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  • Originally published 09/20/2013

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  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    The Long Arm of the October War

    The 1973 War wasn't just a turning point in Middle East affairs -- it was also a critical battlefield of the Cold War.

  • Originally published 09/03/2013

    In Praise of Douglas Kinnard

    The general, who died on July 29, told the truth about the Vietnam War in his 1977 book "The War Managers."

  • Originally published 09/03/2013

    HNN Hot Topics

    Want to find out more about the latest topics in the news?  Everything's here from gay marriage to presidential elections.

  • Originally published 09/01/2013

    JFK nostalgia tour

    After all the ceremonies for M.L.K., there’s now J.F.K.

  • Originally published 11/11/2012

    Who Made Velcro?

    In 1941, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral returned from a hunting trip with burs clinging to his pants and tangled in his dog’s coat. When de Mestral examined the seedpods under a microscope, he marveled at how they bristled with hooks ingeniously shaped to grasp at animal fur. “Most people stop at the ‘Oh, that’s cool, that’s what nature does,’ ” says Janine Benyus, a pioneer in the field of biomimicry, the science of studying natural models — anthills and lizard feet, say — to solve human problems. “He probably had to go back a lot of times,” she adds, “and really look” at those hooks. A bur, of course, can clamp onto wool socks with surprising force, and — even more amazing — once you pry it off, it can stick again and again, like glue that never wears out. But how to imitate this trick with human-made stuff? Eventually de Mestral learned to mold nylon into a fabric studded with tiny hooks or loops that acted like artificial burs.When Velcro first arrived in America, it caused a sensation. In 1958, a syndicated financial columnist named Sylvia Porter announced that “a new fastening device” had so bewitched her that she spent days playing with it. “It’s on my desk as I type this,” she wrote.

  • Originally published 09/10/2012

    Constitution Day: Backgrounder

    Though the thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain in 1776 and the Revolutionary War ended in American victory in 1783, the Constitution was not drafted until 1787, ratified until 1788, and George Washington did not become the first president of the United States until 1789. So how was the U.S. Governed between 1776 and 1787?

  • Originally published 08/31/2011

    Did Hitler Really Have Only One Testicle?

    Did Adolf Hitler, widely considered to be one of the most evil, despicable people who ever lived, really have only one testicle?Maybe.Fans of the 1957 Bridge over the River Kwai no doubt remember the jaunty tune whistled by the British POWs as they marched into captivity:But film buffs may not be aware that the WWI-era tune, “Colonel Bogey’s March,” developed an alternate set of lyrics in WWII:There are a seemingly infinite number of variations, but the most popular goes like this:Hitler has only got one ball, Göring has two but very small, Himmler is somewhat sim'lar, But poor Goebbels has no balls at all.

  • Originally published 03/14/2011

    HNN Hot Topics

    HNN's guide to the topics in the news.

  • Originally published 02/18/2009

    Historians as Activists

    Historians don't always confine their activities to the library and classroom.  Here's a list of organizations historians have used to have a direct impact on events.

  • Originally published 07/20/2006

    HNN Poll: Are Cultures Sometimes Better Off If They Forget the Past?

    Note You do not have to register to participate in this poll for the first two weeks; after that, registration is required. We do ask all readers to abide by our civility guidelines whether they register or not. The current issue of the Historical Society's Historically Speaking features an interview with Tony Judt, Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies

  • Originally published 07/06/2006

    Great History Websites

    Have fun surfing these websites that feature exciting history content.

  • Originally published 08/27/2004

    Factoids

    Have fun with these factoids related to history.  Feel free to add your own in the comments section. 

  • Originally published 10/29/2003

    Brian VanDeMark: Accused of Plagiarism

     UPDATEIn April 2013 Mr. Van DeMark asked that we take down this page, noting that an article by historian Daniel Kevles in the New York Review of Books exonerated him in 2003 from the charge of plagiarism.  In the article, DeMark noted, that Kevles wrote that " 'something like half' of the allegations were reasonable paraphrases and the remaining ones were 'not important.' " We agreed to draw attention to Kevles's piece.***On Saturday May 31 the New York Times reported that Brian VanDeMark, a tenured associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy, was allegedly guilty of plagiarism.According to the Times more than 30 passages in VanDeMark's new book, Pandora's Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb (Little Brown), are"identical, or nearly identical" to those found in four other books written by Richard Rhodes, William Lanouette, Greg Herken, and Robert Norris.

  • Originally published 07/05/2002

    Who Dreamed Up the Gas Tax?

    During the Clinton years, when energy prices rose, Republicans demanded that the federal gas tax be reduced. Today they are singing a different tune. Dick Cheney says it would be unhelpful to reduce the gas tax.Who dreamed up the gas tax?The gas tax was devised by Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 as the best way to finance the building of what was expected to be the largest public works project in history: the interstate highway system, which experts said would cost $101 billion.Eisenhower first raised the idea of crisscrossing the country with concrete in 1955. But the idea had died when Congress failed to agree on a funding mechanism. Wary of defict spending during times of prosperity, the members were reluctant to embrace a program that would cost the country billions. The following year Congress settled on a gas tax as the best means of financing the system. The tax would be exclusively devoted to road construction.The tax cost motorists a few cents when it went into effect in the 1950s. Today it adds 18 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline.

  • Originally published 07/05/2002

    Politics: Family Feud

    The Jeffords switch is teaching a great lesson about Washington politics. It’s not always about who gets what and how much. It’s often about raw human emotions like revenge.Revenge is a theme more commonly associated with foreigners like the Serbs, who, we learned during the Kosovo war, still can’t get over a humiliating defeat that occurred some seven centuries ago.But you don’t have to open up musty European histories to find a juicy revenge plot worthy of Shakespeare. Just pick

  • Originally published 07/22/2014

    Historical Humility

    The great advantage historians have is that we know how the story ends.  The great temptation that follows from that fact is historical arrogance—an unspoken certainty that because we know it now, we would have known it then.  The great challenge, therefore, is to impose upon ourselves historical humility, to remind ourselves that the historical actors we study did not have the advantage we do of knowing the story’s end.  I was reminded of that recently while doing some research at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY. I’m working on the role of radio in the Great Debate over American intervention in World War II, and came across some of the countless personal letters people wrote to FDR on the subject. 

  • Originally published 07/03/2014

    Burgeoning Regulations Threaten Our Humanity

    Insofar as mainstream economics may be said to make moral-philosophical assumptions, it rests overwhelmingly on a consequentialist-utilitarian foundation. When mainstream economists say that an action is worthwhile, they mean that it is expected to give rise to benefits whose total value exceeds its total cost (that is, the most valued benefit necessarily forgone by virtue of this particular action’s being taken). But nearly always the economists make no attempt to evaluate as part of their benefit-cost calculus any costs that might be incurred as a result of how and by whom the action is taken.

  • Originally published 04/09/2014

    Revising the SAT To Make It Even Worse

    Happily, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) - the folks who bring us the SAT - have heard the increasing protests against their product. But ...

