Archive for category American History
I’ve written about the ways in which many conservatives seem to yearn for yesteryear. This morning, historian Stephanie Coontz offered a fascinating and compelling article in the NY Times on the dangers of nostalgia:
In society at large, however, nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.[snip]
Happy memories also need to be put in context. I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements, which they saw as destroying the harmonious world they remembered.
Read the whole thing, it’s worth it.
It certainly took long enough. The new 577-page torture report from The Constitution Project’s bipartisan commission concluded (emphasis added):
The question as to whether U.S. forces and agents engaged in torture has been complicated by the existence of two vocal camps in the public debate. This has been particularly vexing for traditional journalists who are trained and accustomed to recording the arguments of both sides in a dispute without declaring one right and the other wrong. The public may simply perceive that there is no right side, as there are two equally fervent views held views on a subject, with substantially credentialed people on both sides. In this case, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that among those who insist that the United States did not engage in torture are figures who served at the highest levels of government, including Vice President Dick Cheney.
But this Task Force is not bound by this convention.
The members, coming from a wide political spectrum, believe that arguments that the nation did not engage in torture and that much of what occurred should be defined as something less than torture are not credible.
Now that a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel has reached the conclusion that President George W. Bush and his top advisers bear “ultimate responsibility” for authorizing torture in violation of domestic and international law, the question becomes what should the American people and their government do.
The logical answer would seem to be: prosecute Bush and his cronies (or turn them over to an international tribunal if the U.S. legal system can’t do the job). After all, everyone, including President Barack Obama and possibly even Bush himself, would agree with the principle that “no man is above the law.”
Interestingly enough, Section 3286 of the USA PATRIOT Act effectively abolished the statute of limitations for torture.
The U.N. Convention Against Torture, signed by President Reagan in 1988, compels all signatories who discover credible allegations that government officials have participated or been complicit in torture to “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution” (Art. 7(1)).
The disgrace of the American torture regime falls on Bush officials and secondarily the media and political institutions that acquiesced to it, but the full-scale protection of those war crimes (and the denial of justice to their victims) falls squarely on the Obama administration.
I ran across a comment by the philosopher Jeff McMahan on gun control recently, and I have been thinking about it for the past few weeks. I should probably do some research and see where he was going with it, but I haven’t had time. Instead, this is a bit of thought that has been going on in the background since I heard him. He said (roughly, I heard it, and as I said I haven’t had a chance to look it up) that generally philosophers don’t bother to discuss gun control as philosophy, because we assume that the weight of the facts alone will show that no rational person would support gun ownership. That gave me pause for two reasons: first, he is right, I assume that the facts are enough to show that owning guns is generally a bad idea, and second, that it may be a huge moral mistake for the simple reason that while gun ownership seems like a private matter, it clearly isn’t. As I mentioned, I don’t know where he was headed with the topic, but he is certainly implying that it is a mistake to pass up the opportunity to think philosophically about gun control.
So how exactly do we think about gun control in a philosophical manner? My first reaction is to simply break it down to its basic components and then look for assumptions and relationships. Read the rest of this entry »
The “I’m not racist even though I’m doing something actually racist right now” rationale is linked to the notion of racism as something worthy of societal condemnation. That is a good thing. As Sugrue identifies in his book, you see a post-World-War-II consensus forming in the 1950s that racial discrimination actually is wrong.
The folks at Winning Progressive have posted their third and final installment on their series on Tom Allen’s book Dangerous Convictions. Allen’s thesis is summed up neatly by pointing out that Republicans and Democrats see the world very differently, that for all their faults the Democrats are far more likely to be guided by evidence, facts and the world as it is while Republicans tend to be guided by ideological convictions which are as often as not as at variance with the real world and which lead to problematic and downright negative outcomes. Republicans are guided by an understanding of freedom and liberty that says “the economic pie can grow and “a rising tide lifts all boats,” but the liberty pie is fixed and “more government” inevitably means “less freedom.” From this perspective flows a host of Republican positions.
Part three of the series looks at Allen’s proposed solutions:
Allen proposes a wide range of solutions to our polarized politics. He argues that we should be guided by “four neglected virtues” – respect for evidence, tolerance of ambiguity, caring about consequences, and commitment to the common good. He also proposes a “three-legged stool” of liberty, equality, and justice as core principles for a democratic society. He argues for a more attentive media who ask for evidence and do more investigative reporting, and who recognize that political leaders usually do mean what they say. He proposes institutional and electoral reforms to reduce gerrymandering and increase voter participation, and campaign finance reform, including a constitutional amendment if need be to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Louie CK gives Jay Leno a lesson in the relevance of historical context in this clip from the Tonight Show.
Every year white people add 100 years to how long ago slavery was. I’ve heard educated white people say, ‘slavery was 400 years ago.’ No it very wasn’t. It was 140 years ago…that’s two 70-year-old ladies living and dying back to back. That’s how recently you could buy a guy.
Does the passage of time absolve the aggressor? How much time?
