Pasley Blog Archive 11-5-02 to 12-5-02

Blog Archives

Mr. Pasley is Associate Professor of History at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the author of "The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. He writes the historical punditry column "Publick Occurrences," for Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life. In a former life, he was a speechwriter and journalist, working for a formerly liberal journal of opinion that he can now barely stand to read. Many of his historical and journalistic writings, along with some useful and much useless information, can be found on his web site.



5 December 2002

Broder Drubs the Shrub

Washington Post columnist David Broder is not an easy man to rile. His picture should be next to"phlegmatic" in the dictionary. He personifies the type of staid, serious-minded veteran reporter type who used to dominate the punditocracy before The McLaughlin group debuted, the cable networks proliferated, and political opinion became a popular bloodsport. Once upon a time, Eric Sevareid,"Washington Week in Review," and a handful of other soothing roundtable shows were the only punditry available on television, outside of the Sunday morning shows. The bone-dry stylings of William F. Buckley were about the only thing that passed for"attitude," and the earnest Broder was right at home. Not so much any more, in the world of Rush, Ann Coulter, and"Hardball."

It has taken the most plutocratic, callous, and deceptively political administration of my lifetime to get David Broder angry. Check out A Lump of Coal From the President for Broder's response to the president's disingenuous praise for servicemen and other government workers while slashing government services and cutting taxes for the rich. Broder is also sick of hearing about the need for wartime unity and sacrifice when so many private interests are fattening or preparing to fatten at the Bush administration trough:

"Almost everywhere you look, the element of shared sacrifice that should be expected in a nation at war is missing. A few people are being asked to give up a lot -- measured in time or money -- while others are being indulged in ways no one can claim are fair.""So spare me, please, the comparisons to Pearl Harbor."
Another old-school pundit, liberal-hating but truth-telling Charley Reese, hits the mark with a column on the Department of Homeland Security, which, as I have pointed out before, is exactly what the pre-sainthood Jimmy Carter would have done in the same situation. Along with the appointment of blue-ribbon commissions headed by old political war horses (which Bush has also done, in the case of the 9/11 investigation) nothing smells of desperate politicians more than a bureaucratic reorganization. Some excerpts from Reese:

The new Department of Homeland Security will merge 22 federal agencies and 170,000 federal employees into one monstrous bureaucracy. It will not make America safer. . . .

It's bad enough they picked a name George Orwell might have thought of, but they are overselling this to the American public. It will take many months, probably even years, to actually put it together, and it is a rule of thumb in government that the bigger the bureaucracy, the harder it is to manage. . . .

Furthermore, you can count on the fact that in this long process of consolidation, the individual agencies will have their work disrupted. So under the most optimistic projections, the immediate effect will be less efficiency and effectiveness, not more.


3 December 2002

Back (but only just barely) from Thanksgiving break. . .

Annals of the Liberal Media: The DiIulio Non-Imbroglio

Once again, a story that would be dominating the media if had happened to Clinton or Gore or most other recent presidents has gotten little or no play even in the least conservative national media outlets. By typical media standards, it is quite a juicy tale that fits into an established genre: a former White House aide comes forward with stinging criticisms of the administration he worked for, revealing just how far reality differs from a carefully fostered image. This was followed by White House stonewalling and apparent efforts to silence the whistle blower. The story also qualifies under another of the typical standards for newsworthiness: it was an unusual event, a departure from the norm. As Reuters pointed out, DiIulio's remarks represented"a rare criticism by a one-time insider of a Bush White House that has placed a near-total lid on internal dissent."

The aide in question is John DiIulio, the Penn professor who was brought in to spearhead the administration's once-heralded Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. DiIulio was a major source for a story on Karl Rove that will be appearing in next month's Esquire. While defending Shrub's intentions and expressing optimism that things could change, DiIulio had some devastating things to say about the way that"policy" was made in the Bush White House, which he described as more fully ruled by raw partisan political considerations than any other modern presidency."Compassionate conservatism" and"no child left behind" are shams, DiIulio suggests, mere slogans backed with talking-point policies the effectiveness of which the White House actively avoids even seriously considering, much less thoroughly investigating.