  • Originally published 09/18/2013

    Revolutions, Liberation Movements and Peoples in Europe and Africa

    What is most striking about the analyses to current times are that the parallels with the French revolutionary experience can so easily be made. Editor's Note:  This is a guest post from the blog The French Revolution Network. David Andress is the blog's editor.I recently returned from a workshop at the University of Pretoria, organised as part of the project The Comparative History of Political Engagement in Western and African Societies led by a team at the University of Sheffield. As well as enjoying a very hospitable welcome, I also had a very stimulating series of discussions, which have given me much food for thought about further extension of the debate on ‘revolution’ in the modern world. While recent events have made us focus attention on ‘bottom-up’ revolutionary upheavals, the role of spontaneous interactions and technology in popular mobilizations, and the general question of ‘crowds’ and their agency, a closer look at African examples reminds us that ‘top-down’ modes of revolutionary activism also continue to have a strong role to play. Henning Melber offered us an excellent overview of the extent to which African liberation movements into the present continue to use the rhetoric of liberation as closure, of the achievement of a sort of ‘end of history’ through the movement’s leadership, and necessarily alongside that, the closing-off of possibilities for dissent. Such movements demonstrate simultaneous abilities to use, for example, laws established in the colonial period to repress opposition, and rhetoric that brands such opposition as neo-imperialist conspiracy. Lloyd Sachikonye observed how electoral processes in ‘liberated’ African nations were routinely undermined by violence, over 80% of which came from ruling parties and their affiliated organisations, and Brian Raftopoulos offered a vivid case-study of the steady destruction of an autonomous labour movement in Zimbabwe through its subordination to the demands of a ‘National Democratic Revolution’, that was in practice technocratic and authoritarian – and prejudiced against urban workers in general through its political powerbase in land-hungry war-veterans. David Anderson presented chilling evidence of the example that systematic persecution of Mau Mau soldiers by the British authorities in the 1950s gave to the essentially anti-Mau Mau governments of independent Kenya. Torture and shameless violence continued to mark politics throughout the late twentieth century. This included the astonishing story of Nyayo House, an office-block in Nairobi, completed in 1984, and later exposed as having purpose-built torture-chambers in a sixth-level sub-basement. Like many African conflicts, that in Kenya tangled the concept of ‘national’ identity within colonial boundaries with that of ethnicity, and lived senses of community. Baz Lecocq showed us how in Mali the ‘black’ Mande ethnic leadership took the post-independence lead in defining the supposedly egalitarian features of their agricultural traditions as Malian national identity, while treating the ‘white’ Tuareg of the north of the country as a deviant, lazy, backward-looking feudal remnant. Policies of forced settlement alongside continual cultural humiliations were a systematic effort at cultural delegitimisation, and at the heart of a movement towards open revolt from the Tuareg as socio-economic conditions worsened towards the end of the century. Finally on Africa, Emma Hunter offered a stimulating series of questions about how, outside mechanisms of overt violence, different mechanisms of public engagement could work with and across post-colonial governments. The tensions that result are illustrated in the history of Tanzania’s Ujamaa under Julius Nyerere – despite governmental claims, Swahili did not provide the common language to overcome tribal divisions, and movements to ‘villagization’ cut coercively across claims about cooperation and consultation. Nonetheless, organs including the press remained open as routes of dissent, even if having to tread a careful line of framing loyalty. What, for me, was most striking about all of these analyses was the extent to which parallels with the French revolutionary experience could so easily be made. It would be trite to rehearse these here, ‘as if’ the earlier merely fed unmediated into the later, but the discussions in and around these papers clearly showed that there is a wider comparison, and structural analysis, to be made. The various models of ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ revolutionary mobilization have clearly had a recurrent influence across the centuries of modernity – and indeed are a substantial constituent of ‘modernity’ as a concept itself. A global perspective shows us that we never did reach the ‘end of history’ so vaunted a generation ago, and for historians, there is much more reflection to be done on the cycles of hope and dread packaged as ‘revolutionary’ progress.

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    Understanding Modern Violence Through the Lens of the Reign of Terror

    One of the most stimulating books I have read in some time is Sophie Wahnich’s In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution (published in 2003, but in English 2012). But it’s not the writing (which is murky) or its purpose (with which I generally disagree) but its viewpoint on Terrorism that can be instructive.In fact, this little book is an apologetic for the Terrorists in the French Revolution. And its value is that in associating herself so clearly with her subject, she does see them much as they saw themselves. In short, Wahnich argues that the Terrorists were motivated by the “dread” that they felt after the assassination of Marat. They then had acted to protect the purity and integrity of the “sacred” revolution that they had made to affirm the political equality of all. More originally, Wahnich also claims that the mechanism of the Terror led to more incarcerations than executions and that its organizational existence at least put limits on popular “enthusiasm.” In sum, the Terrorists were justified and their leadership contained excesses.Why do I find this interesting? In fact my own characterization of these people would be extremely different. But she may help explain not only the outlook of the Terrorists of 1790s but also of our day. Obviously, religion was not a factor for the French as it often is now and technology is far different, but her analysis helps us to understand the intransigence and determination of some current revolutionaries. It is especially useful because the eighteenth century Terrorists held these views in power, and so we might look at modern governmental as well as popular action through this prism. And, in short, Wahnich’s book, while wholly without a necessary distance or any critique, may get us pretty close to understanding the assumptions behind radicalism of many types.

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    A New Group of Scholars Joins "Revolutionary Moments"

    Our colleagues in the related blog The French Revolution Network have made a call for new contributions: see:  http://revolution.hypotheses.org/comparative-revolutionsThis strong group of scholars will no doubt have much of interest for our collectivity.

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    From the Bloody Nursery of Revolution, Democracy

    More than two years after the hope that accompanied the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Occidental experts, politicians and public opinions are now chocked by the return of political violence in Egypt, perpetuated by the military. What is striking about these reactions is the difficulty to understand why so many Egyptian former dissidents, liberals and even leftists, who fought against Mubarak and his military dictatorship, now clearly support General Al-Sisi’s coup and even justify the recent massacres of Muslim Brothers. Is it possible to explain such a dramatic shift without blaming these sincere men and women, who claim to struggle for democracy but, at the same time, approve the use of political violence?The history of modern Atlantic revolutions provides, perhaps, a few answers to these questions. We have indeed forgotten how long and difficult “our” revolutions have been. In very different times and for different reasons, occidental revolutionaries of modernity have dealt with such complex dilemma: how is it possible to create and preserve democracy in the context of revolution, civil war and military conflict? In America and in Europe of the end of the eighteenth century, many liberals and/or revolutionaries pragmatically justified political repression (of the Irish revolutionaries by British troops in 1798), massacres (the American “Indian Wars” of the 1790s), exceptional laws and even dictatorships (the French “Terror” between 1793 and 1794).Despite the liberal legend, occidental revolutions have never been beds of roses, but typically violent political transitions and civil wars. Our fragile democracies were born in bloody nurseries. They are much more the daughters of difficult compromises than pure political ideals. That is why what happens now in Egypt both deals with a civil revolutionary process and a military counter-revolution.

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    The Egyptian Revolution Goes Napoleon

    The same disillusionment set in as the French Revolution progressed. In fact, in a superb article in the Chronicle of Higher Education published in 2006, Howard Brown of the University of Binghamton described how events of the Revolution presaged events of 2006. It seems to me that Brown's article actually does even better to foreshadow what has happened in Egypt the last month and especially this week. His article concentrates on the trajectory from constitutionalism to repression under Napoleon. The biggest difference is the incredible speed of the current transformation compared to two centuries ago. It took a month in Egypt for what transpired in France over a decade.  This, of course, relates to the same acceleration in the revolutionary process that Alyssa Sepinwalldescribed elsewhere in this blog.

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    Revolutionary Disillusionment, from 1789 to 2013

    Disillusionment is a time-honored revolutionary tradition. True believers risk their lives launching a revolution, only to see their ideals abandoned by others -- or, worse, to watch the former government return.The abbé Henri Grégoire, a French revolutionary who was the subject of some of my past work, is a prime example of this phenomenon. Grégoire was one of the leaders of the French Revolution in 1789, and he gloried as the Revolution succeeded. The overthrow of the king was a dream come true for him (“On this September 21 [1792],” he wrote after the French Republic was declared, “we have annihilated the throne of this crowned monster. Since yesterday, I have been suffocated by joy to the point of being unable to eat or sleep.”) Unfortunately, Grégoire also lived to see the French Republic replaced by Napoleon’s Empire in 1804, and then the Restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy in 1814-15. Grégoire became disgusted with how quickly his countrymen forgot the ills of the past and abandoned the fight for a new society. Though he became pessimistic about human nature (he wrote an associate in 1817 that one needed to have spent two decades in politics “to understand the extent to which the majority of public figures... in France are weak, ungrateful and vile”), he continued to hold fast to his revolutionary ideals and to seek other ways to channel them. One way in which he directed his frustration was to export revolutionary ideals abroad, to countries still under monarchies; he also supported young republics like the United States and Haiti, who struggled to avoid being conquered by their former rulers. (Sepinwall, The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism [UC Press, 2005])After the Arab Spring, there has been similar disillusionment among former revolutionaries. While scholars and journalists have examined the Arab Spring’s aftermath mainly in Egypt, similar disenchantment has set in elsewhere, such as in Tunisia, the birthplace of the movement. How much, citizens there ask, has really changed?The New York Times has a fascinating article today on this topic (“Tunis Journal: A Café Where the Spirit of the Arab Spring Lives On”). The article examines the viewpoint of actors, artists and others who hoped the Arab Spring would transform the region. It focuses on Noureddine El Ati, a Tunisian actor director with an international reputation, and his disenchantment with the revolution there. (“‘People were radiant,’” he said. But the euphoria lasted only about three weeks. “Now we are in a black tunnel…. I thought the people would come to power, and society would move towards more transparency, equality, a good work ethic, but it is exactly the opposite.”)How frequently does this phenomenon happen elsewhere? What will happen to frustrated revolutionary fervor as the Arab Spring does not result in immediate change? (Readers: Man your keyboards and head for the comments section!)

