Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: Salon (1-26-09)
On Friday, President Barack Obama ordered an Air Force drone to bomb two separate Pakistani villages, killing what Pakistani officials said were 22 individuals, including between four and seven foreign fighters. Many of Obama's initiatives in his first few days in office -- preparing to depart Iraq, ending torture and closing Guantánamo -- were aimed at signaling a sharp turn away from Bush administration policies. In contrast, the headline about the strike in Waziristan could as easily have appeared in December with "President Bush" substituted for "President Obama." Pundits are already worrying that Obama may be falling into the Lyndon Johnson Vietnam trap, of escalating a predecessor's halfhearted war into a major quagmire. ...
The risk Obama takes in continuing the Bush administration policy of bombing Pakistani territory is provoking further anger in the public of that country against the United States and harming the legitimacy of Zardari's fragile elected government. A Gallup poll done last summer found that 45 percent of Pakistanis believe that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan poses a threat to their country. Of Pakistanis who expressed an opinion on the matter, an overwhelming majority believed that the cooperation between the U.S. and the Pakistani military in the "war on terror" has mainly benefited Washington. If a more muscular American policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan sufficiently angers the Pakistani public, they could start voting for religious parties, delivering a nuclear state into the hands of Muslim fundamentalists.
The fundamentalist Jamaat-i Islami (JI), led by Qazi Husain Ahmad, held a rally of several thousand protesters in the Pakistani capital on Friday to protest the drone attacks and the ongoing military campaigns in FATA. (I saw the demonstration on satellite television, and it was clearly bigger than the wire services reported.) The coalition of religious parties of which the JI formed part was dealt a crushing rejection by the Pakistani electorate last February, but for the U.S. to continually bombard Pakistani territory could be a wedge issue whereby they return to political influence. Whereas the Jamaat-i Islami had welcomed Obama's new path in the Muslim world before the strikes, the JI leader blasted the new president in their aftermath.
Obama's policy toward Pakistan is not solely military. He appointed as his special advisor on Pakistan and Afghanistan veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who played an important role in peace negotiations over Bosnia in the 1990s. The new president, who has praised Pakistan's return to civilian parliamentary rule, has pledged to triple civilian aid. Opinion polling shows that more civilian development monies and less focus on military equipment are precisely what a majority of the Pakistani public want. Obama also intends to tie the annual amount of military aid released to the actual performance of the Pakistani military in preventing cross-border raids of FATA militants into Afghanistan. Allegations have swirled for the past year that rogue cells in the feared Inter-Services Intelligence of the Pakistani military have been actively sending the militants to hit targets inside Afghanistan, including the Indian embassy at Kabul.
Despite the positive harbingers from Obama of a new, civilian-friendly foreign policy that will devote substantial resources to human development, the very first practical step he took in Pakistan was to bomb its territory. This resort to violence from the skies even before Obama had initiated discussions with Islamabad is a bad sign. ...
Posted on: Monday, January 26, 2009 - 15:32
SOURCE: BBC (1-26-09)
Historian Robert Jan Van Pelt says that once the last survivor has died it should be left for nature to reclaim, and eventually forgotten.
But former Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, once an inmate, says Auschwitz must be preserved to bear witness to the fate of its victims.
Jan Van Pelt: Many Auschwitz survivors have told me that a visit to the camp can teach little to those who were not imprisoned there.
Their view is best summarised in the text of Alain Resnais' celebrated movie Night and Fog (1955), written by the camp survivor Jean Cayrol. As the camera pans across the empty barracks, the narrator warns the viewer that these remains do not reveal the wartime reality of "endless, uninterrupted fear". The barracks offer no more than "the shell, the shadow".
Should the world marshal enormous resources to preserve empty shells and faint shadows?
Certainly, as long as there are survivors who desire to return to the place of their suffering, it is appropriate that whatever remains of the camps is preserved.
Many of the same survivors who have told me that I can derive little knowledge from a visit to the camp acknowledge that it was good for them to return to the place, anchoring an all-encompassing nightmare back to a particular place.
The world owes it to them not to close such an opportunity for a return. As long as one survivor is still alive, the remains of the camp should remain available.
But what when there are no survivors left? In his autobiographical novel The Long Voyage (1963), former Buchenwald inmate Jorge Semprun considered what ought to happen with the remains of that camp after the death of the last survivor, "when there will no longer be any real memory of this, only the memory of memories related by those who will never know (as one knows the acidity of a lemon, the feel of wool, the softness of a shoulder) what all this really was."
Semprun hoped that grass, roots and brambles would be allowed to take over the camp, destroying the remainder of the fences, barracks and crematorium, effacing "this camp constructed by men".
As we commemorate the 64th anniversary of the arrival of the Red Army at the gates of Auschwitz - the term "liberation" is not really appropriate as most of the inmates had been evacuated a few days earlier in death marches - it is good to begin thinking about the future first anniversary of the day when the last Auschwitz survivor has died.
It might be that we will agree that the best way to honour those who were murdered in the camp and those who survived is by sealing it from the world, allowing grass, roots and brambles to cover, undermine and finally efface that most unnatural creation of Man.
At that future date, may the slowly crumbling debris of decay suggest the final erasure of memory.
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski: The only people with a full and undeniable right to decide the future of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial are the hundreds of thousands murdered in this concentration camp.
The prisoners whom I met as prisoner number 4427, when I was detained in Auschwitz between September 1940 and April 1941, are among them.
To some I owe my survival. They saved me, guided not only by the impulse of the heart, which was heroic at the time. They also believed that the survivors will bear witness to the tragedy which in Auschwitz-Birkenau became the fate of so many Europeans.
Thus I and numerous former prisoners fulfil the testament of the victims and convey to subsequent generations the truth about those days.
But the moment when there will be no more eyewitnesses left is inexorably approaching. What remains is the belief that when the people are gone, "the stones will cry out"...
Posted on: Monday, January 26, 2009 - 10:24
SOURCE: Commentary (1-22-09)
Among the first duties of the Obama presidency, all agree, is the restoration of America’s standing in the world. Poll after poll has shown how unpopular America is overseas, from London to Damascus to Beijing. Nor is there much disagreement as to the reason. As Fareed Zakaria puts it in The Post-American World, the reason is the “arrogance” displayed by the Bush administration—an arrogance that has blinded Americans to the fact that they can no longer push other nations around at will, and that their country now inhabits a multi-polar world.
The bill of particulars is by now drearily familiar. In the Middle East, Bush’s war in Iraq not only overstretched our military but radically alienated the UN and our European allies and undermined our position as an honest broker elsewhere, particularly on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Further damage to the American image was wrought by Bush’s refusal to abide by the Kyoto protocols on global warming, by the scandals over Abu Ghraib and the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, by the recklessness of our handling of Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, by our needless provocations of Russia over missile defense in Eastern Europe and our encouragement of Georgian adventurism. All in all, to listen to Bush’s myriad critics, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had it just about right in assailing “the arrogant course of [an] administration which hates criticism and prefers unilateral decisions.”
Hence the air of expectancy hovering around the Obama presidency, the sense of a new era dawning and a more hopeful direction taking shape. Obama’s own formulation of that hopeful new direction appeared last summer in an essay in Foreign Affairs. “The American moment is not over,” wrote the then-candidate, “but [it] needs a new burst of visionary leadership.” Promising a definitive end to the Bush doctrine, whose serial abuses had made the world lose “trust in our purposes and principles,” Obama foresaw an era of “sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy” that would rebuild America’s alliances and deal successfully with global threats ranging from terrorism to climate change.
America’s other important foreign-policy goal, Obama wrote, was reducing global poverty: the root cause, in his view, of terrorism and political extremism around the world. By “sharing more of our riches to help those most in need,” by building up the social and economic “pillars of a just society” both at home and abroad, America could bring security and stability to the entire world—if, he added, the task were undertaken “not in the spirit of a patron but in the spirit of a partner—a partner mindful of his own imperfections.”
In short, instead of being the world’s swaggering policeman, America would become the world’s self-effacing social worker. The sentiment is hardly unique to Obama; it was a point of virtually unanimous agreement among those competing with him for the Democratic nomination. Specifically, it was the view of Hillary Clinton, his arch-rival and now his nominee as Secretary of State. In her own Foreign Affairs article (November-December 2007), she, too, blasted the Bush administration for its “unprecedented course of unilateralism,” which had “squandered the respect, trust, and confidence of even our closest allies and friends.” And she, too, promised a new start, focusing on international cooperation and multilateralism, exhausting every avenue of diplomacy before resorting to military action, “avoiding false choices driven by ideology,” and devoting our resources to problems like global warming and third-world poverty. If pursued sincerely and consistently, such a course, she was confident, would keep us safe, restore America’s image, and win the respect of the planet.
Or would it? For a little historical perspective, it might be useful to look at the last President who embraced exactly the same analysis of America’s foreign-policy problems and enacted exactly the same strategy for resolving them.