Some quotations from DiIulio's letter to the Esquire reporter, which is posted in full on the magazine's web site:"There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded non-partisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism."

"Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking—discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue."

"This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis—staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible."

Perhaps even more disturbing, DiIulio suggests that the extreme rightward tilt of Bush's policies may not even be rooted in genuine beliefs. Instead, the former advisor argues, pandering to libertarian zealots and wingnut preachers is a political strategy based on a"shared fiction":"The Republican base constituencies, including beltway libertarian policy elites and religious right leaders, trust him to keep Bush '43' from behaving like Bush '41' and moving too far to the center or inching at all center-left. Their shared fiction, supported by zero empirical electoral studies, is that '41' lost in '92 because he lost these right-wing fans. There are not ten House districts in America where either the libertarian litany or the right-wing religious policy creed would draw majority popular approval, and, most studies suggest, Bush '43' could have done better versus Gore had he stayed more centrist, but, anyway, the fiction is enshrined as fact." And that fiction controls almost everything the Shrubbers do, policy-wise, with the occasional bit of compassionate visual and rhetorical frosting.

Stern, damning stuff. It had Ari Fleischer issuing denials based only on an Esquire press release. Yet the major national newspapers barely mentioned the story, and most of the rest of the media have not even done that much as far as I have seen.

The New York Times and Washington Post ran small stories on the Esquire revelations in their inside pages Monday, and rather than following up with stories of their own, today they carried short notices of DiIulio's sudden apology for his candor:"John DiIulio agrees that his criticisms were groundless and baseless due to poorly chosen words and examples. He sincerely apologizes and is deeply remorseful." The speed and abjectness of this statement, coming only a few weeks after the lengthy, well-written"Mayberry Machiavellis" letter, strongly suggests some sort of administration coercion of DiIulio or Penn. Yet that possibility, which is considerably more plausible and politically pertinent that many of the Clinton era scandals (the"murder" of Vince Foster and Troopergate spring to mind), appears to be of no interest to our journalistic watchdogs. Obviously the liberal media conspiracy was caught napping on this one.


25 November 2002

Aristocracy in America, part 1

Historians and political philosophers have long seen the key to understanding American life in our lack of a titled aristocracy or (apparently) any other permanently entrenched elite. This has always been the basis of our"exceptionalism," the unique qualities that have allegedly exempted us from the usual processes of history and made us the model that the rest of the world should follow. Almost every aspect of American exceptionalism, or the"American Dream" as most non-scholars would probably have it, depends to some degree on the conviction that no one group is permanently entrenched at the top: social mobility ("rags to riches"), democracy, equality,"the melting pot," you name it, they all rest on the premise that the American social hierarchy is infinitely flexible or non-existent.

Even left-leaning scholars prone to criticizing American exceptionalism and the" consensus" historians who promoted it have tended to indirectly endorse the no-aristocracy view, by celebrating the"agency" and power of ordinary people and highlighting cases where pretended elites were laid low or severely threatened.

I am not sure what I formerly thought about this question, but ever since my two years in Washington, DC between college and grad school, I have been convinced that the United States really does have an aristocracy, or at least has begun to develop one. Hanging around The New Republic and Capitol Hill was a sobering education in just how insular and incestuous the national elites really are, spanning the spectrum from politics to journalism to business, and, these days, extending over several generations as well. The rule I had to adopt was, if I met someone who shared last names with a famous or powerful person, assume this was a close relative until proven otherwise. Yes, that really was Warren Buffett's daughter, the DNC chairman's son, etc. Then I went to work for a second-generation senator whose presidential campaign was managed by the son of a famous former ambassador and advised by Thurgood Marshall, Jr.