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    Why the Arab Spring is Likely to Disappoint Those Who Are Making it Happen

    In the spring of 2008 I attended a talk at the German Historical Institute given by Bärbel Bohley, one of the leaders of the democratic opposition in East Germany (DDR) in the late 1980s. Her talk was part of a series of reflections on the end of the Communist regime in the DDR in 1989 and the reunification of Germany that took place the following year. Many in the audience, me included, were surprised at Bohley’s bitterness over the results of Germany’s reunification after more than six decades of division.

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    Don't Overestimate the Cohesion of the Military during Revolutionary Moments

    As Jack Censer’s post has pointed out, the role of the military in revolutionary situations is critical to understanding them. Yet, it varies so much that finding common threads can be extremely difficult, and even then misleading. Yet, clearly, they play central roles. Perhaps one useful way of exploring that is to examine the extent to which the military is unified in outlook -- ideological, cultural, social, and hierarchically -- or divided, most likely between officers and rank and file men, which in turn can reflect social or ideological differences (although there could be other fault-lines, such as religion or ethnicity). Moreover, this can change as the revolution progresses.

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    Revolutions: Three Different Kinds

    Alyssa's posting, like Peter Stearns' earlier, implicitly touch on the questions of leadership and revolutionary stages. Perhaps in any discussion of revolutions it may be worth keeping in mind that those who begin revolutions rarely are the ones who finish them. (The American Revolution, perhaps better called by its other common term, the War for Independence, is an anomaly that perhaps misleads Americans about revolutions.) In comparing revolutions and leadership, perhaps several variants are worth keeping in mind ....

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    Revolutionary Situations are Inherently Messy

    Social scientists who study revolutions and other historical processes generally look for patterns and similarities. Historians, by contrast, have traditionally focused on factors that are specific to each situation, in each time and in each place. They seek to understand the particularities of each situation, rather than generalize about commonalities.

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    Why Deng Zhengjia Will Not Be China’s Mohamed Bouazizi

    On July 17, Deng Zhengjia, a Chinese watermelon seller, got into an altercation with chengguan (para-police) officers. The chengguan allegedly struck Deng in the head, delivering a fatal blow with a weight from his own handheld scale. Local police claimed that Deng “unexpectedly fell to the ground and died,” a statement quickly mocked online for its absurdity. Deng’s case sparked an outcry against the blatantly abusive actions of chengguan on Weibo, the popular Chinese micro-blogging platform.

  • Originally published 09/04/2013

    1848

    Analogy is always tempting amid contemporary uncertainties. It can also be distracting or misleading.From the outlet of the Arab spring, drawing parallels with 1848 in Europe has offered potential insights. Here are two situations in which revolution spread quite rapidly across a region, though of course not uniformly, and in which claims about human rights and political representation loomed large.

  • Originally published 09/03/2013

    The Military Played a Smaller Role in France and the U.S. than in Egypt

    The political independence that the military often displays in the midst of revolutionary situations was strikingly absent in both the American and French revolutions. Both depended on militias composed of citizen soldiers. Even as an army was constituted, this remained the case at least for a good while.

  • Originally published 09/03/2013

    Announcing "Revolutionary Moments"

    With the world once again filled with anticipation and dread of revolution, it is reasonable to examine what relevant past events our predecessors experienced. Inarguably, the past is at least a set of experiences that may be useful in considering the present. Even that relatively modest claim requires some hesitation in that historians do not write as oracles, somehow outside the fray. Politics, despite the best intention of scholars, inflicts this work. Nonetheless, reviewing the revolutionary past will be at least interesting and potentially instructive.Thus, the moderators propose to introduce questions relevant to current events with the notion that scholars who study revolutions throughout the globe will comment. Postings must be under 250 words and conform to scholarly norms.

  • Originally published 09/01/2013

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  • Originally published 08/27/2013

    Matthews Demagogues Climate Change ... Again

      Chris Matthews does it again: Yesterday's show featured a discussion of the latest report on climate change with a climate scientist who believes that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) is happening (Michael Mann) and ... a Republican consultant (who kept saying, "I'm not a scientist."). Matthews's mission is to make sure his viewers never have to encounter a credentialed climate scientist with evidence against CAGW -- there are such -- so he can maintain the pretense that anyone who denies CAGW must be an anti-science religious fanatic.

  • Originally published 05/06/2013

    The Nature (or is it Nurture) of Color

    Years ago, when I was teaching sociology at the University of Vermont, a colleague introduced me to a classroom exercise that he found useful for showing students gender differences. Eventually I wrote it up and Teaching Sociology published it.The exercise had two parts. The first, labeled "Colors," listed eight colors -- not the easy ones like red, white, and blue, but puce, taupe, teal, mauve, magenta, chartreuse, ochre, and sienna. Students were to match each with one of ten definitions, such as "brilliant yellow" or "brownish gray."The second half listed eight "Football terms": safety, screen, curl, trap, touchback, lateral, touchdown, and clip. Again we supplied ten definitions, such as "to block out a defensive player from the side after he has crossed the line of scrimmage."

  • Originally published 03/12/2013

    “Debt Crisis”: The Myth Behind the Myth

    Image via Shutterstock.While the two major parties plot strategy for the next battle in the federal debt-reduction war, another war rages among economists over the question, “Is debt really the federal government's biggest problem?” Some insist that unless Washington cuts spending substantially to reduce the debt quickly, we are headed for disaster. Others insist with equal fervor that growth is the number one priority: Aggressive pro-growth policies will reduce the debt in the long run with far less pain.If the pro-growth economists could gain public support they would give liberal Democrats a powerful weapon to resist the Republican’s budget-slashing ax. But the pro-growth faction makes little headway in the public arena because the political wind is blowing so strongly against it. Why should the wind blow that way?

  • Originally published 02/28/2013

    “Yellow Peril” Morphs into Chinese Borg

    You remember those Chinese hackers, the ones we are all supposed to be so terribly worried about just a few days ago? They’ve disappeared from the headlines; apparently we’re not supposed to worry about them any more, at least for now. But they’re bound to be back back in the headlines sooner or later, and probably sooner. So we ought to take a close look at the story.The joke is on the hackers, says Washington Post wonk blogger Ezra Klein. They’ve been suckered in by a great myth -- the myth that there’s some secret plan hidden somewhere in Washington, the script for everything that the American government and American corporations do. The Chinese think that if they hack enough computers, somewhere buried in that mountain of data they’ll find the master key that unlocks the plan.

  • Originally published 02/24/2013

    Austerity Doesn't Work, and Neither Will You

    Image via Shutterstock.In the over 250-year-old history of modern capitalism, the economic output of the West has consistently ticked upward, with just a few deviating blips from the dominant trend of growth. Even the greatest crisis of capitalism, the Great Depression of the 1930s, looks on paper to be no more than a brief interruption to the historic course of Western economic expansion. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that any sign of forward spurt from the Great Recession of 2007-09 and its economically anaemic aftermath is greeted with optimism that the historically proven resilience of capitalism is fuelling regeneration.