“The result of the 1976 election,” Michael Barone writes, “was Democratic government as far as the eye could see.” After the debacle of Vietnam, Jimmy Carter entered office determined to clean up America’s image abroad. Abetting him in his endeavor was the fact that Democrats controlled both houses of Congress by a substantial majority, while Republicans were broken and dispirited. Much as with Obama and his team today, the basic operating assumption of the Carter team was that U.S. assertiveness abroad, or what Senator William Fulbright called America’s “arrogance of power,” had become the primary source of international tension. It was time for a humbler, gentler posture: the post-World War II Pax Americana was over, discredited by Vietnam, and so were the cold-war assumptions on which it was based.
From Carter’s point of view, the United States could win the world’s trust again by helping to shape a more equitable international order. The polarities dictated by the U.S.-Soviet conflict had grown stale; the cold war itself had become increasingly irrelevant to the future of the planet, to what the Thomas Friedmans of that day were beginning to call “the global village.” Instead, the emerging division was between rich and poor, between the developed and the developing worlds.
In words eerily foreshadowing those of Barack Obama decades later, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who would become Carter’s national security adviser, wrote in Between Two Ages that the future tasks of foreign policy lay not with the “political” issues of war and peace but with the “human issues” of poverty and development. Washington’s “preoccupation” with “national supremacy,” Brzezinski declared, would have to yield to a global perspective—a perspective that, in another parallel with today’s arguments, many then thought peculiarly well suited to America’s lowered status in a world featuring such exciting phenomena as the rise of the “non-aligned movement” and the Third World. Above all, in Brzezinski’s view, Americans had to understand that using military force to shape the course of events, as we were disastrously trying to do in Vietnam, was not the cure but rather the cause of international crises; an America that hoped to be on the right side of history would have to learn to be less assertive.
As for the Soviet Union (concerning which Brzezinski happened to be a hawk), Carter himself intended to dispel what he would famously describe as our “inordinate fear of Communism.” Toward that end, he would proffer a hand of trust to a Moscow understandably suspicious of American imperial designs. This would eventuate in his proposing and signing a far more comprehensive arms-control agreement than Richard Nixon’s SALT I. It would also entail decreasing America’s military footprint around the globe, as in South Korea, where Carter felt that the presence of American troops hindered a peaceful unification of the peninsula. He even contemplated giving direct aid to the victorious Communist government in Vietnam.
How did all this work out in practice?..
Posted on: Friday, January 23, 2009 - 15:06
SOURCE: Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (1-22-09)
In late 2006 I wrote a piece for History News Network that was titled and asked “Is George Bush ‘The Manchurian Candidate?’” and said, “like a ’sleeper’ agent, or Laurence Harvey’s famed character, Sgt. Raymond Shaw, in The Manchurian Candidate, George W. Bush, the ultimate insider, is doing more to damage America than Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Hassan Nasrallah, the Syrians, the Iranians, or any other enemy du jour, ever could.” [ http://hnn.us/articles/32618.html . ]
Well, now that our most recent and longest national nightmare has ended, I’d like to follow up and suggest immodestly [guffaw] that I had a point, and we’ve just seen the end of the Manchurian Presidency. After eight years of the Bush-Cheney junta, the U.S. is in its worst position globally and economically in generations, a position simply unimaginable in the aftermath of the “victory” in the cold war and certainly after the outpouring of support and sympathy after 9/11/01. The People’s Republic of China is ascendant; Bush has sent over 4000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to their deaths with his criminal invasion of Iraq; the U.S. economy is a trainwreck, due not just to deregulation and tax cuts for the ruling class but also because of the brutal costs of Iraq and uncontrolled militarization; terrorism has not subsided; Afghanistan and Pakistan are more dangerous; and the U.S. image in the world has, to put it indelicately, fallen into the toilet.
It’s hard to imagine any enemy of the U.S. doing such damage and, if it were not for Bush’s idiocy and ideology [kind of a Clouseau on steroids] it would be hard to imagine that he did all of this without the intention of crushing American interests.
Just a brief travelogue of where this “conservative” president who claimed the patriotic and moral high ground and attacked his enemies as virtual traitors took us . . .
Iraq, despite the post hoc ergo propter hoc claims after the surge, remains indefensible and declarations of success there are as specious as when first uttered. Although the number of American soldiers killed decreased in the past 18 months, that was due in main to political arrangements made by U.S. officials, i.e. paying off and arming about 30,000 Sunni militants who had just before that been the target of American attacks. But politically, which is after all the final way to judge a war, the U.S. has alienated the Iraqis and emboldened enemies.
Not only to the American people think Iraq “wasn’t worth it” in polling data by huge margins [at least 60 percent disapproval in every poll for the past two years] but the Iraqis themselves want the U.S. out. Inside Iraq, in a late 2007 poll, over 70 percent of the Iraqis believed that the surge had failed and security had deteriorated. By spring 2008, as Hillary Clinton and John McCain were trying to show who was more hawkish and attacking the idea of a “timeline” for withdrawal, the Iraqi government asked for, you got it, a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. Just yesterday, after President Obama met with military commanders to charge them with preparing a withdrawal plan, an Iraqi military spokesman endorsed the U.S. departure, saying “if the US pullout comes early, our Iraqi forces have prepared for this.” (I don’t recall Nguyen Van Thieu every saying anything like that).
Another situation for which Iraq is prepared is better relations with Iran, which is, once more, unimaginable given that the two countries fought one of the bloodier wars in recent times in the 1980s and were sworn enemies, and, in the equation of Bush himself, poses a grave threat to U.S. security. Indeed, the fact that Iraq and Iran are now essentially allies is staggering evidence of Bush’s failure.
Many Shiite from Iraq were exiled to Iran during the Saddam Hussein years and developed strong ties to the leadership in Tehran; in fact, Iraq’s leading religious figure, Grand Ayotollah Ali as-Sistani, is a native Iranian.
Just two weeks ago, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited Iran [for the fourth time], met with America’s arch-enemy President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and spoke warmly of relations between Baghdad and Iran. “Our Islamic and humane duty requires that we always stand by the Iraqi nation,” Ahmadinejad said. Iran and Iraq agreed to increase trade by about five billion dollars and Maliki sought even greater Iranian investment to help Iraq rebuild after the American invasion and destruction. In a statement that must surely have made officials at Halliburton shudder, Maliki said “after elevating security and freeing Iraq from sectarian fighting, it is time to work hard to reconstruct the country and there is a need for companies from neighbouring nations to take on reconstruction projects.” I’d call this an Iran faint.
At the same time, the “global war on terror” has surely not eradicated terrorism, and in fact incidents of terror have risen since March 2003. The war in Iraq accelerated the number of attacks by 25 percent in 2006, and a study by Paul Cruickshank, a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, found a 600 percent rise in terrorism between the invasion of Iraq and 2007. Perhaps even worse, the forces unleashed by U.S. actions in the post-9/11 Middle East have intensified anti-U.S. actions elsewhere, most notably in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and have arguably spilled over into incidents like the recent Mumbai attacks.
Although I’m always reluctant to cite “experts,” a recent survey in Foreign Policy of terrorism specialists showed that 70 percent thought that the world was becoming more dangerous for the U.S. than it had been [which, to be fair, was down from 91 percent two years ago] and a similar 70 percent thought the U.S. was losing the war on terror. (That perhaps may be Obama’s greatest accomplishment- the elevation of an African-American with Third World roots may make it less likely for potential terrorists abroad to want to blow up buildings and people to protest the United States)....
Posted on: Friday, January 23, 2009 - 13:15
SOURCE: Guardian (UK) (1-7-09)
The only way to make sense of Israel's senseless war in Gaza is through understanding the historical context. Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. British officials bitterly resented American partisanship on behalf of the infant state. On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by"an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders". I used to think that this judgment was too harsh but Israel's vicious assault on the people of Gaza, and the Bush administration's complicity in this assault, have reopened the question.
I write as someone who served loyally in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s and who has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I utterly reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. The aim was to establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic and military control over the Palestinian territories. And the result has been one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.
Four decades of Israeli control did incalculable damage to the economy of the Gaza Strip. With a large population of 1948 refugees crammed into a tiny strip of land, with no infrastructure or natural resources, Gaza's prospects were never bright. Gaza, however, is not simply a case of economic under-development but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development. To use the Biblical phrase, Israel turned the people of Gaza into the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, into a source of cheap labour and a captive market for Israeli goods. The development of local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the economic underpinnings essential for real political independence.
Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era. Jewish settlements in occupied territories are immoral, illegal and an insurmountable obstacle to peace. They are at once the instrument of exploitation and the symbol of the hated occupation. In Gaza, the Jewish settlers numbered only 8,000 in 2005 compared with 1.4 million local residents. Yet the settlers controlled 25% of the territory, 40% of the arable land and the lion's share of the scarce water resources. Cheek by jowl with these foreign intruders, the majority of the local population lived in abject poverty and unimaginable misery. Eighty per cent of them still subsist on less than $2 a day. The living conditions in the strip remain an affront to civilised values, a powerful precipitant to resistance and a fertile breeding ground for political extremism.