It became apparent to me that, even though only the Kennedys are usually referred to as a dynasty, the phenomenon of multiple family members and generations finding their way into the halls of power was not just for Kennedys anymore.

In the 1990s, of course, this all came out in the open, with legacy presidents, legacy senators (including 3 sons holding down seats once held by their own fathers), and a whole slew of legacy governors. I got the idea that this was some kind of trend when a student in one of my classes introduced himself as the son of local state senator, and managed to announce that he planned to run for that seat or the lower house himself someday soon. The trend also extends to other lucrative areas of American life, notably sports (Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Moises Alou, and many others) and Hollywood (Gwyneth Paltrow, assorted Baldwin brothers, Phoenix siblings, and Coppola children). One look at all the little boys in the Giants dugout during the last World Series suggests that another generation of multigeneration ballplayers is on the way.

The born-again liberals Michael Kinsley and Paul Krugman have both written recent columns about the renewed prevalence of inherited wealth and power. Kinsley gives his piece a funny title,"Dad, Can I Borrow the Scepter?" and compares the election of familiar names to"'Brand extension,' . . . using the reputation of an established product to help peddle a new one."

This captures one force that seems to support the careers of legacy politicians, a celebrity-driven media culture that forces even politics to be presented strictly in terms of personalities and faces. A name that carries a high Q rating has already won most of the battle in a public arena where actual policies and coherent ideas seem to matter so little. And the media do not have to take all the blame. For various reasons, a stratified star system in which a few individuals make obscene amounts of money while the majority fall farther and farther behind has taken hold across the American scene, from entertainment to academia. The need to make seemingly safe bets because of inflated prices seems to drive some of this, along with reforms (like the end of baseball's reserve clause and the decline of the Hollywood studio system) that have given tremendous leverage to individual stars and their agents. Nepotism would seem to go hand in hand with immense power being placed in the hands of individuals.

On a more somber note, Kinsley concurs with me that"political inheritance mocks our pretenses to equal opportunity. Anyone can grow up to be President, but anyone named Bush (or Gore, for that matter) has a much better chance."

Krugman is even scarier, because he has actual data on the growing concentration and stratification of wealth in this country."If the United States stands out in comparison with other countries," Krugman quotes a colleague as writing,"it is in having a more static distribution of income across generations with fewer opportunities for advancement." Krugman also points out that, just as vast piles of wealth have been amassed by the new breed of star CEO, strong political efforts have been mounted to ensure that their families can keep as much of as they want. The redefinition of the inheritance tax as an illegitimate"death tax" is only one step in a larger process of stamping out whatever legal, ideological, and cultural impediments still exist to the creation of new dynasties complete with multiple landed estates.

I am no medievalist or archaeologist, so I have no idea how European feudalism or any other of the world's aristocracies got started. Yet it seems safe to assume that at some point a group of families gained control of the bulk of their society's economic resources, used those resources to build up political influence, and managed to bequeath all or most of the wealth and power they had acquired to their children. I am starting to wonder whether our lack of an aristocracy is not just some sort of historical accident, whether, now that money and power has begun to accumulate and stay in the hands of the same families, we are not starting to see our own nobility in its nascent stages.

The stated values of our country may still be down-home and democratic, but the material and (increasingly, the legal) basis for aristocratization is in place. As Krugman writes,"The official ideology of America's elite remains one of meritocracy, just as our political leadership pretends to be populist. But that won't last. Soon enough, our society will rediscover the importance of good breeding, and the vulgarity of talented upstarts."