  • Originally published 02/21/2013

    “War on Terror”: The Ticking Time Bomb

    Dick Cheney in 2011, and the infamous Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock.I saw Zero Dark Thirty a few weeks ago and then consumed the whole first season of “Homeland.” Don’t tell me what happens in season two. I love the suspense.I also love those brave (fictional) CIA analysts, Maya and Carrie. They see a huge danger ahead that everyone else is blind to, and they insist on crying out a warning, regardless of the risk -- just like the biblical prophets. What’s not to love? 

  • Originally published 02/13/2013

    The State of the Union and the State of the "Homeland"

    Claire Danes in "Homeland."In our home the State of the Union address was not followed by the Republican reply. We skipped Marco Rubio’s rebuttal in favor of watching a DVD of old “Homeland” episodes. We’re finally catching up on the first season of the “CIA versus terrorists” drama that everyone else has been watching and raving about for the past two years.The incongruity of watching the SOTU and “Homeland” in the same evening was a stark reminder of how much has changed in America in just a few years. “Homeland” would have made a wholly congruous nightcap to any SOTU speech by George W. Bush.That’s not to say Obama’s “war on terror” policies are so different from W.’s. The similarities as well as differences have been parsed at length by the pundits, and similarities there are a-plenty. But the tone of American life has changed so much now that we have a “hope and change” president instead of a “war president.” 

  • Originally published 02/09/2013

    No, Prof. Meyer, Anti-Zionism is NOT Anti-Semitism

    Swedish B.D.S. poster. Credit: Wiki Commons.Andrew Meyer wants us to believe that anyone who opposes Zionism, for whatever reason, is inherently anti-Semitic. He starts from the premise that we should focus on historical effects rather than intentions. Perhaps he thinks that restriction works to the advantage of his argument.After all, it’s obvious that plenty of people have opposed Zionism with no anti-Semitic intent. Before World War II many Jews -- perhaps a majority of the world’s Jews, and certainly a vast number of devout Orthodox Jews -- opposed the Zionist project in principle. They surely had no anti-Semitic intentions. There are still plenty of Jews today who oppose Zionism. Some of them, especially in Israel, make a very thoughtful case that Zionism is ultimately harmful to the best interests of the Jewish people. Their intentions are obviously not anti-Semitic. So looking at intent certainly would undermine Prof. Meyer’s case.

  • Originally published 02/08/2013

    Ed Koch, Pat Moynihan, and the Politics of Patriotic Indignation

    Left to right: New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, President Jimmy Carter, New York Governor Hugh Carey, and New York City Mayor Ed Koch at the White House on November 2, 1978. Via Flickr.The rapturous praise for the late New York Mayor Ed Koch tames his legacy, overlooking the fact that in 1988 the Atlantic called him “disgraceful” while the New York Times declared his “relentless … truculence” and “tantrum[s],” embarrassing and “inflammatory.” Beyond the kind sentiment, caricaturing Koch as a feisty lone gunslinger wisecracking his city back to health misses the deeper historical significance of Koch’s attempt to save liberalism from itself, as well as the broader ambivalence Americans have had with political anger.

  • Originally published 02/06/2013

    The Imaginary World of the “War Against al-Qaeda”

    The on-again, off-again debate is on again: Does the executive branch of the United States government ever have the right to assassinate American citizens without due process of law? A brave soul, who hopefully will remain nameless, has leaked an internal Justice Department “White Paper” outlining the Obama administration's reasons for answering “Yes.” A chorus of critical voices answers, just as loudly, “No.”  But most of the critics agree with the administration and its supporters on one point: The question here is about the executive’s power in wartime.If that is indeed the question -- a big “if” -- history offers a certain kind of answer. Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all pushed their constitutional authority to the limit during war -- and beyond the limit, critics in their own day and ever since contended. Yet the overreach of these three presidents (if overreach it was) did little to tarnish their reputations.

  • Originally published 01/30/2013

    Kerry Admits It: “Foreign policy is Economic Policy.”

    John Kerry embraces John McCain at his recent confirmation hearings. Via Flickr/Glyn Lowe.At his confirmation hearing, the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, declared flatly:  “Foreign policy is economic policy.” Now them is fightin’ words if they’re spoken by a scholar of U.S. foreign policy. Scholars of the “revisionist” school have been attacked, reviled, and marginalized for decades simply for saying what Kerry seemed to say: Economic motives are the main drivers of foreign policy. So when revisionists hear a top government official say it out loud, it’s like discovering gold: It’s hard evidence that their view is correct.

  • Originally published 01/28/2013

    Zero Dark Dirty: The "Good War" Lives

    I once heard a prominent expert on contemporary Islam say that Al Qaeda is not an organized group (and this was while Osama bin Laden was still alive). It isn’t even, primarily, a group of people at all. Al Qaeda is best understood as a body of discourse, a way of talking.How do you fight a body of discourse? With another body of discourse, of course. The United States government is doing that in all sorts of ways, spreading the gospel of democratic capitalism and the American way of life.But how do you make a movie about a war between two bodies of discourse? If you want to win awards, pack the theaters, and turn a profit, you don’t. A good movie has to start with a mythic script.  And it’s awfully hard to find the myth in a war of discourse versus discourse.So you make a movie about a war of good guys against bad guys. That’s about as mythic as it gets. It’s the American war story that has been made in Hollywood a thousand times -- well, a thousand and one, now that we have Zero Dark Thirty. I’m finally getting around to writing about the film, after just about everyone else in the world has had their say, because I finally got around to seeing it. It turns out there was no reason to rush anyway.

  • Originally published 01/25/2013

    BFFs: America's Inauguration and Israel's Election Celebrated Democracy

    This week, both America’s inauguration and Israel’s election demonstrated democracy’s vitality. Both special moments offered valuable lessons about the rational and mystical elements of this extraordinary form of government, based on liberty, mutual respect and consent of the governed.The inauguration was a legitimizing ceremony and a healing moment, inviting Americans to cheer their system’s stability, their government’s continuity, and the opportunity every fresh start represents -- even second terms. The U.S. president is both king and prime minister, head of state and head of government. Those kingly aspects have a magical, otherworldly dimension. The pageantry, the oath, the red, white and blue bunting, the inaugural balls, and, these days, the requisite dash of celebrity with Beyoncé lip-synching the Star Spangled Banner as Bill Clinton beamed in the background, reinforced the president’s place in America’s pantheon, linked to his legendary predecessors. The range of politicians on the podium, followed by the bipartisan Capitol Hill lunch -- rather than a Tea Party -- emphasized the celebration’s non-partisan patriotic character, as even disappointed Mitt Romney Republicans hailed their president.

  • Originally published 01/22/2013

    Inauguration Shows President as Prime Minister and King

    Barack and Michelle Obama at his second inaugural. Credit: Flickr/Adam Fagen.There were passages in Barack Obama’s second inaugural address that sounded like a European prime minister from a Labor or Social Democrat party addressing his Parliament. Obama had a whole laundry list of progressive proposals. Some were explicit:“Care for the vulnerable and protect people from life's worst hazards and misfortune” through “Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security”; “respond to the threat of climate change”; make sure that “our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. … our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else … no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote”; “find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants.”Some of the progressive program was implicit:

  • Originally published 01/20/2013

    Unleash the Rhetoric, Mr. President. America Needs It

    As Barack Obama drafts his second inaugural speech, he should remember the speeches that made him president. He should ponder the vision of multicultural nationalism in his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote. He should revive the controlled but righteous indignation in his 2008 address on race relations that defused the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy. And he should tap into the lyrical patriotism that made his first victory speech soar. He also should ignore his first inaugural address -- which replaced the eloquent, electrifying, inspiring “Yes We Can” candidate he was with the technocratic, overwhelmed, sobering president he has become.

  • Originally published 01/19/2013

    Why Does a Hostage Crisis Fascinate America?