In August 2005 a Likud government headed by Ariel Sharon staged a unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza, withdrawing all 8,000 settlers and destroying the houses and farms they had left behind. Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, conducted an effective campaign to drive the Israelis out of Gaza. The withdrawal was a humiliation for the Israeli Defence Forces. To the world, Sharon presented the withdrawal from Gaza as a contribution to peace based on a two-state solution. But in the year after, another 12,000 Israelis settled on the West Bank, further reducing the scope for an independent Palestinian state. Land-grabbing and peace-making are simply incompatible. Israel had a choice and it chose land over peace.
The real purpose behind the move was to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel by incorporating the main settlement blocs on the West Bank to the state of Israel. Withdrawal from Gaza was thus not a prelude to a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority but a prelude to further Zionist expansion on the West Bank. It was a unilateral Israeli move undertaken in what was seen, mistakenly in my view, as an Israeli national interest. Anchored in a fundamental rejection of the Palestinian national identity, the withdrawal from Gaza was part of a long-term effort to deny the Palestinian people any independent political existence on their land.
Israel's settlers were withdrawn but Israeli soldiers continued to control all access to the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air. Gaza was converted overnight into an open-air prison. From this point on, the Israeli air force enjoyed unrestricted freedom to drop bombs, to make sonic booms by flying low and breaking the sound barrier, and to terrorise the hapless inhabitants of this prison.
Israel likes to portray itself as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Yet Israel has never in its entire history done anything to promote democracy on the Arab side and has done a great deal to undermine it. Israel has a long history of secret collaboration with reactionary Arab regimes to suppress Palestinian nationalism. Despite all the handicaps, the Palestinian people succeeded in building the only genuine democracy in the Arab world with the possible exception of Lebanon. In January 2006, free and fair elections for the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority brought to power a Hamas-led government. Israel, however, refused to recognise the democratically elected government, claiming that Hamas is purely and simply a terrorist organisation....
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 23:14
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (1-19-09)
The Martin Luther King, Jr. that most Americans know is the man who said,"I have a dream" at a massive rally 250,000 strong in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That speech is about racial justice and ultimate reconciliation in the United States, and with the changes wrought in American law and practice by the Civil Rights movement, it is a speech that Americans can still feel hopeful about, even if we have not, as Dr. King would have said,"gotten there yet."
But there was another King, the critic of the whole history of European colonialism in the global South, who celebrated the independence movements that led to decolonization in the decades after World War II. The anti-imperial King is the exact opposite of the Neoconservatives who set US policy in the early twenty-first century. Barack Obama, who inherits King's Civil Rights legacy and is also burdened with the neo-imperialism of the W. era, has some crucial choices to make about whether he will heed the other King, or whether he will get roped into the previous administration's neocolonial project simply because it is the status quo from which he will begin his tenure as commander in chief.
Cont'd (click below or on" comments")
The US so neglects its educational system that relatively few Americans are exposed to world history in school. Few of them know that roughly from 1757 to 1971 the great European powers systematically subjugated most of the peoples of the world. tiny Britain ruled gargantuan India, along with Burma (Myanmar), what is now Malaysia, Australia, some part of China, and large swaths of Africa (Egypt, Sudan, Gambia, Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe, South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, etc., etc.) The colonial system was one of brutal exploitation of"natives" by Europeans, who derived economic, strategic and political benefits from this domination.
Dr. King frankly saw this imperial system as unadulterated evil. In his "The Birth of a New Nation," a sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama on 7 April 1957, King, just back from Africa, lays out his vision of the liberation of the oppressed from the failing empires.
He begins by celebrating the independence of Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) on March 6, 1957, and praising the man who led his country to sovereignty, Kwame Nkrumah. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, had traveled to Ghana to attend the independence ceremonies. He saw the victory of Ghana over the British imperialists as exemplifying a yearning in human beings in all times and places for liberty:"Men realize that freedom is something basic, and to rob a man of his freedom is to take from him the essential basis of his manhood. To take from him his freedom is to rob him of something of God’s image."
The state of being colonized, of being under the thumb of another nation, another people, is from King's point of view an existential disfigurement, robbing human beings of their status as theomorphic or created in the image of the divine.
King recalled the ceremonials that he had witnessed with his own eyes on African soil:
' The thing that impressed me more than anything else that night was the fact that when Nkrumah walked in, and his other ministers who had been in prison with him, they didn’t come in with the crowns and all of the garments of kings, but they walked in with prison caps and the coats that they had lived with for all of the months that they had been in prison . . . at twelve o’clock that night we saw a little flag coming down, and another flag went up. The old Union Jack flag came down, and the new flag of Ghana went up. This was a new nation now, a new nation being born. . . And when Prime Minister Nkrumah stood up before his people out in the polo ground and said,"We are no longer a British colony. We are a free, sovereign people," all over that vast throng of people we could see tears. And I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.
After Nkrumah had made that final speech, it was about twelve-thirty now. And we walked away. And we could hear little children six years old and old people eighty and ninety years old walking the streets of Accra crying,"Freedom! Freedom!" They couldn’t say it in the sense that we’d say it—many of them don’t speak English too well—but they had their accents and it could ring out,"Free-doom!" They were crying it in a sense that they had never heard it before, and I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out:
Free at last! Free at last!
Great God Almighty, I’m free at last!'
It was as he stood in the square at Accra after midnight on the first day of the independence of a former African colony that he remembered those lines, to which he referred again in his"I have a Dream" speech some six years later at the Lincoln Memorial. For King, Kwame Nkrumah was the Great Emancipator as much as Lincoln, and the achievement of civil rights for African Americans was a sort of decolonization, replicating the miracle of Ghana.
King recalled, in his 1957 sermon, how the new parliament was opened on a Wednesday and"here Nkrumah made his new speech. And now the prime minister of the Gold Coast with no superior, with all of the power that MacMillan of England has, with all of the power that Nehru of India has—now a free nation, now the prime minister of a sovereign nation." That phrase,"with no superior" was central to King's thinking, both about decolonization and about civil rights in the US. Colonized Ghanaians had had a superior in the form of the British high commissioner, who set policy for them by fiat. African-Americans under Jim Crow had a superior. But Nkrumah, as of March 6,"had no superior."
King took away from his experience in Africa the lesson that social mobilization was necessary to gain freedom. It would not be gifted from on high, since colonial officials had no interest in abolishing their own power. But King also said he admired Nkrumah's deployment of Gandhian techniques of nonviolent noncooperation to win independence.
He said he learned from the experience of Ghana that the quest for liberation would always be resisted, and that freedom workers should expect to go to jail, and to face fierce oppostion. He recalled of his return journey through London,
' remember we passed by Ten Downing Street. That’s the place where the prime minister of England lives. And I remember that a few years ago a man lived there by the name of Winston Churchill. One day he stood up before the world and said,"I did not become his Majesty’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire."
And I thought about the fact that a few weeks ago a man by the name of Anthony Eden [then British Prime Minister] lived there. And out of all of his knowledge of the Middle East, he decided to rise up and march his armies with the forces of Israel and France into Egypt, and there they confronted their doom, because they were revolting against world opinion. Egypt, a little country; Egypt, a country with no military power. They could have easily defeated Egypt, but they did not realize that they were fighting more than Egypt. They were attacking world opinion; they were fighting the whole Asian-African bloc, which is the bloc that now thinks and moves and determines the course of the history of the world. '
King was referring to the Suez War of 1956, in which Israel, the United Kingdom and France conspired against Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had nationalized the Suez Canal that July. France feared Abdel Nasser because he gave hope and aid to the Algerian revolutionaries trying to end France's empire there. Eden caricatured Abdel Nasser as a Mussolini figure needing to be taken down a notch lest the colonized countries get uppity in imitation of him. Israel, always expansionist and land hungry, sought to take and keep the Sinai Peninsula right up to the Suez Canal.
Although King attributed the failure of the tripartite plot to the"Afro-Asian bloc," it was actually President Dwight D. Eisenhower who intervened to push the three miscreants back out of Egypt. Ike was afraid that the Arab nationalists would go Communist if the colonial powers and Israel insisted on humiliating them or refusing to let go of Arab land under foreign occupation. Eisenhower pressured Israel to give up the Sinai, which it did sullenly.
It should be remembered that in 1956-57, Britain, France and many in the US viewed Egyptian leader Abdel Nasser as a fascist, a tyrant, a supporter of terrorism who encouraged Palestinians in Gaza to attack Israel. King was not taken in by the propaganda, which covered for neo-imperial acquisitiveness on the part of the aggressors.
We celebrate today the birth of a man who supported anticolonial trouble-makers such as Nkrumah and Abdel Nasser against the global forces of empire. I think we may deduce from this stance exactly how he would feel about Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's war on the people of Gaza.
