decrepit bridges from falling down, and has whittled away funds to help working kids stay in college. It’s laughable to think of Republicans’ approving of something visionary and forward-looking in the realm of transportation, energy or education. Government, in their minds, can never be a force for good.

And then there’s this:

The great, nation-shaping accomplishments of Lincoln’s day happened only because the South, always with an eye on protecting slavery and an estate-owning aristocracy, had left the union — ridding Congress of the naysayers.

There’s a lot of truth in that. The 19th century Democratic Party was anti-progressive. They not only favored slavery and later Jim Crow laws; they were also opposed to the role the federal government played in getting the railroads built. A lot of them reflexively opposed spending tax money on infrastructure projects, I have read.

The parties switched positions in the 20th century, so now the Dems are the progressives and the Republicans are the obstructionists. The point, though is that in the 19th century for a time the nation was able to invest in itself, and it became more prosperous thereby. Today’s Republicans like to warble about exceptionalism, but their policies are rendering the U.S. nothing but an exceptionally crappy place to live.

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Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh

American History, Republican Party

Well, it’s move-in day at the Zen Center (ZCNYC-Fire Lotus Temple). Exactly how long I’m going to be there is up in the air. My intention is to stay at least six months and possibly a year, but we’ll see how it goes. And where I go after that I have no idea.

Anyway, some brief comments — Tom Cotton has learned that Iran is expanding its reach in the Middle East and already controls Tehran. He’s a quick one, our Tom. See also Jeb Lund, “None Dare Call It Treason: Tom Cotton, Iran and Old GOP Ideas.”

The CPAC conference room was standing-room only, stuffy with faint sweat, hot worsted wool and heavy breathing for boilerplate comments you could have predicted before you crossed the threshold. Cotton – who looks appropriately like Anthony Perkins in Psycho – proudly likened America to Rome, an empire that slowly tore itself apart over for-profit foreign wars, external threats leveraged to drown out domestic discontent, revenue diverted from infrastructure. Listeners murmured approvingly. Cotton asserted the need to send America to war to “defend its national interests” against “trans-national terrorist groups.” By his utterly meaningless definitions, we need to fight anyone, and we need to do it anywhere, and it is our right. A thrill went through the audience.

IMO it’s important to understand neocons and other reactionary hawks as pro-active isolationists. Oldstyle isolationists just wanted the outside world to stay out, and maybe go away. Pro-active isolationists will not rest until anything “outside” has been either forced into assimilation or destroyed. They’re something like the Borg, in other words.

Lund goes on to review the history of right-wing obstruction of U.S. foreign policy interests, from the 1930s Neutrality Acts to Richard Nixon’s sabotage of Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to negotiate a peace in Vietnam. And there is a review of Iran-Contra and the lie campaign that stampeded America into invading Iraq. And the fact that nobody ever is held accountable for any of this, and indeed, most of the voting public doesn’t really understand what was done, anyway.  Lund concludes,

In its Constitutional idolatry and boundless bellicosity, Cotton’s Republican Party has arrogated to itself the presumption that anything it does is explicitly American. The normative conditions of patriotism are whatever they want to do at any given moment, because only they have the courage to defend you from enemies abroad with guns and enemies at home via a fundamentalist reading of the texts and hadith of Our Founding Prophets (which, conveniently, also mentions guns). Anything outside their chosen agenda is met with the word no, which is the finest distillation of their agenda for anyone other than their own.

This prospective nuclear deal with Iran merely creates a shredded barbecue plate of corpses and the idea of America as commonwealth of disparate voices represented in equal strength. Government is not allowed to function when it disagrees with Cotton, because he not only considers government’s existence indivisible from his ideology but also because the Constitution in his reading explicitly demands that he do this. You cannot chasten a man who believes by the word of his holiest texts that this is his job. And his job, as written, is to advise and consent. On Iran, his message is clear. His advice is to stop, and you do not have his consent, which reifies not only the illegitimacy of your actions but the holy writ of his own. Without his consent, you cannot have anything at all, except a potential nuclear clash of messianic visions of world order. In which case – to quote the previous president’s nuanced address to the same enemies foreign and domestic – bring it on.

It’s also election day in Israel, and while Netenyahu’s Likud party is likely to lose he likely will be able to put together a coalition that will allow him to keep his position as Prime Minister. A pity.

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The Weekly Smoke and Mirrors

American History

Weekly Standard headline on article by Daniel Halper: “NYTimes Fails to Disclose Clinton Paid for Interviews About Administration.”

Wow, the Times paid Hillary Clinton for interviews? That’s really odd, but … oh, wait, that’s not what happened.

In a five year span, the William J Clinton Foundation gave five grants totaling $851,250 to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. One year in particular, 2007, the Clinton gift was specifically marked: “Oral history project of Clinton presidency.”

Well, today the New York Times has a front page feature on the newly released oral history project about the Clinton presidency. The one the Clintons helped pay for. But nowhere in the 2,600 word piece do Times writers Amy Chozick (who is on the Clinton beat) and Peter Baker (longtime White House reporter) disclose the obvious conflict of interest.

Per Halpern’s article, in 2007 the Clinton Foundation marked $144,350 to pay for an oral history project of the Clinton presidency. The other four grants were not so marked. In the Times article about the oral history project, the Times failed to disclose that some of the funding for the project came from the Clinton Foundation. Halpern insinuates this was money being used to pay for fodder to help HRC’s assumed presidential bid in 2016. (Money spent in 2007? Was this about 2008? But the interviews weren’t made public until recently.)

But the Times article Halpern whines about suggests the oral history, which discusses HRC as First Lady, isn’t necessarily flattering to HRC and actually undermines some of her claims about her role as FLOTUS. And in fact Halpern couldn’t resist quoting some of the unflattering stuff about HRC’s screwups, thereby refuting his own thesis. But then he sneers, “An image of a strong, smart, loyal Hillary Clinton is one the former first lady will surely want 2016 voters to have of her. So perhaps it’s safe to say the Clinton Foundation’s $851,250 to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center was money well spent.”

In fact, the “oral history project” really isn’t really about the Clintons exclusively. Per the Miller Center website,

The Presidential Oral History Program is systematically and comprehensively debriefing the principal figures in the administrations of Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton, with plans to do the same for future presidents. We are also conducting special projects on important topics in political history, including a six-year oral history on the life and career of Senator Edward M. Kennedy.


The Presidential Oral History Program is a public service endeavor to provide such means and to preserve the true voices of past presidencies for posterity. …

… Accordingly our approach, first developed in the Center’s 1981–85 interview study of the Carter White House, differs from traditional interview practice in several respects. Rather than concentrating on a particular personality, issue or type of activity, we endeavor to cover in our interview program all the key actors in the administration together with the important issues and activities in which they were involved. Rather than one-on-one interviews, our interviews are normally conducted by teams of three or four scholars in several sessions over a two-day period. … Rather than Q&A sessions, the interviews may be likened to seminars in which former officials are teachers about the presidency in which they served and interviewers are students who want to have a better understanding of that presidency than is likely to be gained from news stories, memoirs, or public documents alone.

In other words, the Clintons were not in control of the interviews and were not paying for fluff and flattery. Halpern is crafting a “scandal” out of smoke and mirrors. So typical of the Weekly Standard.

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