    Camels in the Sahara near In Aménas, the site of the hostage crisis. Credit: Flickr/albatros11.Barack Obama and his political advisors surely thought that gun control would dominate the headlines for days to come after the president announced his controversial proposals. But some armed men in a remote gas drilling site in the Sahara desert had other ideas.The pundits love to tell us that a president who focuses on domestic policy is inevitably frustrated, because there are bound to be unexpected crises abroad that demand his, and the nation’s, attention. But there’s really nothing inevitable about it. It’s a choice that the public, and the news media who must sell their wares to the public, make.  Certainly the lives of the people at risk in the Sahara are important. It’s a tragedy when anyone is killed. But let’s face it. A handful of American lives may be lost in Algeria; maybe not. Whatever the outcome, this incident will soon disappear down the American memory hole.    

  • Originally published 01/14/2013

    “Ike” and the “Red Menace”: Some Myths Won’t Die

    Martin Luther King, Jr. with President Eisenhower in 1956.You probably know the mythic Dwight Eisenhower, the “great peacekeeper in a dangerous era,” who bravely withstood the communist threat while skillfully avoiding all-out war. The quote comes from Evan Thomas, the latest writer to make a mint by retelling the tale. It would hardly be worth noticing, except that pundits keep trotting out the mythic Ike by as a model for the current president to follow.  Latest example: the Washington Post’s influential foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, a dependable megaphone for the centrist foreign policy establishment. He’s praising  Thomas’ book, Ike’s Bluff, for supposedly showing us how a great president deals with “continuing global threats … that require some way to project power.”

  • Originally published 01/10/2013

    "Fix the Debt": Sheer Hypocrisy or a Myth Worth Debating?

    The New York Times has just published an expose on Fix the Debt, “a group of business executives and retired legislators who have become Washington’s most visible and best-financed advocates for reining in the federal deficit.” It turns out that “close to half of the members of Fix the Debt’s board and steering committee have ties to companies that have engaged in lobbying on taxes and spending, often to preserve tax breaks and other special treatment.” The Times gives plenty of examples to support that charge.I’m shocked. Shocked. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow’s Times reveals that there’s gambling going on in the back room at Rick’s Café Americain.

  • Originally published 01/03/2013

    Fiscal Deal: And the Winning Myth Is ….

    Credit: Wiki CommonsAs Congress and the administration went through their tortured post-election wrangling (or was it a dance?) over fiscal policy, Americans never seemed quite sure what mythic lens was best suited to viewing the proceedings.Were we watching ourselves, all together, hurtling toward a cliff and trying desperately to avoid plunging over it? Or were we divided into two political and ideological camps, approaching a final showdown. I explored both the “cliff” and “showdown” metaphors in the run-up to the New Year’s denouement.Now that a deal has been done and we can watch the public reaction through the news media, which mythic metaphor is the winner?The many “Who won? Who lost?” evaluations seem to support the “showdown” view. The widespread view that this is merely round one, with more battles between the two parties sure to follow, also seems to give the nod to the “showdown” metaphor. Or perhaps, instead of a single showdown, we’ll start talking about a long, drawn-out "war."

  • Originally published 01/01/2013

    Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as an Exercise in Muscular Moderation

    Historical mythology treats it as one of America’s shining moments. Amid a searing civil war, the saintly president freed America’s slaves with the stroke of a pen, and a moving commitment to equality, which went into effect one hundred fifty years ago. In fact, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, slated to go into effect January 1, 1863, is more prose than poetry, more a cautious state paper than a sweeping declaration. Historian Richard Hofstadter scoffed that it had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Indeed, this limited document only freed “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.” There is, however, a deeper lesson here. Much of Abraham Lincoln’s greatness -- and his effectiveness -- stemmed from such caution. The remaining slaves in the Union were freed eventually and -- thanks to Lincoln -- inevitably. But even during America’s great Civil War, Abraham Lincoln remained rooted in America’s centrist political culture, preferring an incremental pragmatism to zealous extremism.

  • Originally published 12/24/2012

    The New Age of Austerity

    Thurman Arnold, assistant attorney general in the Roosevelt administration from 1938 to 1943.The double-whammy of recession and sovereign debt crisis has made austerity the buzzword of politics in European Union nations in recent years. Now the A-word has become increasingly a part of political rhetoric in the United States. In his recent book Age of Austerity, journalist Thomas Byrne Edsall argues that America has already entered a new age of austerity that will remake its politics in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In his view the intensified polarization of Democrats and Republicans constitutes the first shots in a struggle over diminished national resources. Gone for good, he argues, are the days when the two parties could engage in a tacit compromise to fund their respective social-program expansion and low-tax agendas from the proceeds of economic growth.

  • Originally published 12/19/2012

    Gun Control: The New Abolitionism?

    Guns and violence are “a deep illness in our society,” columnist Frank Rich opines. “There's only one other malady that was so deeply embedded into the country's DNA at birth: slavery. We know how long it took us to shake those shackles. And so ... overthrowing America's gun-worship is not a project that will be cured in a legislative session; it's a struggle that's going to take decades.”I wonder if Rich is too pessimistic. He assumes that the gun-control issue is now where the slavery issue was in perhaps the 1820s, when the abolitionist movement was just beginning to gather steam as an organized Protestant reform effort. But that doesn’t seem a fair comparison.

  • Originally published 12/15/2012

    America's Proud Individualism Helped Pull the Trigger

    Credit: Flickr.I know it’s foolish hubris to hear about a tragedy like the school shooting in Connecticut and then immediately start writing about it. But many of us who blog do it, at least in part, as a way to deal with feelings that otherwise might overwhelm us. It’s cathartic. And it’s our wager that, in the process, we’ll say something helpful to others who are trying to make a little bit of sense out of at least some corner of the tragedyConvincing explanations of any kind are ultimately bound to elude us. All one can do is try to shed a little light on a little piece of the immense calamity, from one’s own particular viewpoint. I naturally think about American mythic traditions that seem relevant in this situation.

  • Originally published 12/13/2012

    Ain’t No "Cliff," Pardner; This Here’s a "Showdown"

    Solidarity poster from Poland in 1989 -- an effective use of the "showdown" myth in politics. Credit: Wiki Commons.Progressive groups are trying to rally their troops to stop any cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They may wish they could turn out crowds large and noisy enough to make a media splash, the way the Tea Party did a couple of years ago. But their troops are all volunteers, and as far as I can tell not enough of them are showing up for duty to make that media splash.Barack Obama and his ax-wielding budget aides will draw the obvious conclusion: Most people say they oppose cuts to the big three “entitlements.” But they don’t care strongly enough to make any noise about it. Mostly what they want is to stop hearing about the dangers of the “fiscal cliff.”So Democrats can make cuts to the big three, satisfy the Republicans, end the “fiscal cliff” crisis, and pay a very small political price. In fact the Dems will probably come out with a higher rating in the polls because they’ll show that they can “make Washington work.”

  • Originally published 12/06/2012

    Cheer Up, Rush: Dems Keep "Traditional America" Alive

    Dear Rush Limbaugh,The night President Obama was re-elected you went to bed thinking that Mitt Romney “put forth a great vision of traditional America, and it was rejected.” So “we’ve lost the country.” You explained to your audience that the voters had chosen a “Santa Claus” government over hard work as the way to get their needs met.Well, now that Santa is finishing up the last toys and getting the reindeer ready to fly, I want to bring you a season’s greeting full of good cheer. I want to cheer you up by telling you about the Christmas card I just got from the Obamas. It should ease your fears that your country, the one you call “traditional America,” is disappearing.All the Obamas signed the card, even their little dog Bo (who added his pawprint). In fact Bo is the star of the card; he’s the only one who got his picture on it. There he is romping through the snow on the Obamas’ lawn. Hey, Rush, what could be more traditionally American than that?

  • Originally published 12/04/2012

    Why Are Dems Left Hanging on Edge of “Fiscal Cliff”?

    How the Dems could win the fiscal cliff debate: mobilize for the moral equivalent of war. Credit: Flickr/Library of Congress/StockMonkey.com/HNN staff.Where’s that surge of public outrage that’s supposed to force the Republicans to surrender in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations? The Democrats are still waiting for it ... and waiting ... and waiting, while they teeter on the edge of the cliff.The Dems are so busy scrutinizing the polls, they forgot to notice the impact of the little word “cliff.” Sure, it’s just a metaphor. But every metaphor tells a story. And the stories we tell (or, more commonly, take for granted, without ever spelling them out) shape the way we view things, which in turn determines the policies we’ll adopt or reject and the way we’ll live our lives.