King saw attaining civil rights in the US and decolonization in Africa and Asia as parallel processes. It could be argued that Nkrumah's victory in 1957 was among the events that gave African-Americans hope in the Deep South.
Barack Obama told an anecdote about his father that reversed this causality. At the Brown Chapel A.M.E. church in Selma, Alabama, in March, 2007, 50 years after King saw Nkrumah become the ruler of a sovereign African country, Obama told the congregation:
'You see, my Grandfather was a cook to the British in Kenya. Grew up in a small village and all his life, that's all he was -- a cook and a house boy. And that's what they called him, even when he was 60 years old. They called him a house boy. They wouldn't call him by his last name.
He had to carry a passbook around because Africans in their own land, in their own country, at that time, because it was a British colony, could not move about freely. They could only go where they were told to go. They could only work where they were told to work.
Yet something happened back here in Selma, Alabama. Something happened in Birmingham that sent out what Bobby Kennedy called, “Ripples of hope all around the world.” Something happened when a bunch of women decided they were going to walk instead of ride the bus after a long day of doing somebody else's laundry, looking after somebody else's children. When men who had PhD’s decided that's enough and we’re going to stand up for our dignity. That sent a shout across oceans so that my grandfather began to imagine something different for his son. His son, who grew up herding goats in a small village in Africa could suddenly set his sights a little higher and believe that maybe a black man in this world had a chance.
What happened in Selma, Alabama and Birmingham also stirred the conscience of the nation. It worried folks in the White House who said, “You know, we're battling Communism. How are we going to win hearts and minds all across the world? If right here in our own country, John, we're not observing the ideals set fort in our Constitution, we might be accused of being hypocrites. So the Kennedy’s decided we're going to do an air lift. We're going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is.
This young man named Barack Obama got one of those tickets and came over to this country. He met this woman whose great great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves; but she had a good idea there was some craziness going on because they looked at each other and they decided that we know that the world as it has been it might not be possible for us to get together and have a child. There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don't tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Alabama. '
Obama's speech was also about the blessed estate of having"no superior," of not being a colonial subject, of not being called"boy" by one's alleged social and racial"superiors."
Obama's speech was an anticolonial one, which reversed the causation implicit in King's description of the independence celebration in Ghana. Barack Obama, Sr., was the recipient of a scholarship from the Kennedy administration that was offered in part under the influence of the US Civil Rights Movement.
The Neoconservatives, like Winston Churchill himself as long as he lived, never gave up the imperial dream. They approved of the 1956 attack on Egypt by Israel, France and Britain. They approved of Western dominance of the countries of the global South. And Bush and his think tanks wanted to revive empire, to pretend it was 1920, and that the common people lacked the skills to mobilize to stop their project of domination.
Obama's plan to order the beginning of a withdrawal from Iraq on day one of his administration is consistent with the anticolonialism of the King tradition and of Obama's own autobiography.
But the dark clouds over the Obama administration are Afghanistan and Palestine. What Obama accomplishes on those two issues will powerfully shape his presidency. Only if he can avoid perpetuating colonial abuses in both can he hope to claim the mantle of anticolonialism from King and from his own father. For the Bush administration assiduously robbed other human beings of their status as images of the divine, and the US will not be whole until Afghans and Palestinians can say in the words of the old Negro spiritual,"Free at Last, Free at Last, Great God Almighty, I'm Free at Last."
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 22:55
SOURCE: Pajamasmedia.com (1-19-09)
Most recently, Time columnist Joe Klein, in a particularly nasty and vitriolic  article, argued that torture and related “war crimes” is “the real Bush legacy.” As Klein sees it, the treatment of enemy prisoners in wartime- those of al-Qaeda and the Taliban-was not only “callous and despicable,” but “stands at the heart of the national embarrassment that was his residency.”Klein is perhaps the strongest example of a partisan journalist whose left- leaning bias color his ability to objectively evaluate the record of the outgoing administration.
In an evaluation from the other side, Jay Lefkowitz,  writing in Commentary, shows that Bush, “despite the absence of any tangible political benefit to himself or his party,” created the most effective and expensive American project to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, and that he did so “at the risk of a costly break with one of his core constituencies.” Lefkowitz provides the details in his article. But unlike Klein, he says it will be years or decades before any consensus can emerge about the Bush presidency.
But now, some liberal journalists are stepping back and although they have been strong opponents of Bush’s policies, have belatedly acknowledged that there were times even Bush did the right thing. In Sunday’s Washington Post, Peter Beinart, formerly editor of The New Republic and now a fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations,  writes, “It is no longer a close call. President Bush was right about the surge.” In fact, Beinart concludes: Bush’s “decision to increase America’s troop presence in late 2006 now looks like his finest hour.” “It would have been far easier to do the opposite,” and Bush “endured an avalanche of scorn, and now he has been vindicated.” Beinart concludes, “He was not only right; he was courageous.” (my emphasis.)
Beinart calls on Democrats to publicly acknowledge this for their own future credibility. It is dangerous, he cautions, for young Democrats to believe that “the right is always wrong.” In fact, he notes, during the Persian Gulf war of Bush 41, Congressional Democrats opposed it and Congressional Republicans supported it, and the “the Republicans were proven right.” On welfare reform, he also adds, liberals predicted disaster, and “disaster didn’t happen.” Today, “liberal self-confidence is sky-high,” and it is too easy for his side to fall into sneeringly dismissing all conservative critics. “No one political party, or ideological perspective,” he concludes, “has a monopoly on wisdom.”
Beinart’s view seems to be in line with the apparent pragmatism and centrism of the incoming Obama Administration. Faulting the Bush administration for not taking liberal critics seriously on issues like regulation and unfettered American might, Beinart seems to be making a case for listening to all arguments, and for putting ideology aside.
Complementing Beinart is the Post’s own  editorial, “Mr. Bush Exits.” Although the WP editors fault Bush with his erroneous post-invasion policies, Guantanamo and with the policy of torture, they give credit to Bush when credit is due. In Iraq, they write “there is a decent chance of a reasonably pro-American incipient democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East. This would be a major accomplishment, and one that would cast the invasion, the failure of the early years of occupation and the painful loss of more than 4,000 American lives and many more Iraqi lives in a different light than the one in which they are seen by most Americans now. It would also vindicate his unpopular decision to stabilize Iraq with more U.S. troops rather than abandon it to civil war and possible genocide-an instance in which Mr. Bush’s self-assurance and steadfastness paid off.”(my emphasis.)
On the issue of AIDS in Africa and his insistence that tyrannies must move towards democracy, their editorial continues, George W. Bush “put the United States firmly on the side of democracy and freedom, arguing, correctly, that the transformation of dictatorial regimes is, in the long run, necessary to peace and security.” The editors fault him for not always living up to his own standards, and not moving quickly enough against the Putin’s government’s drift to authoritarianism. And when Obama moves to close Guantanamo, they caution, he will find that it is not so simple a matter, since a “significant number of those detained there would try to attack America if released.”
That some liberal sources of opinion have, in the very last days of the Bush Administration, tried to make a more balanced assessment is cause for hope. As a historian, I believe that any final judgment about the Bush years must be put off for at least a minimum of ten years, when we can see how things work out in the future, and more records of the administration are made available. Indeed, it is foolish for historians to echo commentators who make firm statements about how history has proved Bush to be evil incarnate. Similarly, I think it foolish for conservative historians to issue contrary assessments. Let history have its say, when time passes and the passions of the moment subside.
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 22:47
SOURCE: Columbia University Press (blog) (1-22-09)
Some pundits have predicted that Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States spells the end of Black History. That his election as president is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, the culmination of the civil rights movement, the dawn of a post-racial society, and the demise of multiculturalism. Anyone who really heard Aretha Franklin’s unparalleled rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee,” listened carefully to Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, was touched by Elizabeth Alexander’s poem with echoes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Sterling Brown, or was stirred by the black church cadence of Rev. Joseph Lowery understands that Black History is not dead. It is alive and well and was given new vitality by much of the commentary leading up to the inauguration ceremony.
For the first time, many Americans learned that enslaved Africans were used to build the Capitol in front of which Barack Obama took the oath of office and that their labor helped to build the White House in which his family will live. Moreover, a free African American, Benjamin Banneker, helped to lay out the path of the inaugural parade. An astronomer, mathematician, and almanac maker, Banneker was probably the first black presidential appointee when he was named in 1791 as part of a six-member team to design Washington, D.C. as the nation’s capital.
In elucidating the meaning of American liberty and fundamental beliefs, President Obama explained it was “why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” But how did we reach the point of electing the first Black President of the United States? When sixty years earlier the nation’s capital was segregated. Those pundits who predict the end of Black History have argued that we must change the African American narrative. That heretofore, the black saga has been a story of victimization, of how African Americans have been wronged by the slave trade, enslavement, segregation, and racial discrimination, which allegedly limited their horizons and their achievement
But that is not the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, who President Obama invited to witness his inauguration. The Tuskegee Airmen proved during World War II that African Americans possessed the mental and physical abilities to pilot airplanes. They had to fight a war on two fronts, at home and abroad. They did not see themselves as victims but as American citizens who were determined to enjoy all of the benefits and privileges of citizenship.