I’ve highlighted the idea that US politics are driven as much by historical cultural forces as by contemporary ones. Colin Woodward’s eleven nations thesis argues that the US is divided into 11 distinct cultural areas which align themselves in a series of shifting alliances and thus shift and move national political power. Certain longstanding alliances (Yankeedom, the Left Coast and the Midlands on the one hand and the Deep South, Tidewater and Greater Appalachia endured for decades). Woodward summed up his thesis:
The Tea Party agenda may hold sway over large parts of the South and interior West, and with the economy and the president in such a weakened state a Tea Party favorite like Rick Perry could conceivably win the White House. But the movement has no hope of truly dominating the country. Our underlying and deeply fractured political geography guarantees that it will never marshal congressional majorities; indeed, it almost guarantees that the movement will be marginalized, its power and influence on the wane and, over large swaths of the nation, all but extinguished.
Woodard’s argument is that South is not a unified region – it consists of multiple cultural areas that have a long standing tradition of allegiance – Michael Lind’s Chesapeake Bay area is part of the Tidewater region
Tidewater has always been fundamentally conservative, with a high value placed on respect for authority and tradition, and very little on equality or public participation in politics.
Tidewater is a nation in decline as the Midlands have taken over sizable portions of Tidewater (think of Northern Virginia for a good example). Read the rest of this entry »
Back in October 2011 I wrote a personal favorite post entitled Zombie Apocalypse and Herd Immunity. With the US having a bad flu season (and a nasty version of the flu) I’m thinking about vaccines, immunity and disease again. In particular, prompted by a crazy making editorial in today’s D-News, I’m thinking about the fact that vaccines work.
Fear of disease is profound although I don’t think we can imagine the kind of terror that plagues struck in the hearts of our ancestors. When the Black Death swept across Europe, it left devastation in its wake – people didn’t know how it was transmitted, how to protect themselves, how to cure the disease. Getting sick could very well mean dying and it certainly meant suffering. In many cities in the 1300s, the Black Death resulted in 50% mortality. The economic, cultural, and personal implications are devastating. It was many decades before the population recovered numerically. Medieval artwork is filled with imagery of death and destruction because it was an ever present experience. The trauma of the Black Death shook European society to its foundations and a new society literally grew out of the ruins of the old. The Black Death destroyed the old social order and created room for a new social order. Read the rest of this entry »
This topic came up on Facebook and frankly that’s a bad format for this kind of discussion. Wondering “what if the South had won the Civil War” is a favorite past time of American history buffs.
I agree with historian Shelby Foote who said:
I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back. At the same time the war was going on, the Homestead act was being passed, all these marvelous inventions were going on… If there had been more Southern victories, and a lot more, the North simply would have brought that other hand out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that War.
To put things into perspective, the CSA had a population of roughly 9.1 million people nearly 40% of whom were slaves; the USA had a population of approximately 22 million. The North had almost all the advantages. The CSA had several key weaknesses; the central government was, by design, extremely weak; the political system favored the wealthy who wrote laws to exempt their families from military service creating resentment and social unrest, the wealthy resisted allowing their slaves to be used to build defenses and begrudgingly paid taxes; the ideology of white supremacy handicapped the South:
The U.S. Civil War, University of Illinois historian Bruce Levine argues in his new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South, was no exception. Southerners launched the war to preserve slavery, and President Abraham Lincoln responded to save the Union. Ironically, the stresses and necessities of a near-total war quickly began to corrode the Confederate slave system from within and pushed an ambivalent Union to embrace emancipation to ensure victory in the field.
“A war launched to preserve slavery succeeded instead in abolishing that institution more rapidly and more radically than would have occurred otherwise,” Levine writes. “[The] ideology of white supremacy, which had always provided critical support for slavery, inhibit[ed] the slaveholders’ government from doing what it needed to do to survive.”
. . . the war dragged on for years, with much of the fighting taking place within the Confederacy. Long before Appomattox, this fighting had dealt slavery, and the underpinnings of lowland Southern society, several mortal wounds.
Religious freedom, like other concepts of freedom, is contested. What it means varies across time and place. In recent years, the US has experienced a massive shift on questions of religions; attendance and membership are down in almost every denomination, the public influence of Christianity has declined as the public face of Christianity has come to be seen as the face of bigotry and intolerance. The result has been a sharp and painful bit of cognitive dissonance for religious conservatives. From HuffPo, Read the rest of this entry »
Sunrise this morning at the U.S. Capitol (UPI photo)
I’m enjoying the all-day MSNBC coverage of President Obama’s second inauguration, unlike Mitt Romney who says he won’t be watching today.
So far, it has been a refreshing does of patriotism, from the emotional Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to the President’s call for equality for “our gay brothers and sisters.” And he promised, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
I think the President’s intentions are good, even though I often disagree with his decisions. I think he wants to do his best for the voters who entrusted him with the office for another four years. From today’s reporting:
Departing the West Front of the U.S. Capitol after delivering his second inaugural address on Monday, President Obama wanted to take one last glance of the hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered to celebrate his second term. After all, it would be his last.
“I want to take a look one more time,” Obama said, lingering for a few short moments to savor the view as the crowd shuffled past him. “I’ll never see this again.”
I don’t think he was referring to Justice Scalia’s Renaissance-style hat.