  • Originally published 11/29/2012

    A New "New Cold War" in the Mideast?

    Credit: HNN staff.Just when we thought it was safe for Americans to go out in a democratizing Middle East ... Well, I guess we stopped thinking that a while ago. But now a lead story on the front page of the New York Times makes it official. Far from boosting our security, the Arab Spring has given us more to be afraid of.Gone are the days when all we had to worry about was fanatical Shi’ite Islam. Now a new Sunni “axis” is emerging, the Times informs us -- using a word that should send chills up the spine of anyone who knows anything about World War II -- with Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar playing the role once filled by Germany, Japan, and Italy.All three Mideast nations are governed by Sunni Muslim parties. So are Libya and Tunisia. More ominously, according to the Times, Hamas is allying with the “axis.” And if the Syrian rebels win their civil war, they’ll take Syria out of the Iranian orbit and into the new “axis” too.

  • Originally published 11/26/2012

    “Lincoln”: Jesus Christ! God Almighty! What a (Biblical) Movie!

    About three score and a couple of years ago my sister was a research librarian in Hollywood, working for an outfit that dug up information needed by moviemakers. One day she called me and said, “You’ve got a PhD in the history of Judaism. So what are the facts about the lost ark, the one that was in the Jerusalem Temple in biblical times?”  “There are no facts,” I quickly replied. “It’s all just legend. Why do you want to know, anyway?”“Steven Spielberg is making a movie about the lost ark, and he wants us to get him the facts.” “A movie about the lost ark?”, I asked incredulously. “Is he crazy? Does he think anyone is going to pay money to see that?”Obviously, I may know something about history but not much at all about the movies. I suppose that alone might disqualify me from making any comment on Spielberg’s latest epic, Lincoln.But when America’s greatest living mythmaker takes on America’s most mythicized president, how can the author of a blog called MythicAmerica remain silent? If it’s not my obligation to say something, at least it’s an irresistible temptation.

  • Originally published 11/23/2012

    Nineteenth-Century Nationalism Still Alive, and Deadly, in Mideast

    IDF brass in a briefing about the conflict in Gaza, November 17, 2012. Credit: Flickr.Ask most Americans why Israel went to war in Gaza again and they’ll give you a simple answer: Palestinians were shooting rockets into Israel, and, as President Obama said, “there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”To name those rockets as the root cause of the war is like saying my fever caused my flu. But why shouldn’t the public identify a symptom as the cause of the conflict? They hear and read the same misleading explanation in their news media over and over again. So they see no reason to dig any deeper.

  • Originally published 11/19/2012

    Class: The Missing Link in the Story of Election 2012.

    On Election Day we learned who will be president for the next four years. In the days after Election Day we learned something almost as important: the story that will be told about the election of 2012. The popular story of any election takes on a life of its own, and it can shape the political landscape for years to come.We can now safely project the winner of this year’s election story contest: Republicans self-destructed by moving too far to the right on issues that matter to women (especially unmarried women), newly empowered Latinos, and still empowered African-Americans.Among liberal pollsters this pro-Obama coalition (plus the under-30s) is often called “the rising American electorate” (RAE). They are the future, the story goes. The Republicans must face that fact, make the necessary changes, or get ready to become history. Race, ethnicity, and gender are destiny.

  • Originally published 11/13/2012

    The “Fiscal Cliff” and THE SCANDAL

    David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell in 2011. Credit: Flickr/U.S. Navy.Robert Rubin, former secretary of the Treasury, writes in the New York Times: “Now that the election is over, Washington’s attention is consumed by the looming combination of automatic spending cuts and tax increases known as ‘the fiscal cliff.’” “Consumed”?  Excuse me, but I just checked the websites of the Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, Fox News, CBS, NBC, and ABC. Every one of them had the same lead story -- and it was not “the fiscal cliff.” By now, of course, you know what it was. Everybody knows: THE SCANDAL WIDENS! If Robert Rubin had written that some people in Washington are giving some attention to the “the looming ‘fiscal cliff,’” he might have been correct. In Washington they’re sort of forced to deal with such wonkish stuff, at least part of the time.

  • Originally published 11/09/2012

    Obama vs. Boehner: Who is the True Jeffersonian?

    Credit: Flickr/Wiki Commons/HNN staff.As the presidential race neared the finish line, I occasionally tried to resist my obsession with today’s politics by opening Peter Onuf’s Jefferson’s Empire. The more I read, though, the more I realize that studying Jefferson doesn’t take us out of the present at all. It merely reminds us that, as Faulkner said, the past isn’t even past.Onuf explains that Jefferson’s vision of America was profoundly shaped by his understanding of the British empire, where all power and wealth flowed from the periphery (especially the colonies) to the center, the great metropolis of London and its royal court. Jefferson insisted that the United States of America must be the opposite: a vast empire with no metropolitan center and thus no periphery to be oppressed by the center.This view became the framework for Jefferson’s understanding of American nationalism and thus (like so much else in Jefferson’s thought) a basic staple of the American political narrative for future generations.

  • Originally published 11/07/2012

    “Hope and Change” Born Again: The New, Improved Version

    Credit: Twitter/BarackObama.I’ve waited eagerly for the day after Election Day, to see what the story of Election 2012 would be. Every presidential winner has a story attached to his name. Sometimes the story is not so memorable. (What was the day-after-victory story of Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush?). Often, though, the story told about an election outlives the direct influence of the president whose name is attached to it:1960: John F. Kennedy: Youth and vigor can meet any challenge.1968 and 1972: Richard Nixon: Law and order stem the tumult of “the ‘60s.”1980 and 1984: Ronald Reagan: It’s morning in America as we shrink big government.2004: George W. Bush: America must win the war on terror.What about 2008, when the name of Barack Obama was indelibly linked to the words “hope and change”? Had Obama lost in 2012, his story probably would have been as forgotten as Carter’s or Bush 41’s.But given Obama’s victory, the jury is still out, awaiting the verdict of history yet to be written.

  • Originally published 10/30/2012

    From “Who Lost China?” to “Who Lost Libya?”

    Credit: HNN staff.“Who lost Libya?” Mitt Romney has not asked the question exactly that way. Neither has Paul Ryan, nor any prominent Republican politician or commentator, as far as I know. But anyone familiar with the history of U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s can hardly avoid hearing that question, between the lines, in the GOP assault on the Obama administration’s handling of the September 11 killings in Benghazi.The “Who lost … ?” pattern first emerged after the communist revolution transformed mainland China in 1949. Republicans angrily demanded, “Who lost China?” The taste of omnipotence coming out of World War II was still fresh in Americans’ mouths. It seemed like the U.S. had such immense power, we could control just about everything that happened everywhere outside the Soviet Union and its eastern European bloc.

  • Originally published 10/29/2012

    What's Still the Matter With Kansas?

    Credit: Wikimedia Commons/HNN staff.Today I posted a long article on Truthout.org titled "What's Still the Matter With Kansas -- and With the Democrats?" The title refers to a popular 2005 book by Thomas Frank, exploring the puzzle of why so many people of middling economic means vote for Republicans whose policies so clearly favor the rich and do little to help people of middling economic means. Frank chose Kansas as the place to study a large number of voters who vote against their economic self-interest because he came from Kansas.In my article I use "Kansas" as a symbol for all those voters.  I argue that Democrats are losing this key demographic group, and maybe this election, because they're unwilling to support values issues dear to the heart of “Kansans” that they could very plausibly endorse.

  • Originally published 10/25/2012

    Red vs. Blue: Causes Elude Us, but Effects Are Clear

    Credit: Wikimedia Commons.The prominent psychologist Steven Pinker has a long piece on the New York Times website, trying to explain why Republicans do so well in the South and the West but not in the rest of the country. It seems that it all comes down to how different regions have, historically, dealt with the eternal threat of societal anarchy. Harvard media stars rush in where careful historians usually fear to tread, or at best tread very lightly.There are plenty of holes in Pinker’s speculative framework big enough to drive most any vehicle you can think of through. For starters, if the North is indeed historically accustomed to counting on government to tame anarchy, as he argues, how to explain the Republican strength in New Hampshire, or in the non-urbanized areas of northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois? And if the West (which one assumes includes the “red” Great Plains states) is so accustomed to rejecting government as the tamer of anarchy, how explain the great political success of Progressivism and farmer-labor coalitions in those states in the days of William Jennings Bryan?