Although they were commissioned officers in the U.S. military, they were denied access to military base officer’s clubs. In one instance, they were arrested and charged with insubordination when they tried to enter an officer’s club. One hundred and three of the black airmen faced court martial charges that were later dropped but which remained on their records until 1995 when they were finally expunged by President William J. Clinton. In many respects, the heroism, bravery, resolve, and example of the Tuskegee Airmen led to the beginning of military desegregation in 1947.
Has President Obama fulfilled Dr. King’s dream of freedom, justice, and equality for all Americans? As President Obama declared in his Inaugural Address, we are on a journey toward realizing the promise of America. In his March 18, 2008 speech on race, delivered in Philadelphia, then candidate Obama explained “…I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy…” President Obama understands perhaps more than others that his inauguration is a beginning and not an end.
And to understand this “new beginning,” this effort “to remake America,” we must understand what America is and how it began. Not to stick us in the past but to help propel us into the future. Elizabeth Alexander in her Inaugural Poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” remarked “We encounter each other in words…Words to consider, reconsider.” Those words spring from a source and to grasp their meaning, we must understand their source. Black history has been about creativity as much as anything else. To music, dance, literature, poetry, art, sculpture, quilting, and cuisine, we brought our sensibility and in President Obama’s words contributed to the patchwork heritage that is the United States. Aretha Franklin’s voice and style spring from a source rooted in the African American experience and in our encounter with the United States.
Rev. Joseph Lowery began his benediction with the words from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” The Negro National Anthem, composed by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, in 1900, its lyrics a summary of black history, hopes, and aspirations. Rev. Lowery brought a smile to President Obama’s face when he revised an expression well known in black homes, churches, beauty parlors, and barber shops: “help us work for the day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when red can get ahead, and when white will embrace what is right.” It is not just the black condition but black genius that has made Black history, nourished this nation, and now produced a President.
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 22:38
SOURCE: TheDailyBeast.com (1-21-09)
Many pundits had expected Caroline Kennedy to get the appointment. After all, she is a Kennedy. When Kennedys have sought a political position, they have usually been victorious.
The Kennedy family has been a powerful force in national politics since the New Deal. The first Kennedy to emerge on the national scene was Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr., who made his name in the Democratic party of Massachusetts and who was named chair of the Securities Exchange Commission by FDR. His son, John F. Kennedy, was elected senator in 1952 and then president of the United States in 1960. (Rose, JFK’s mother, was a Fitzgerald, and her father, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, had been a member of Congress from Boston, elected in 1895, and mayor of Boston, elected in 1906.) Though JFK was assassinated in 1963, his short-lived presidency caused many young Americans to think about politics in inspirational terms and to consider how they could contribute to civic life.
“The irony is that one of the most conservative presidents we have had in the White House might have struck the most devastating blow to the family that has come to embody American liberalism for over half a century. With Bush, the cost of dynastic politics became clear.”
JFK's brother Robert served as attorney general in his administration, guiding the White House through heated standoffs over the racial integration of southern universities and helping his brother navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis. RFK began as an ardent Cold Warrior, but by 1968, as the senator from New York, he stood as the champion of younger Americans who were tired of the Vietnam War and demanded that the government deal with social problems such as urban racism. Like his brother, he was struck down by an assassin; he was killed in 1968 just after winning California's Democratic primary and was headed to the Democratic convention in Chicago.
Senator Edward Kennedy struggled with many problems early in his career, including his failure to immediately report a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island on Martha’s Vineyard that resulted in the death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Following an unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1980, Senator Kennedy emerged as a major voice of liberalism in the conservative era. Kennedy was unrepentant in challenging the Bush administration on every issue, from Iraq to the minimum wage, even when most other Democrats were timid before the once-popular president....
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 22:36
SOURCE: AlterNet (1-21-09)
Like any important speech, Barack Obama's inaugural address was actually several speeches rolled into one. Each string of rhetoric the new president wove on this historic occasion holds different meaning for American progressives, a weary group following eight disastrous years of conservative war and plunder and hungry for a brand of change that goes far beyond a slogan. Ultimately, it was a mixed bag -- hopeful signs, but of a distinctly conventional sort of change. A dramatic move from the far reaches of the right, but with threads that conservatives might have found attractive.
Let's start with the inaugural address as a message to the nation's governing elite. The Beltway pundits saw it as "a stark repudiation of the era of George W. Bush," in the words of New York Times columnist David Sanger. When Obama said, "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some"; when he observed that, "Without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. … A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous"; when he promised to "restore science to its rightful place" and warned that the "ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet" ; when he promised to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories" -- these were all subtle digs at Bush-era policies and signs that the new administration would turn in directions that progressives could applaud.
On foreign policy, too, there were a few shots at Bush's era -- some promise of a more-progressive approach: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," he said. "Power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. … Our power grows through its prudent use." He promised "to work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet."
There were other lines that might gladden progressive hearts. He said there was a role of government in creating "jobs at a decent wage" with "health care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified." He was inclusive, reminding the country that "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers" (that last word a daring one in a nation that will elect a president of any color, but not an atheist).
But that was about it. Enough to strike D.C. insiders as a sharp break with the Bush administration -- surely good reason to celebrate after eight long years in the darkness. But not enough, perhaps, to impress those who want the heralded "change" to bring a deep and far-reaching transformation of our government's key institutions and power structures.
Of course, most of us progressives who put in long hours working for the Obama campaign had no such illusions. We knew from that start that our candidate was never really a progressive by our standards. Whatever his deepest inclinations might be, he is, above all, a pragmatic politician who aims to win. He picks his battles carefully, never takes on a fight unless he thinks he'll be victorious, piles up political capital by helping others with their own winnable battles, and calls in those chips to score victories on issues he really cares about. As a cautious politician, it's up to us to keep up the pressure, creating the political winds that might push him to the left.
The administration Obama put together shows his approach. He will let the foreign policy and Wall Street establishments keep charge of their bailiwicks. He'll fight no major contests on those fronts. Then when the crunch comes on the domestic issues that matter most to him -- health care, energy and the environment, help for the unemployed -- those elites will back him, or at least stand aside, making it far harder for the conservative movement to defeat him....
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 22:29
SOURCE: Independent Institute website (1-19-09)
At the request of President-elect Barack Obama, President George W. Bush convened an awkward meeting of all living former presidents at the White House to meet, and presumably give advice and encouragement to, the new guy. The body language of the participants in the summit photo, taken in the Oval Office, said it all.
The president-elect was amiably chatting with George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father. Could it be that Obama was complimenting the elder Bush on his “realist” foreign policy—of which the president-elect claims to be a fan?
Right next to these two political lovebirds were another harmonious duo. Also visibly enjoying each other’s company were the modern-day champions of U.S. military interventionism on the left and right—Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Clinton was a Wilsonian liberal who was the titleholder in terms of numbers of military adventures, most of them for ostensibly “humanitarian” reasons. He intervened militarily or threatened to use force in Sudan, Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and North Korea. The younger Bush, a neoconservative (a right-wing Wilsonian), was the champion in terms of deeply enmeshing the United States in two unnecessary nation-building quagmires simultaneously—Iraq and Afghanistan.
Standing apart from the others in the summit photo—and looking mighty uncomfortable—was Jimmy Carter. Could it be that the interventionism, actual or professed, of all the others made him a little squeamish? While not perfect, Carter—in keeping with the original vision of the nation’s founders—exhibited more restraint militarily than the rest. Although he began giving aid to the Afghan Mujahadeen, his objective was to annoy the Soviets and give them another Vietnam. (Ronald Reagan, Carter’s successor, later opened the floodgates to massive aid, tried to win the war, and thus much more significantly enabled a future threat to the United States.) Carter’s only overt military foray, which ended in failure because of the incompetence of the U.S. military, was the attempted rescue of U.S. hostages at the U.S. embassy in Iran. Even this mission exhibited restraint; when the hostage-takers stormed the U.S. embassy, under international law this action was the same as attacking American soil. Although Carter could have conducted a retaliatory military assault against Iran, he correctly surmised that the diplomatic hostages would have been killed. Although the rescue mission failed, the hostages were eventually freed without the United States having made any concessions to their captors (unlike the macho Ronald Reagan’s astonishing sale of heavy weapons to this same radical Iranian regime, which was a state sponsor of terrorism, to ransom U.S. hostages in Lebanon).
Carter is the most underrated modern president—in fact, he usually gets bad reviews. Yet people have trouble remembering many specifics about why he was so awful. You cannot have prosperity and liberty if you are always at war. Whereas other recent presidents have seemed oblivious to this fact, the Vietnam experience seems to have made Carter realize it. Carter consciously used military power reluctantly and only as a last resort. The founders would have been pleased. He also gave the Canal Zone—a U.S. colonial chunk of Panama—back to its rightful owners....