17 November 2002

That was Then, This is Now:: in which Wilbur Mills and Condoleeza Rice make a surprising appearance in the same blog entry

This weekend, I happen to have been reading a very interesting book by SUNY-Albany historian Julian Zelizer on Rep. Wilbur Mills, the House Ways and Means chairman who was one of the preeminent architects of U.S. public policy from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Today, of course, Mills is remembered by most Americans, if at all, as the congressman who was ruined by an unfortunate scandal involving a stripper ("Fanne Fox, the Argentine Firecracker") who jumped out of his car near the Tidal Basin in October 1974. Coming only weeks after Nixon's resignation, at the very pinnacle of journalistic and public cynicism toward the nation's Cold War era political elites, the incident received intense publicity and reverberates to this day through American popular culture. It was sad and shallow legacy for a man who was clearly one of the more serious-minded and diligent public servants of his day.

I bring up Mills because of the striking juxtaposition between one of the quotations in Zelizer's book and something I just read in the New York Times on Friday. Though generally regarded as a southern conservative, Mills took a stubbornly dispassionate and analytical approach to policymaking:

"The area of public affairs is not like a Western on television. There are not a bunch of good or bad fellows threatening the fabric of our society on the left which is being defended by a bunch of good or bad fellows on the right."

While not lacking in the technocratic blindnesses of the 1960s power elite, this statement struck me as a mighty sensible attitude for people making decisions affecting millions to take. Note how Mills specifically cited the language and plot patterns of popular action stories as poorly suited to policymaking. Then contrast this with Condoleeza Rice's explanation of why IraqWar™ is key to the war on terrorism despite the lack of proven links between Saddam and Al Qaeda and the recent revelation of Osama bin Laden's disturbing lack of deadness more than a year after Marshal Bush put up the wanted posters:

"As for Saddam Hussein, whom she labeled 'a homicidal dictator,' Dr. Rice emphasized that no one is accusing the Iraqi leader of controlling Al Qaeda terrorists or having a role in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But, she said, 'We know one thing about bad guys: they tend to travel in packs.'"

What's scary is that this is not a politician talking. This is supposed to be the White House's chief professional analyst in the area of foreign affairs. Yet she not only employs popular action story language in a favorable way, but cites action story plot patterns as a scientific principle, or at least as a sufficient answer to a serious policy question. Lots of other factors involved here I know, between tax policy in the age of Wilbur Mills to foreign policy in the reign of George II the Vacant. But still, it hurts to consider how grossly brainless our public discourse has become in the past few decades.


14 November 2002

Garrison Keillor Redeemed

I have not been much of a Garrison Keillor fan since my New Republic period, when I received a nasty phone call and a threatening letter from the Minnesota bard for a mistake it turned out that I did not make in a"Diarist" column. I can now declare Keillor forgiven, for a darkly hilarious piece in Salon on the recent Minnesota Senate election, in which replacement candidate Walter Mondale fell to chameleonic ex-Democrat Norm Coleman. Channeling a side of his talent that his radio listeners don't usually get to experience, Keillor declares the election"a dreadful low moment for the Minnesota voters. . . one of those dumb low-rent mistakes, like going to a great steakhouse and ordering the tuna sandwich." Or the chicken fingers, a more likely choice in my experience.

Georgia"Redeemed" (Again)

Thanks to Buzzflash for the Keillor reference, and for a link to a considerably more disturbing piece about Georgia's Confederate flag-waving new governor, Sonny Perdue, who apparently quoted the famous section of Martin Luther King's"free at last" speech on election night, in reference to the belated GOP takeover of Georgia.

I guess the Second Reconstruction is well and truly over, since the South is now almost entirely ruled, once again, by neo-Confederate"redeemers." The Atlanta Constitution story has Georgians expressing puzzlement over what Perdue meant, but I think we historians don't have to be puzzled. Since the Civil War, conservative white southerners have always insisted that they were the real victims of the post-Civil War era and showed a tendency to wax apocalyptic at moments when elite white control was challenged and religiously ecstatic when their supremacy was re-established. What other region has given us such epic pieces of self-dramatization (in the name of exclusion, inequality, and oligarchy) as Redemption, Massive Resistance, the Stand at the School House Door, etc.? The original KKK came from the same part of the southern psyche: racial thuggery and terrorism recast as fantasy knighthood.