  • Originally published 10/24/2012

    Political Symbolism Is Political Reality: The Case of Wisconsin

    Tammy Baldwin in 2010. Credit: Flickr/Center for American Progress.In case anyone doubts the power of myth and symbol in American politics:  In the dead-heat race for the Senate in Wisconsin, one issue now towers over all others, the Washington Post reports. It’s not health care or education or energy or immigration. No, it’s Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s 2006 vote against a purely symbolic bill to continue recognizing September 11 as a national day of remembrance and mourning.  Baldwin voted against the bill because it included a clause endorsing the Patriot Act and a host of other post-9/11 legislation, which few people had read completely and even fewer understood thoroughly.  

  • Originally published 10/22/2012

    In Memoriam: George McGovern and Liberal Politics

    McGovern vs. Nixon campaign pamphlet, 1972. Credit: Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.George McGovern was the first presidential candidate I actively campaigned for. Like many baby boomers, I stood on the street corner handing out “Vote for McGovern” handbills. The fifty-year-old Democrat was so unique among politicians, we gave him a special exception to our first commandment: Never trust anyone over thirty.Under thirty? Sure. We knew we could trust each other. Or so we thought.But the day before George McGovern died, I stumbled across a little known fact that took me back those forty years and made me wonder whether my trust was misplaced.Assuming that we can trust the data compiled by American National Election Studies, it seems that on Election Day 1972, of my fellow under-thirty, baby-boomer voters, only 47 percent marked their ballots for McGovern. 53 percent voted for Richard Nixon.

  • Originally published 10/17/2012

    A Business Background is No Guarantee of Being a Successful Economic President, Mr. Romney!

    Credit: Wikimedia Commons/HNN staff.Mitt Romney claims that his success in business qualifies him for election as president in order that he can put the national economy right just like he has previously succeeded in putting many a business enterprise back on its feet. According to him, "Americans need a conservative businessman to get this economy moving again, not career politicians. That is why I am running."Critics have been quick to point out that his business success with Bain Capital in particular involved destroying jobs as well as creating them. However, his claims that entrepreneurial competence will translate into effective presidential leadership on the economy have resonated with public opinion, and appear to have gained increased legitimacy in the wake of a successful performance in the first presidential debate. Regardless of the shortcomings of Obama’s economic leadership, Romney’s argument that his business experience will make him a more successful economic manager than his Democratic rival is a spurious one if judged on the historical record. 

  • Originally published 10/17/2012

    The Second Debate: “They Were So Good Being at Each Other’s Face”

    Credit: Flickr/Obama for America.Did you think the second presidential debate was too nasty, that it was sad to see the two lead actors portray such a polarized image of American politics? The third performer up on the stage, moderator Candy Crowley, didn’t think so.“They were talking to their bases who want to see them stand up to each other,” Crowley said on CNN after the debate. “They were so good being at each other’s face, and I thought this was a debate, so I let it go. … It was so good.”The woman with the only front row seat didn’t seem to be interested in the content of the candidates’ arguments, much less their logical coherence. She cared about the show. And as long as they were at each other’s face, “it was so good.”A long-time TV professional, who has made television her life, naturally judges the debate by the same criteria she would judge any television show. And appropriately so, since the debate is above all television entertainment.

  • Originally published 10/16/2012

    Fact-checking the Candidates: A Sacred Ritual

    Romney as Pagliacci -- acting out the theater state. Credit: Flickr/HNN staff.There’s an old theory that people perform religious rituals as a way of acting out their sacred myths. Scholars of religion don’t take this old theory very seriously any more. It’s far too simplistic and misses too many aspects of the meaning of function of ritual. Sometimes, though, this theory still sheds interesting light on rituals. It’s especially useful when a ritual does pretty obviously act out a myth and the people performing the ritual tell you that they are reenacting one of their myths.A fine example is the Christian ritual of Eucharist: eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ. In the Gospel story of the Last Supper, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples to keep on eating bread and drinking wine after he is gone, because those consumables are his body and blood. When you ask Christians who believe that the consumables literally become the body and blood why they are doing the ritual, they’ll tell you that they are obeying Jesus’s command and doing exactly what the disciples did. They are acting out their sacred myth.

  • Originally published 10/15/2012

    The New “New Normal”: Saving Ourselves From the Cliff

    Are you worried about the looming “fiscal cliff”? Well if it’s your only worry about the American economy, you’re not worried nearly enough. There are plenty of other economic cliffs out there, just waiting for you.That’s the lead story on the front page of this past Sunday’s Washington Post. “Even if Washington somehow finds a way to avoid the fiscal cliff -- the automatic tax hikes and federal spending cuts that threaten to plunge the nation back into a recession --” Zachary A. Goldfarb warns us, “the economy could suffer a stiff blow next year.”Tax hikes and spending cuts could take billions of dollars out of the economy. But if we extend tax cuts and cancel spending cuts, we’ll increase the federal debt, bringing new and unpredictable economic suffering. So we’re trapped.

  • Originally published 10/08/2012

    Obama’s Other Debate Failure: No Narrative

    Teddy Roosevelt knew how to string a narrative together.Everyone is talking about Barack Obama’s flat performance in the first debate, and with good reason. The debates are essentially television shows. Like any theatrical contest, the performer who is most entertaining and charismatic wins. The other guy loses.But Obama also failed in another very important way. He failed to tell a good story. He didn’t offer any persuasive narrative that would tie together all his talking points. If he had, it might have compensated for his poor performance and softened the blow he suffered that night.The funny and sad thing is that the Obama campaign has the makings of a consistent and powerful narrative, one that contrasts sharply with that of the Republicans. The president laid it out clearly last December at Ossawatamie, Kansas: “We’re greater together than we are on our own. ... In the long run, we shall go up or down together.”

  • Originally published 10/04/2012

    The Presidential Debate: Myth versus Myth

     I wrote this before the Obama-Romney debate:The debate that will pit the two candidates against each other will also show us two fundamentally different ideas of government going head to head. I don’t mean the Republican versus Democrat ideas. I mean something much bigger than that.We have debates because we have a long tradition of democracy as an exercise of reason. The people learn the facts, analyze them thoughtfully, and then draw rational conclusions about which policies will benefit them and their community most. That’s the myth of democracy -- myth not as a lie, but a story we tell ourselves to express our most fundamental assumptions about what life is like and how it should be lived.This myth of democracy requires candidates to present facts and logical arguments to the people and then let the people decide on the basis of their own logic. To help that process along, candidates should engage in classical debates, the kind we learned about in high school: each side presents a sustained, coherent argument based on facts and rational analysis. Then each side gets to pick apart the other side’s facts and reasoning systematically, point by point.

  • Originally published 10/01/2012

    “Hope and Change”: The “Comeback Kid” of Political Narratives?

    Obama campaign graphic.On the eve of the “great debate,” the presidential election narrative in the mass media is moving toward “Obama’s widening lead.” That may or may not be true, depending on how seriously you take the polling process. But in politics, as in so much of life, the story will trump the facts nearly every time.If Obama is indeed widening his lead, the change is most evident in the battleground states, where voters are inundated with advertising, robocalls, and candidate appearances as portrayed on the TV news. Why are Obama’s numbers improving, slightly but steadily? Theories abound.

  • Originally published 09/27/2012

    Israel Versus Iran: Netanyahu's Cartoon Version

    Still from Netanyahu's speech. Credit: C-SPAN.I was driving home listening to NPR when the top-of-the-hour headlines came on. First item: Just moments earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the UN General Assembly, “warned that by next summer Iran could have weapons-grade nuclear material.” Then a clip of Netanyahu, trying to sound chilling: “At stake is the future of the world. Nothing could imperil our common future more than the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons.” "Nothing?," I wondered. Not even the melting of the polar ice caps, or a huge spike in global food prices, or an accidental launch of one of the many nukes that the U.S. and Russia still keep on hair-trigger alert?