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 21:21
SOURCE: WSJ (1-21-09)
But now we find that Truman has a second amazing historical quality: Not only is he the patron saint of floundering presidential campaigns, but he is the star of hope for presidents leaving office at the nadir of their public approval ratings.
As you may recall, Truman was extremely unpopular when he finally left Washington in 1953, thanks largely to the Korean War. Today, however, he is thought to have been a solidly good president, a "Near Great" even, in the terminology of those surveys of historians they do every now and then.
And if Truman made that grand comeback, then so can George W. Bush. That's why the Truman comparisons continue, although campaign season is long over, with the ever-dwindling supporters of Mr. Bush discovering significant similarities between their man and President 33. After all, both of them were in the White House at the beginning of big conflicts -- the Cold War, the war on terrorism -- that were not quickly resolved.
Let me be blunt. Let me be blunt like Harry Truman was blunt: Comparisons like this are nonsense. Not only do they depend on the hollowest, most superficial sort of resemblance, but they are easy to refute.
Faced with the Communist invasion of South Korea, for one thing, Truman did not make his stand against some uninvolved country, as Mr. Bush did with Iraq after 9/11. What's more, Truman fought Joe McCarthy and the other demagogues of his day; McCarthy's spiritual descendants, meanwhile, made up part of Mr. Bush's base. But let us take the one thing Truman was known for before he became Franklin Roosevelt's vice president: rooting out waste and fraud in defense contracting as World War II got under way.
Under the Bush administration, on the other hand, contracting waste was apparently so robust, so spectacular, that we might well think of it as an official element of administration policy: waste in New Orleans, waste in Iraq, waste in Homeland Security. And I say "apparently" because we will probably never know the extent of the problem. That quaint Trumanesque notion of accountability will almost certainly not be applied to the now departed Bush & Co.
The point of all the Truman comparisons, though, is not actually to compare anyone to Truman. It is to problematize the obvious verdict on the disastrous Bush administration and clear the way for a more flattering counter narrative....
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 20:58
SOURCE: New Republic (2-4-09)
Even before the Panic of 2008 sent financial markets into turmoil and launched what looks like the worst global recession in decades, talk of American decline was omnipresent. In the long term, the United States faces the rise of Asia and the looming fiscal problems posed by Medicare and other entitlement programs. In the short term, there is a sense that, after eight years of George W. Bush, the world, full of disdain for our way of life, seems to be spinning out of our--and perhaps anybody's--control. The financial panic simply brought all that simmering anxiety to a boil, and the consensus now seems to be that the United States isn't just in danger of decline, but in the full throes of it--the beginning of a "post-American" world.
Perhaps--but the long history of capitalism suggests another possibility. After all, capitalism has seen a steady procession of economic crises and panics, from the seventeenth-century Tulip Bubble in the Netherlands and the Stop of the Exchequer under Charles II in England through the Mississippi and South Sea bubbles of the early eighteenth century, on through the crises associated with the Napoleonic wars and the spectacular economic crashes that repeatedly wrought havoc and devastation to millions throughout the nineteenth century. The panics of 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, and 1907 were especially severe, culminating in the Great Crash of 1929, which set off a depression that would not end until World War II. The series of crises continued after the war, and the last generation has seen the Penn Central bankruptcy in 1970, the first Arab oil crisis of 1973, the Third World debt crisis of 1982, the S&L crisis, the Asian crisis of 1997, the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2001, and today's global financial meltdown.
And yet, this relentless series of crises has not disrupted the rise of a global capitalist system, centered first on the power of the United Kingdom and then, since World War II, on the power of the United States. After more than 300 years, it seems reasonable to conclude that financial and economic crises do not, by themselves, threaten either the international capitalist system or the special role within it of leading capitalist powers like the United Kingdom and the United States. If anything, the opposite seems true--that financial crises in some way sustain Anglophone power and capitalist development.
Indeed, many critics of both capitalism and the "Anglo-Saxons" who practice it so aggressively have pointed to what seems to be a perverse relationship between such crises and the consolidation of the "core" capitalist economies against the impoverished periphery. Marx noted that financial crises remorselessly crushed weaker companies, allowing the most successful and ruthless capitalists to cement their domination of the system. For dependency theorists like Raul Prebisch, crises served a similar function in the international system, helping stronger countries marginalize and impoverish developing ones.
Setting aside the flaws in both these overarching theories of capitalism, this analysis of economic crises is fundamentally sound--and especially relevant to the current meltdown. Cataloguing the early losses from the financial crisis, it's hard not to conclude that the central capitalist nations will weather the storm far better than those not so central. Emerging markets have been hit harder by the financial crisis than developed ones as investors around the world seek the safe haven provided by U.S. Treasury bills, and commodity-producing economies have suffered extraordinary shocks as commodity prices crashed from their record, boom-time highs. Countries like Russia, Venezuela, and Iran, which hoped to use oil revenue to mount a serious political challenge to American power and the existing world order, face serious new constraints. Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must now spend less time planning big international moves and think a little bit harder about domestic stability. Far from being the last nail in America's coffin, the financial crisis may actually resuscitate U.S. power relative to its rivals....
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 20:33
SOURCE: WSJ (1-20-09)
Inaugurations of a new president are usually a blast. Ordinary people who supported the victorious candidate want to celebrate, while those acceding to real power are understandably in an upbeat mood. After all, as James Madison explained in the Federalist Papers, "Men love Power." And in Washington, D.C., that goes double.
But the inauguration of Barack Obama is shaping up as something far more than just a celebration of a new president taking office. Estimates of those attending range upwards of four million. Hotel rooms have been booked for months. The parties, official and unofficial, will be numberless. The District of Columbia City Council has voted to let bars stay open until five in the morning.
The reason, perhaps, is that there is a profound sense that this presidential transition will not be an ordinary one but rather a watershed moment in the history of the country.
Mr. Obama will be the country's first African-American president, but he is actually far more than that. He will be the first president whose ethnic identity is not linked to the extreme northwest corner of Europe. All 42 men who have been president of the United States up to now were either British, Irish or Dutch in ancestry -- except Dwight Eisenhower, whose ancestors came from the Saarland, in Germany, which borders the Low Countries. Most of the 42 had colonial ancestors (including Eisenhower, whose antecedents came to Pennsylvania in 1741), and would therefore qualify as WASPs, to use the not-altogether-complimentary -- or accurate -- acronym coined in the 1960s.
So the inauguration of Mr. Obama is being seen, rightly, as a moment in American history when the idea that "Anyone can grow up to be president" is becoming more true than it had been previously. American democracy is being significantly deepened and widened by his accession to the presidency.
This is the second time in American history that this has happened and there was quite a party the first time as well.
The first six presidents of the United States had all come from Virginia or Massachusetts, and all had been from the upper reaches of society. Of the six, all but George Washington had attended college, a very rare level of education in those days.
But Andrew Jackson was from a very different background. While four of the six previous presidents had ancestries that can be traced back to European royalty, Jackson's can be traced only as far as a great grandfather in impoverished northern Ireland. His parents had immigrated from there to the South Carolina frontier a few years before Jackson was born in 1767. Orphaned by the time he was 14, his education was spotty at best, although he read law in a lawyer's office and was admitted to the bar when he was 20 years old....
Jackson's journey from Nashville to Washington took three weeks, and everywhere along the route he was greeted by large crowds. At Pittsburgh, where he switched from steamboat to carriage, the crowd was so great that it took him nearly an hour to make his way from the dock to his hotel, a mere quarter mile away.
On Inauguration Day, Washington was jammed with people. "I never saw such a crowd before," wrote Daniel Webster. "Persons have come five hundred miles to see General Jackson." With hotel rooms unavailable even at triple the normal rates, people slept on tavern floors and even in open fields. They reminded some, unhappy at Jackson's election, of the "inundation of the northern barbarians into Rome."
The inauguration ceremony, which previously had usually been held indoors before invited guests, was to take place, for the first time, on the East Front of the Capitol Building, in order to accommodate the crowds. The open area in front of the Capitol was packed by 10 a.m. and the crowd became unruly, trying to swarm up the steps to the portico where the ceremony would be held. A ship's cable was stretched across the stairs to hold them back. Francis Scott Key, an eyewitness, was deeply moved. "It is beautiful," he wrote. "It is sublime!"...
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 18:44
SOURCE: Huffington Post (Blog) (1-21-09)
With tens of millions in America and worldwide breathlessly awaiting his words, Barack Obama spoke of the "gathering clouds" and "raging storms" of crisis brought on by our profligate ways.
The economic meltdown, he declared, is "a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices." Our failure to take energy conservation seriously has served to "strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet." And the crisis we face is not only marked by data and statistics but also by "a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable."
Amazingly, it took the new president less than five minutes to call an end to an era of denial.