12 November 2002

Love, Money, and American History

Conservatives often claim to be great lovers of history and loudly advocate the idea that students should know more American history in particular. The Vice President's wife has been particularly vocal on this topic, and in September, the President himself announced a series of initiatives to"improve students' knowledge of American history, increase their civic involvement, and deepen their love for our great country."

Lovely sentiments, but the real impact of conservative public policy on the study and teaching of American history is quite different. Bush and Cheney would never personally get up and say let's cut these damn history programs to ribbons, but that has been the impact of the successive federal, state, and local budget crises brought about by conservative (and largely Republican) irresponsibility and intransigence on subject on government revenues. Few executive officials at any level of government can even broach the subject of raising more money without ferocious attacks from the Republicans, even if the money would go to needed programs that the Republicans tout their support of to their constituents. It takes an exceptionally brave and selfless Democrat to counter-act this behavior, and in many places, the Democrats don't have the votes to do so anyway, with the end result of devastating cuts to government services that large swaths of the population use and support. Since they don't actually feed anybody (except their employees and their families), history-related programs often became major targets during these induced budget crises, with absolutely shameful and devastating results.

One of the worst examples I have yet seen came to my attention this morning. In Virginia, of all places, one of most historically important and historically-minded states in the Union, the main state historical agency (and library agency), the Library of Virginia, has been dealt a 39% cut. This has meant not only layoffs and cutbacks in services to historians, but cuts in funding to local libraries, public outreach, and the apparently total"elimination of Educational Programs, including teacher workshops, tours for K through 12 students, and other activities that open the Library’s resources to a younger audience." If Bush, Cheney, and the Republicans really cared about American history, they would be working to reverse this kind of devastation, or trying to prevent it by ensuring that the necessary funding is available. But as we know, shifting the tax burden onto the middle class and further enriching wealthy Republican interest groups take precedence in their politics over any public institution or common enterprise, including American history.

One might add that if the self-appointed history lovers who worked themselves into such a lather over Michael Bellesiles spent a tenth as much time and effort lobbying their favorite Republican politicians about the need to protect the institutions that make historical teaching and research possible, we might see some changes in these anti-historical policies. Those who feel that academic historians and library professionals are a pack of left-wing revisionists should also keep in mind that institutions like the Library of Virginia are probably more vital to amateur historians than they are to those of us who do this for a living. The LoV's Internet programs have been obliterated, too.


11 November 2002

The Sick Man (and Woman) of American Politics

The sickness of the Democrats has been pretty well canvassed over the past week, and I tend to agree with the general consensus that the Democrats need to distinguish themselves much more clearly from the Republicans and fight them much harder and less cautiously in the future."Clintonism without Clinton," as Frank Rich put it this weekend, is clearly a losing strategy.

The exact nature of a winning strategy is harder to see. A leftward swing on some issues has been in order since Nader outflanked the Dems in 2000, and is now finally taking in place, at least in the House of Representatives. Of course, the new California-style Democratic congressional leadership is already getting intense flack from the conventional wisdom -- see the Times article from Saturday in which we are supposed to be given pause by the fact that various Republican capos plan to attack new House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as a San Francisco liberal. These are people who want to see the Democrats completely neutralized, of course, and it's high time (Freudian slip) we stopped looking to conservative Republicans for advice on how to run our party. It's just basic party politics to re-embrace and re-energize your base when temporizing leads to a string of defeats. Personally, I doubt Pelosi is too much of threat to the status quo, considering her heavy involvement in the Democratic side of current big-money politics and her penchant for the Clintonian locution"grow the economy."

A leftward shift doesn't mean that the Democrats are going to beat Bush in 2004 or even that trends will be looking up from here on out. Indeed, unless the economy keeps declining for two more years or the siege of Baghdad is still lingering in the fall of 2004, Bush seems likely to be reelected without the Supreme Court's help next time out. (Those are both real possibilities, of course, as is a ham-fisted right-wing attempt to put Social Security into a declining stock market.) Repeats of 1972 or 1984 are distinct possibilities, especially if the Democrats can't produce an attractive candidate.

