The Current Intersection
June 4, 2007
Re: The Current Intersection.
From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
To say that the country is at a crossroads implies, one thinks, a serious possibility of going in either of two directions. Cynicism born of history therefore precludes one from making this statement now, because it counsels that this nation rarely chooses the path of the good -- certainly not for the long-term or for the long haul. If one wants the most “outstanding” example of this (using outstanding in its most perverse sense), perhaps it lies in how brief was the impulse to raise the status of the freedmen during and after the Civil War. By 1876 the impulse was dead, having fallen victim to Southern night riders, extensive Southern terrorism that killed thousands, the monomaniacal focus on obtaining enormous wealth in the gilded age, and the fantastic, even unbelievable corruption of legislatures -- unbelievable even by today’s corrupt, lax standards -- that lasted for somewhere around 30 to 40 years. So the impulse died, not to be revived for 85 or 90 years.
Yet, although history makes it difficult or impossible to believe in a true crossroads, perhaps we can still say that there is now an intersection, or at least an approaching intersection. It is an intersection which arises in significant part because of the vast changes in historical research and writing since approximately 1960.
For many decades after the writing of history became a serious occupation -- at first a private one for gentlemen of wealth and leisure, not a profession with extensive but far from exclusive roots in the academy -- American history was largely of the triumphalist type. And this was, of course, a triumphalist nation-- in part (but only in part) because of the written history.
But the civil rights revolution, Viet Nam and the feminist movement changed all of that. They gave rise to a serious reevaluation of American history, to a consideration not only of its good parts but, for one of the first times, its bad parts too. Instead of triumphalist history, or at least instead of triumphalist history only, there has been a vast outpouring of intensively researched writing on the evils -- the word is deliberate -- on the evils caused by or harbored in our approximately 220 years of history.
Today, the war in Iraq has brought us to an intersection of these two strains of American history. The Bush conservatives, the heirs of Reagan, the right wingers believe in the triumphalist version. Their version, let it be recognized immediately, is not merely a matter of foreign affairs, where they think America should control the world, by force when necessary, especially because we have the greater word of God and are the chosen of the earth anointed to successfully bring better principles and ways of life to the heathen in their billions. Their version also extends to the domestic arena; it includes extensive laissez faire and, accordingly, non-regulation of evil; permitting vast, ever increasing discrepancies of wealth; lack of medical care for scores of millions; deprivation of education due to inadequate schools, cost, and/or elitism; focus on abortion as a substitute to divert masses; and, of course, other matters too. Last weekend, in a TV discussion of a new book he has written, the estimable Paul Krugman said he thought the views of the right wing trace back beyond Reagan, who often receives the “credit” for them and whom Krugman (like me) thinks was not good, if one may put it that way. Krugman feels the views of the right wingers trace back to their reaction to, their horror at, the New Deal. With respect, I think they trace back much further. Even if one confines oneself to the United States alone, the right wing’s economic and social views can be traced back at least as far as Alexander Hamilton, with his plan and desire, in the assumption of debt matter, to screw over the common soldiers of the Revolution in favor of enabling speculators to amass great wealth.
On the other side of American life is the liberal philosophy -- today called progressivism because liberals lost the courage to call themselves liberals and sought to hide behind the noun “progressive.” This too has a long pedigree even if one confines the inquiry to the U.S.: it goes back perhaps to Jefferson and Jackson, and certainly to the Greenbackers, populists and progressives of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. (Maybe it even goes back to the “mechanicks” of the 1760s and early 1770s, who played so prominent a role in shaking us loose from Britain.) In an effort to make life better for a larger number of people, some of today's liberals would greatly extend the degree of governmental regulation to a point that is perhaps far beyond Rooseveltian-Trumanesque-Kennedy/Johnson days. Others of us have deep concerns over the extent of this -- but perhaps no good alternative yet -- because of effusively, repeatedly demonstrated government incompetency over the decades (not just the last six years). Regardless of such differences, however, the liberal wing of America does seem united in feeling that America cannot act the hegemon, cannot impose its views all over the world by force or otherwise, and must work with other countries (or we will increasingly face a whole world arrayed against us); that the increasing discrepancies in wealth, medical care and education are intolerable; and so forth. This societal and economic point of view has been given a new and powerful impetus by the delinquencies of the Bush Administration, an impetus augmented by books documenting these delinquencies and/or comparing modern America to prior, fallen empires like those of Rome and Britain.
Thus the dichotomous intersection -- the possible impending clash of dichotomous views that would be a crossroads if history did not make one cynical about the possibility of there being, in the long haul, a true crossroads.
Not knowing how matters will turn out, this writer feels that perhaps only two things can be said with relative certainty. One is the personal view that, if the right-wing wins permanent dominance, the country is for practical purposes finished. As Lee said when discussing the inevitable situation if Grant were to cross the James and Lee’s army were to be besieged, if this were to happen it will be only a question of time. The other thing to be said is a reiteration of a point that has been made here for years, a point that I thought would be regarded as bizarre when it was first being made, but that many seem now to accept because it is known that the Bush Administration took us into a disastrous war via distortions and lies. The point in mind is that honesty is the most compelling and necessary of virtues. And, I would add, true honesty requires maximum analysis short of paralysis by analysis. Without honesty there can be no competence because, as any general can tell you -- and as was shown by Viet Nam and Iraq -- competent policies cannot be built on the basis of false information and false analysis. Without honesty there ultimately will be disaster. The present Administration, like the Johnson and Nixon administrations before it, has shown this unimpeachably in one sense of the word, but very impeachably in another. And, needless to say, the level of talk that passes for general political discourse and/or campaign statements by politicians generally, is as inadequate in honesty and analysis as are the statements of the Bush Administration.*
*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to comment on the post, on the general topic of the post, or on the comments of others, you can, if you wish, post your comment on my website, VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com. All comments, of course, represent the views of their writers, not the views of Lawrence R. Velvel or of the Massachusetts School of Law. If you wish your comment to remain private, you can email me at Velvel@mslaw.edu.
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