Many would argue that this era of denial began when George "dubya," dubiously elected in the debacle of 2000, claimed a mandate; when he exploited 9/11 to impose a foreign and domestic agenda guided by a "you are either with us or against us" mentality; when he implored Americans to keep shopping to bolster the economy in a time of war; and when he declared "mission accomplished" for a crusade waged on false pretenses.
Others, however, could claim that our era of national denial dates back to our failure to heed Jimmy Carter's call to end our dependency on foreign oil. On July 15, 1979, before a live TV audience in prime time, Carter called upon America to overcome "fragmentation and self-interest" and to reject "a mistaken idea of freedom" characterized by "the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others." He warned us of a weakening dollar, economic stagnation, skyrocketing inflation, and deepening personal and national debt.
But he may have been too prophetic for his own good when he remarked that "too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption." His next words -- "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns" -- became the mantra of a new era of easy money, lax regulation, and Wall Street excess.
Standing at "a turning point in history," Carter called on us to find "the path of common purpose" and bring about "the restoration of American values." Deep down inside, we knew that "piling up material goods" would not answer "our longing for meaning" or "fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose." "The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers," said Carter, "clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual."
This was Jimmy Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech. It became commonly-known and ultimately ridiculed as his "malaise" speech -- the mark of a failed presidency. I was stunned by how much Obama's inaugural address, rooted in the theme of "a new era of responsibility," echoed Carter. That took audacity.
But more than Carter's speech, I thought of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who moved to end not only our national denial of the problem of racism but also the problems of materialism and militarism.
For most of the inaugural address, I maintained my scholarly sense of historical context and analytical detachment. What finally reduced me tears, however, was Obama's invocation to return to difficult truths and timeless values that have been "the quiet force of progress throughout our history." These are the truths and values that define "the price and the promise of citizenship."
"We have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world," spoke Obama, "duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."
More than ceremonial trappings, these expressions of human purpose are what I find most moving. I was especially reminded of how, as a young preacher in 1954, King called on the faithful to "rediscover lost values." He remarked, "Automobiles and subways, televisions and radios, dollars and cents can never be substitutes for God." Sometimes, he advised, we need to go forwards by going backwards.
King tried to shake us out of a denial that allowed Americans to believe that dropping atomic bombs on civilians could be a force for peace. Our moral and spiritual progress, he declared, needed to catch up with our technological and material progress. We had become a society with "guided missiles" but "misguided men."
And when he proclaimed that we must reckon with our history as a nation "founded on genocide," as well as slavery, King challenged us to embrace not only the purity and of the American ideal of freedom but also the suffering and struggle that are the true ingredients of democracy.
As King embarked on a long and arduous struggle, as he moved to square his "other-worldly" ideals with "this-worldly" realities, as he endured tremendous personal sacrifices of his health and well-being, as he witnessed his comrades maimed and his people attacked, and as he watched his "dream" turn into the "nightmare" of white backlash and the Vietnam War, he began to redefine the meaning of going forwards.
King wrote in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967):
"The stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing'-oriented society to a 'person'-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.
None of us can predict what will come of the Obama presidency. The debates over policies, regulations, and spending have just begun. And we can't know if Obama's call to reclaim lost values will be the first step toward a revolution of values or the last. Indeed, we should already understand that it us up to all of us -- the "yes, we can" millions -- to determine what this turning point in history will ultimately represent to us, our children, and our children's children."
Still, as a leader, Obama displays every evidence that he possesses a fast learning-curve and a tremendous capacity for growth. "We remain a young nation," he reminded us, "but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." It is up to us "to shape an uncertain destiny."
Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement leaders defined their mission: "to save the soul of America." Obama's address can serve as a reminder of that incomplete mission. "Starting today," he declared, "we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
Watching the presidential inauguration in Philadelphia on a giant screen set against the backdrop of Independence Hall, the birthplace of the American republic, I thought of how each generation is blessed with the opportunity and charged with the responsibility to renew and redefine the struggles of those who came before us.
When Aretha Franklin sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee," the sound of freedom never sounded sweeter, my love of America never greater.
Standing within sight of the Liberty Bell, near the hall where Obama delivered his stirring address on race, and among an incredibly diverse crowd of people, we fully appreciated Obama's message that "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness."
And as I watched the first African American president take the oath of office while holding my three-year old daughter -- who had just visited the Constitutional Center and was proudly shouting "We, the people!" the rest of the day -- I thought of how far we have come as a nation and how much potential we have to go further in our quest to build a more perfect union.
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 17:03
SOURCE: Britannica Blog (1-22-09)
President Bush’s protestations notwithstanding, his presidency was a failure and is likely to be judged as such by future generations of historians. Bush likes to refer to the Truman presidency as a model for his own resurrection, but I don’t think the analogy applies. Truman reeled from one crisis to another, from the death of Roosevelt to the atom bomb, to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, to the Berlin Blockade and the list goes on right up to the invasion of Korea.
Truman is now recognized as a great to near-great president because he dealt with crises and in doing so came up with some pretty good solutions given the constraints. Furthermore, by the time Eisenhower came into office, with the exception of Korea, most of the challenges Truman faced were stabilized or put to rest. President Bush leaves us with many “disappointments” as he likes to put it, unsettled situations dumped in the new president’s lap. In that regard, he is not like Truman at all.
With W. gone, President Obama will frantically have to deal with a quickly degrading economy, a federal budget gone south, our policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a shambles, the Middle East recently embroiled in a shooting war, environmental concerns, health care issues and the list goes on. A good president doesn’t hand off crises to the next the way Bush has.
Nevertheless, I suspect that President Bush is comfortable with his administration, although why he feels that way is a mystery to me. So it is most likely that he will spend the rest of his time playing golf, tending to his library, and making an occasional speech. I doubt he will act as Truman did the role of elder statesman. He probably won’t be tapped. He just is not perceived to be that competent; he has never proved his intellectual mettle.
How can a president recover his reputation? Public service.
But if he did want to recover his reputation, what could he do? I think it’s instructive in this regard to examine the experiences of five ex-presidents whose administrations were judged to be resounding failures. First, let me say that I’m going to leave living presidents out of the equation. Theirs is an experience that is too recent to be judged. But John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover are all considered substandard presidents. However, Adams recovered his reputation, Taft and Hoover are at least well regarded as public servants and Pierce and Buchanan are derided or forgotten.
What did Adams do to recover his reputation? He got back on the horse. After he left the presidency, he returned to Massachusetts where he eventually ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. There he served with distinction as THE voice of the abolitionist movement. He was probably just as influential, if not more so, in his ex-presidency as he was when he was president and in what history has proved, on the right side.
Taft went on to become Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He is considered a competent if not great jurist. But he came to the court late in his life and in addition to his service prior to becoming president, he is now considered a fine public servant if not a great president. Pretty much the same can be said for Herbert Hoover, who, after he left the presidency served in a number of roles in service to the public including European relief and acting as chair of a commission for government reform.
Buchanan presided over the collapse of the Union. He went home to Pennsylvania to write his memoirs to attempt to recover his reputation. But with the outbreak of the Civil War and the fact that he lived only six more years after he left office, Buchanan was forgotten and disappeared in the annals of history. (Actually, I think he gets a bad rap. The Civil War had been coming for forty years and he, like Hoover, was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time.)
Pierce is probably the most tragic ex-president. As Pierce left office, he was so unpopular that the citizens of his home town drew up a petition to request that he not move back to town after he left the White House. He spent much of the Civil War criticizing Lincoln, so virulently in fact that when Lincoln was shot an angry mob surrounded Pierce’s home. They figured he was in on the plot. After he lost his beloved wife, Pierce drifted back into alcoholism and died a forgotten drunk. By the way, George W. Bush is related to Pierce on his mother’s side.
What I am saying is that failed Presidents recover their reputation through public service. It remains to be seen whether the new model of charitable giving and private diplomacy as practiced by Carter, Clinton and H.W. Bush are sufficient to recover a reputation. But what does seem to work is to continue to serve.
Will Bush do so? Doubt it.
Of course, in all of these cases, the individuals involved had an inkling that their administrations had failed. Does now former President Bush have that capacity for introspection? I doubt it and suspect, therefore, that his reputation as president will never recover.
Posted on: Thursday, January 22, 2009 - 16:55
SOURCE: CNN (1-21-09)
... In many respects, the current White House is as impressive as the one that Kennedy and Johnson assembled. Obama has drawn on the nation's best universities, the most talented pool of campaign operatives and writers, and the top echelons of the national security and economics establishments.
While there is nothing inevitable about talent making mistakes, there are weaknesses that [David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest] saw in Kennedy's generation that would be worth remembering today. The first is hubris.
Halberstam's account traces how Kennedy's team, which had extensive experience in the national security establishment and had built the institutions of the Cold War, were so confident in their vision and ability that they didn't have a sense of their own limitations.
Though he understood, early on, the enormous challenges that the U.S. confronted in defending South Vietnam, the "Whiz Kid" Robert McNamara was certain that he could figure out a way to make the policy work. The numbers said the mission was possible.