But a real Democratic comeback can't even begin without restoring some of the party's coherence and fervor, and that is not going happen unless some of the people who stayed home or drifted Green in the last two elections feel that the Democrats are actually speaking for them. It took the humiliation of Barry Goldwater in 1964 to set the Republicans on their current highly effective if detestable path. Barry got creamed, but he also the first outright damn-the-New-Deal and to-hell-with-civil-rights Republican to win the hearts of many conservative Southerners and quasi-Southerners. (My own father was among them, I am told, and this was proven by the fact that The Conscience of a Conservative and A Texan Looks at Lyndon were among the only political books around the house when I was growing up.) It took another generation for many Southerners to start voting consistently Republican, but the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Goldwater campaign more or less mark the end of conservative southern confidence in the national Democratic party.

Note that while Nixon looks quite liberal today in many ways, partly because he was willing to acknowledge social needs and financial exigencies in ways that today's Republicans simply will not, he followed Goldwater's"extremist" southern strategy, even though it had seemingly been discredited in 1964. Rather than shunning Goldwater's conservatism as the Democrats did liberalism after their debacles in 1984 and 2000, Nixon deployed Goldwater's themes and insights more insidiously and with better timing:"Vote Like Your Whole World Depended On It." Probably the fiery liberal-leftism that many Democratic voters like me are longing for will not win back the presidency, but I do hope there is someone out there willing to be as bold, energetic, and crafty for good causes as the Republicans have been in serving their corporate benefactors and feeding the fears and mythologies of backlashing rural and suburban whites.


10 November 2002

Belated Black Tuesday Ruminations

I have been exercising my right as a volunteer journalist not to bang out obligatory remarks on the recent political events if I have nothing original or enlightening to say.  I wish I could pronounce myself surprised by what occurred last Tuesday, but if I had allowed myself to make predictions I probably would have had to admit that the general outcome was likely even if some of the individual results did shock me.

Even in the new Republican South, for instance, I would have thought that being an actual wounded veteran would win more patriotism points than serving as one of Newt Gingrich's congressional footsoldiers, but the Georgia Senate race proved me wrong. I keep forgetting how few voters or politicians have actually served in the military anymore, throwing most of our political discourse on war and patriotism into the realm of rhetoric and symbolism and attitude. I see that in 1968, while defeated Democratic senator Max Cleland was getting his limbs blown off in Vietnam, victorious challenger Saxby Chambliss was patriotically getting his law degree from the University of Tennessee, doubtless damning the hippies and draft dodgers all the while. Same old same old, I know, but hardly the kind of thing to make one look more kindly on the intentions of the flag-waving blowhards who rule us.

Georgia and several of the other shocks are perhaps best explained not by general trends or 9/11 or the love of Shrub, but by incredible Republican turnout that seems to have resulted from a massive and expensive get-out-the-vote drive in the last three days before the election. Hey taxpayers: In a jet-setting update of 19th-century practices, the national GOP paid for some 1500 U.S. government employees to spread out over the country and help with this drive. And I'll bet not a single government phone or computer or hour of paid vacation time was used in that drive.

The Democrats have been a very sick party for quite some time, as evidenced not only by the number of close elections they lost or too narrowly won in 2000 and 2002, and in this election, getting beat at their own turnout game. The latter is no surprise given how dispriting it has been for core Democratic voters to have their views shunted aside by most Democratic politicians in favor of simulated Republican ones. The Democrats' support of the upward-redistribution tax cut had to be a new low in this regard, followed by the secondary low of their weak resistance to the pre-emptive war resolution. In both cases, the lack of principled resistance combined with tactical foot-dragging and whining earned Democratic leaders the worst of both worlds: they disappointed their supporters without disarming their opponents in the slightest.