The confidence of McNamara and his colleagues caused them to downplay, or to simply ignore, strong warning signals they were hearing from military officials, certain administration officials and many legislators, and to instead push the nation into the war.
The second mistake was being trapped in the politics of the past. For Kennedy's generation of Democrats (and Republicans, like McNamara, who worked for him), one of the main problems was overcoming the political damage that had resulted from the "Who Lost China" debates.
In the elections of 1952 and 1956, Dwight Eisenhower had won the presidency (and Congress from 1952 to 1954) by charging that President Harry Truman had failed to support the Chinese Nationalists in 1949 against a communist revolution.
Kennedy's team was determined not to lose on that score again. They wanted to burnish their hawkish credentials and were leery about giving Republicans the opportunity to paint them as weak on defense. This led them to make poor decisions.
Obama's team faces a similar challenge. Democrats had been battered for many years by conservatives who charged they were unwilling to challenge communism and then terrorist networks.
Sometimes Obama's team has articulated a new national security agenda -- talking about multilateralism and diplomacy and "Smart Power" and new initiatives in the Middle East.
But at other times, his team has attempted to show that Democrats can be equally aggressive on defense -- appointing Bob Gates to secretary of defense and talking tough about a significant escalation of force in Afghanistan. Obama has remained largely silent on recent events in the Middle East.
The final trap was disdain for the legislative branch. Kennedy's generation of the best and brightest were believers in the "imperial presidency." They came from an era when liberals thought the executive branch was more sophisticated, efficient and capable. They didn't have much good to say about Congress.
In their mind, senior Democrats who had made their career in Congress, such as Johnson, represented a type of politician who was crass and ignorant, only concerned with getting as many votes as possible, who needed to be overcome. Even when working for Johnson after he became president when Kennedy was assassinated, they expressed the same feelings, including about their own boss.
This was unfortunate since there were many legislators, such as Georgia's Richard Russell on the right and Idaho's Frank Church on the left, who were early voices of opposition to escalating America's involvement in the war.
This mentality could be a trap for Obama's team as well....
Posted on: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 - 17:15
SOURCE: WSJ (1-21-09)
Now that the grandeur of the inauguration is over, this morning is President Barack Obama's first in the Oval Office, and the hard work of governing finally begins. More than any president in memory, Mr. Obama has evoked Abraham Lincoln. He made his presidential announcement in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln once served as a legislator. He copiously read Lincoln histories. He placed his hand yesterday on the Lincoln Bible. But what are the real lessons of Abraham Lincoln for his presidency?
Early on, Lincoln learned that tumult is inherent in governing. Mr. Obama has already declared that he doesn't want "drama" within his cabinet and staff, but Lincoln's experience suggests that he should expect precisely that. From the outset of his administration, Lincoln's secretary of state, William Seward, a former senator from New York, was assiduously scheming against his president. Where Lincoln saw civil war as inevitable, Seward was freelancing, calling for negotiations with the South and privately telling Confederates that their differences could be peacefully resolved.
Then there were Lincoln's problems with his generals. In 1862, despite Lincoln's pleading, Gen. George McClellan refused to attack the Confederates. When senators clamored for McClellan to be removed, Lincoln feebly replied, "Whom shall I put in command?" "Well anybody!" Sen. Benjamin Wade told Lincoln. "Well anybody will do for you," Lincoln said, "but not for me. I must have somebody!"
Only after much wasted time was McClellan finally dismissed. But from there, Lincoln had to contend with a procession of woefully unsatisfactory generals until he eventually found Ulysses S. Grant: He had to fire Ambrose Burnside, get rid of Joseph Hooker, and marginalize George Meade. Even at war's end, Lincoln was still struggling to forge consensus inside his administration. He outlined his vision for reincorporating the South into the Union, only to meet with fierce resistance from his own cabinet. In one revealing moment, the president sheepishly said, "You are all against me."
Another lesson from Lincoln is to blend clarity of purpose with steely pragmatism. It was Lincoln and Lincoln alone who had a mystical attachment to the Union, and he was willing to do almost anything to preserve it, even as the body count mounted and it became clear that the sacred struggle would be neither brief nor necessarily victorious. Checking out books from the Library of Congress, the president gave himself a crash course in military strategy, and day after day, year after year, dragged his tired body to the War Department to monitor the progress of Union armies in the field. He hectored his generals constantly to be on the offensive: "hold on with a bulldog grip and chew & choke," "stand firm," "hold . . . as with a chain of steel."...
Perhaps more than anything else, President Obama should learn from Lincoln the importance of perseverance. The fact is that as late as 1864 -- well after the battle of Gettysburg, which in hindsight is often seen as the great turning point of the war -- the Union was still suffering frightful losses. In six weeks alone during the Wilderness Campaign, Lee inflicted some 52,000 casualties upon Grant's men, nearly as many soldiers as America would lose in the entire Vietnam War. The single battle of Cold Harbor was an unmitigated bloodbath; 7,000 men slaughtered in under an hour, most of them in the first eight minutes, more than the Confederates lost during Gen. George Pickett's infamous Gettysburg charge....
Posted on: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 - 17:08
SOURCE: NYT (1-19-09)
... Much has been written about what Mr. Obama thinks about Lincoln; but not much has been said about what Lincoln would think of Barack Hussein Obama. If his marble statue at the Lincoln Memorial could become flesh and speak, like Galatea, what would the man who is remembered for freeing the slaves say about his first black successor?
It is difficult to say for sure, of course, but one thing we can be fairly certain about is that Lincoln would have been, um, surprised. Lincoln was thoroughly a man of his times, and while he staunchly opposed slavery — on moral grounds and because it made competition in the marketplace unfair for poor white men — for most of his life he harbored fixed and unfortunate ideas about race.
Lincoln had a very complex relationship with blacks. Abolition was a fundamental part of Lincoln’s moral compass, but equality was not. While he was an early, consistent and formidable foe of slavery, Lincoln had much more ambivalent feelings about blacks themselves, especially about whether they were, or could ever be, truly equal with whites.
For example, on Aug. 14, 1862, he invited five black men to the White House to convince them to become the founders of a new nation in Panama consisting of those slaves he was about to free. A month before emancipation became law, he proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing financing for blacks who wished to emigrate to Liberia or Haiti.
Degrading words, deplored by most white abolitionists, like “Sambo” and “Cuffee,” found their way into Lincoln’s descriptions of blacks; he even used “nigger” several times in speeches. He also liked to tell “darkie” jokes and had a penchant for black-faced minstrel shows. The Lincoln of pre-White House days was a long way from the Great Emancipator; “recovering racist” would be closer to the truth....
Posted on: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 - 11:56
SOURCE: New Yorker (1-26-09)
The last time the American newspaper business got this gothic was 1765, just after the first gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto,” was published, in London, and, in an unrelated development, Parliament decided to levy on the colonies a new tax, requiring government-issued stamps on pages of printed paper—everything from indenture agreements to bills of credit to playing cards. The tax hit printers hard, at a time when printers were also the editors of newspapers, and sometimes their chief writers, too. The Stamp Act—the “fatal Black-Act,” one printer called it—was set to go into effect on November 1, 1765. Beginning that day, printers were to affix stamps to their pages and to pay tax collectors a halfpenny for every half sheet—amounting, ordinarily, to a penny for every copy of every issue of every newspaper—and a two-shilling tax on every advertisement. Printers insisted that they could not bear this cost. It would spell the death of the newspaper.
On October 10, 1765, an Annapolis printer changed his newspaper’s title to the Maryland Gazette, Expiring. Its motto: “In uncertain Hopes of a Resurrection to Life again.” Later that month, the printer of the Pennsylvania Journal replaced his newspaper’s masthead with a death’s-head and framed his front page with a thick black border in the shape of a gravestone. “Adieu, Adieu,” the Journalwhispered. On October 31st, the New-Hampshire Gazette appeared with black mourning borders and, in a column on page 1, lamented its own demise: “I must Die!” The Connecticut Courant quoted the book of Samuel: “Tell it not in Gath! publish it not in Askalon!” The newspaper is dead!
Or, then as now, not quite dead yet. “Before I make my Exit,” the New-Hampshire Gazette told its readers, “I will recount over some of the many good Deeds I have done, and how useful I have been, and still may be, provided my Life should be spar’d; or I might hereafter revive again.” The list of deeds ran to three columns. Nothing good in the world had ever happened but that a printer set it in type. “Without this Art of communicating to the Public, how dull and melancholy must all the intelligent Part of Mankind appear?” But, besides the settling over the land of a pall of dullness and melancholy, what else happens when a newspaper dies? In one allegory published during the Stamp Act crisis, a tearful LIBERTY cries to her dying brother, GAZETTE, “Unless thou revivest quickly, I shall also perish with thee! In our Lives we were not divided; in our Deaths we shall not be separated!”...
Posted on: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 - 10:06