Then there is the Democrats' pattern of giving up before most battles are even fought. Look at the House elections if you doubt this. Even in a closely divided state like Missouri, the incumbent won every congressional seat by a lopsided margin. Dick Gephardt himself was the only winner to pull less than 60% of the vote, and he got 59. Computerized gerrymandering of oversized districts has something to do with this, but an explanation explanation is that the Democratic party here barely tries. (Even the Carnahan race seemed anemic, to be honest.) The 9th district where we live was a longtime Democratic seat that includes a liberal college town. There's no way it is a safe Republican seat, if the Democrats had anything going on at all. Yet our Republican incumbent, Kenny Hulshof, who squeaked into office in 1996, has not been offered serious opposition since we have lived here, despite the fact that he has no major accomplishments other than a right-wing voting record that is never, ever touted in his advertisements.

The Democrats have been saved until now only by the fact that the majority of Americans actually agree with them, when asked, on most specific issues. They've also been helped out, in national elections anyway, by the fact that the now fully southernized Republican party is increasingly anathema in the big West Coast, Great Lakes, and Northeastern states, as the southern-dominated national party has almost always been. Nothing much happened in this election to suggest that that trend is changing. Republican governors sometimes get elected in those places (pretty regularly in New York and Massachusetts), but they tend to be relatively non-ideological types who do not take their bearings from the Tom DeLays and John Ashcrofts and Trent Lotts.


5 November 2002

It's the Oil, Stupid, or

The Opium Wars in Modern Perspective 6pm CST

Despite or probably because of its obviousness, I had not been such a big fan of the"oil conspiracy" explanation for IraqWar™, preferring Cold War ghost pains (see Frances FitzGerald in the NY Review of Books from a few weeks ago*) or dynastic revanchism. Then the North Korea revelations arose, and the speed with which Shrubbers spun around on their evil axis, practically inviting the North Koreans to meet them in Munich, made the obvious answer look a lot better.

A recent American Prospect piece on the Shrubbers' Iraqi puppet-ruler-in-waiting, Ahmed Chalabi, more or less confirms the oil explanation as far as I am concerned. It seems that Chalabi, a close chum of administration hardliners like Paul Wolfowitz, has been quietly meeting with American oil company officials who look forward to the denationalization of Iraq's oil industry by a future Chalabi regime. The administration and the oil companies aren't talking about it, but Chalabi has told the Washington Post that"American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil" if he takes over from Saddam, and the greedy minds at the Heritage Foundation are preparing a full-scale plan for the privatization of Iraqi oil and the dismemberment of OPEC. Heritage scholars-for-hire Ariel Cohen and Gerald P. O'Driscoll, Jr. put this naked bit of imperialism into easy-reading US business-speak:"The future of Iraq depends not only on the ouster of the repressive regime, but also on the ability of the new Iraqi leaders to reverse the damage through policies that will spur real economic growth." Translation: Iraq or some American and Iraqi elites are gonna strike it rich, Texas-style! Hoo-yah!

So, there is little mystery left in Shrub's obsession with Iraq. It's just a more deviously and histrionically presented version of most other U.S. and European pre-emptive interventions of the pre-Cold War era. We've want what they've got, and see what happens if they try to stop us. It's Guatemala all over again, and we couldn't even run our cars on bananas, so this prize is worth even more extreme measures than a few Marines.

*Extract from the FitzGerald piece documenting the"Cold War ghost pains" thesis, which is my term rather than hers:

"On one occasion during the campaign Bush junior confessed that he really didn't know who the enemy was. 'When I was coming up, with what was a dangerous world,' he said, 'we knew exactly who the they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who the them were. Today we're not so sure who the they are, but we know they're there.' In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations this February Cheney admitted that before September 11 he had been similarly puzzled. 'When America's great enemy suddenly disappeared,' he said, 'many wondered what new direction our foreign policy would take. We spoke, as always, of long-term problems and regional crises throughout the world, but there was no single, immediate, global threat that any roomful of experts could agree upon.' He added, 'All of that changed five months ago. The threat is known and our role is clear now.'"

"What Cheney was saying, in a slightly more articulate fashion, was that the main purpose of American foreign policy was to confront an enemy—and that a worthy successor to the Soviet Union had finally emerged, in the form of international terrorism."

Paul Krugman for republican Virtue -- that is not a typo

Paul Krugman more or less says it all for me, as he often does, in today's column. Bush's supposedly overwhelming popularity is mostly a journalistic fiction at this point, he argues. The general sense that not much is at stake in the midterm elections, as evidenced by the likely low turnout and lack of competitiveness in most places, testifies eloquently"to the timidity of the Democrats, who are afraid to say what they really think, and the subterfuge of the Republicans, who show a disciplined willingness to pretend to hold positions they actually abhor." This is the election that could determine whether the current corporate-controlled, hard-right oligarchy gets to"determine the shape of America for decades to come." (If you want to see that shape, in my view, check out the economically stratified, oligarchically-ruled societies of Latin America or the late 19th-century United States.)

From a historian's point of view, the most fascinating thing about the column is the way that Krugman, the economist, invokes a concept very close to small-r"republican virtue," as set out by the 60s-70 republicanism school of Bailyn, Pocock, Banning and others, as the only force that might save us. I put the particular passage I am thinking of in bold below, but first, some dry histriographic exposition.

This is interesting because the rise of mass electoral democracy has often been linked, chronologically as well as philosophically, with the consolidation of free-market capitalism, the thing that modern economists (including Krugman) have mostly built their field around. That link was a major platform plank of the"liberalism" school of Joyce Appleby and others that pretty successfully countered the republicanism intepretation of early American political thought during the 1980s.

As the historians defined it, republicanism stressed the need for the electorate to possess and practice virtue, the ability to put aside narrow self-interest and act for the common good if republican government was to survive. Small-l liberalism, perhaps better understood today if we call it"liberal individualism," stressed the social and political good came from everyone pursuing their individual self-interests as aggressively as possible within the bounds of the law.

I have always felt that while the American political tradition may well be more liberal than republican, speaking in political thought rather than modern partisan terms, was an inadequate one if we expect democracy to produce or allow any sort of decent society. Though I suspect not too many of his fellow economists or national pundits will join him, Krugman seems to have realized that the (small-l) liberal approach to life and politics, the rational maximization of individual self-interest, contains no incentive or principle that automatically supports certain values most Americans would claim to hold dear: democracy, equal rights, or even liberty itself as it pertains to anything other than consumption choices.

Naturally, Krugman puts his admittedly irrationalistic, values-driven argument in as social scientific terms as possible. Specifically, he writes it as a gloss on the"free rider" problem:"In other words, even if the candidates in an election offer radically different programs, and you have a strong preference for one over the other, a narrow calculation of self-interest says that it's not worth taking the trouble to go to the polling booth. Yet democracy depends on your ability to rise above that calculation."

Perhaps even Krugman can't yet take the next step and suggest that Americans need to abandon narrow calculation while they are in the polling booth as well. Of course, if most of the small-town Republican voters out here in the Midwest were able to make a truly informed calculation about which party's policies would benefit them more, Shrub would have gotten about 20% of the vote. Naturally, the Republicans are working hard even as I write to see that that never, ever happens.

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Sheldon the Duke of Otsego and Warren - 7/9/2007

I wish to draw the author's and reader's attention to the fact that there is in fact a new American Aristocracy. For more information see the discussion group at http://newamericanaristocracy.freeforums.org

Sheldon the Duke of Otsego and Warren - 7/9/2007

I wish to draw the author's and reader's attention to the fact that there is in fact a new American Aristocracy. For more information see the discussion group at http://newamericanaristocracy.freeforums.org