  • Originally published 09/25/2012

    GOP vs. Dems: The Failure to Communicate

    What we've got here is a ... well, you know. Photo credit: Flickr/HNN staff.There’s a common view that the clandestine video of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” speech revealed “the real Mitt.” But why should we assume that? How can we know? We can never read someone else’s mind.There is one thing we can know, though: Politicians tend to tell audiences what they want to hear. A good politician’s stock-in-trade is a knack for summing up an audience’s shared narrative more effectively than the folks in the audience themselves can do it. Why shouldn’t that be just as true of Romney at a small gathering of super-rich donors as a huge crowd of gun owners or Tea Partiers or teachers?

  • Originally published 09/18/2012

    The Myth of Arab (Or Is It Muslim?) Rage

    Newsweek cashes in on Muslim rage.I’m on a brief vacation, from writing this blog and from almost everything else -- traveling to both coasts, seeing friends, museums, and oceans -- which means I don’t get to know very much about the news: just brief snatches of headlines caught from newspaper racks, TVs in public places running CNN, and an occasional glance at the New York Times website.That’s actually a very revealing way for a writer on mythic America to get the news, because that’s the way most Americans get their news. Headline writers don’t have time or space for details or, often, facts. They just need to grab attention with some emotionally punchy words, the kind of words that good myths are made of.So I know that mobs are venting anti-American rage throughout the Arab world. Or is it the Muslim world? I’m not quite sure. And how many Arabs, or Muslims? What percentage of the population in predominantly Arab or Muslim nations? I have no idea. Like most Americans, I know only that “those Arabs” -- or maybe it’s “those Muslims” -- are raging against us. Oh, and I know that they’re creating a big new headache for the Obama and Romney campaigns.

  • Originally published 09/09/2012

    The Simple Message Dems Are Missing

    Barack Obama needs to refine his elevator speech game. Photo credit: Pete Souza.Barack Obama needs a good elevator speech. So does every political activist. It’s the quick little speech you give a stranger you meet on an elevator about your group’s goal, why it matters, and why that stranger should support you. You don’t know which floor the stranger will get off on, so you have to convey your whole message clearly in just a few words.If you get on an elevator at the first floor with Mitt Romney, you know what you’ll get: “Barack Obama is destroying our economy because he lets the government take your money and give it to other people, who probably don’t deserve it. We Republicans will build prosperity by letting you decide what to do with your hard-earned money.” Second floor, speech over, all out.But suppose you get on the elevator at the first floor with the president. Which speech will you get? You might be on floor 20 or 30, still trying to figure it out.

  • Originally published 09/05/2012

    Michelle Challenges Nineteenth-Century Myth

    Official White House portrait of Michelle Obama, 2009.I’m an unabashed Michelle Obama fan, and my wife is even more so. It’s not just Michelle’s extraordinary set of talents. It’s the way she carries them so gracefully. If her air of humility and naivete is not genuine, then in addition to all those other talents she’s the greatest actress of our time. So as we watched her speech to the Democratic National Convention we ooh-ed and aah-ed over her delivery and her magnetic presence.But to be honest there was not much interesting substance in the speech beyond the expected, politically necessary words. There was just one sentence that made my wife exclaim, “Good line!”, and I had to agree: “When you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”

  • Originally published 09/02/2012

    For GOP, It’s the Patriotism, Stupid

    Mitt and Ann Romney on Super Tuesday, 2012. Credit: Flickr.When an incumbent president is running for re-election and the economy is in the doldrums, what’s a challenger to do? All the pundits and political analysts agree: Focus like a laser on just one issue: the economy, stupid. It worked for Bill Clinton, the last challenger to run against an incumbent during a recession. Any other strategy would indeed be stupid, the common wisdom says.But there are millions of Americans who don’t know the common wisdom. They tuned into the campaign for the first time when they tuned in to watch Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech, or perhaps earlier bits of the Republican Convention. And they’re not likely to think that Romney's campaign is guided by the famous mantra of Clinton’s 1992 campaign. They probably came away assuming that there’s a very different sign posted in Romney’s campaign headquarters: “It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the patriotism.”

  • Originally published 08/26/2012

    In Search of New Mythology (Part Three)

    Civil rights marchers in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963. Credit: National ArchivesIn Part 2 of this series, I sketched out the foundations of an American mythology of hope and change based closely on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this new patriotic vision, a good American believes in every person’s freedom to discover and fulfill their own unique potentials. Life is all about exploring new possibilities, and there is no end to that exploration. A good American also believes that all humanity, indeed all life, is woven together in a single garment of destiny. Freedom means fulfilling oneself by helping all others fulfill themselves.America’s mission is to move toward the beloved community at home and abroad, to create a world where everyone acts lovingly to enhance the fulfillment of all and bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole. It is the patriotic duty, and privilege, of all Americans to fight against separation of every kind, especially against its most pernicious forms: inequality, injustice, oppression.

  • Originally published 08/22/2012

    Why Are Americans So Confused?

    William Gropper: "Construction of a Dam" (1939) -- an example of New Deal-style populist murals.When I was back in junior high school, there was a civics teacher who put forth the proposition that democracy depends on one simple principle: People are rational. Give them free access to information, and they’ll think things through logically to figure out what policies are best not just for themselves but for the whole nation.The latest poll from the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation gives some support to that proposition. 67 percent of this sampling of 3,130 Americans understand that “there are many goods and services which would not be available to ordinary people without government intervention.” Only 29 percent disagree.As a group they are more worried about jobs and health costs than the federal deficit. 45 percent think Democratic economic policies help them; only 37 percent say that about the GOP.

  • Originally published 08/19/2012

    In Search of New Mythology (Part Two)

    Martin Luther King, Jr. giving the "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington, 1963.In Part One of this series I explained why America needs new mythology and why it makes the most sense to build it upon the existing mythological tradition of “hope and change.” I set out a series of features that any new mythology must have if it is going to avoid the pitfalls of the current dominant mythologies and have a chance of widespread acceptance by the American public:-- a strong appeal to patriotism and national pride, including an assertion of something uniquely good about America-- continuity with the mythic past through deep roots in distinctively American traditions and a close connection with a figure from the pantheon of national heroes-- an affirmation of individual freedom as the highest value of all

  • Originally published 08/16/2012

    In Search of New Mythology (Part One)

    American eagle and flag. Credt: Bubbels/Wikipedia.In “MythicAmerica: Essays” I have described two great American mythologies (that is, two large sets of mythic themes and traditions) that are most important for understanding American political culture today. I call them (using current terminology) the mythologies of “hope and change” and “homeland insecurity.” The mythology of hope and change casts America as a dynamic force constantly transforming both itself and world by expanding its frontiers, civilizing people who live in wilderness, and reshaping the world in the image of America’s highest ideals. The mythology of homeland security casts America as the protector of its own borders against alien threats and the protector of the whole world against those same threats.

  • Originally published 08/14/2012

    The Mythic Paul Ryan Enters, Stage Right

    Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney in Norfolk, Virginia. Credit: Wikipedia.For those of us wondering what will be the defining story line of the 2012 presidential election, the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate makes it a whole new ball game. Maybe. Or maybe not.The story line so far has remained in flux. For a while the common wisdom said it all depended on the state of the economy; nothing else mattered. Then the conventional wisdom decided that the big story was the Obama campaign’s full-court advertising press to define Romney as a callous capitalist: Would it succeed or backfire?

  • Originally published 08/13/2012

    The Romney Economic Plan's Misreading of History

    Ronald Reagan holding a staff meeting on his first day in office. Credit: WikipediaLast week, the Romney campaign responded to criticisms of its tax and economic proposals by issuing a new white paper, "The Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth and Jobs." Authored by Greg Mankiw of Harvard, Glenn Hubbard of Columbia, John Taylor of Stanford, and Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute, this makes three claims in trashing the Obama administration's record on recovery and virtually promising a re-run of morning-again-in-America if the GOP candidate is elected president in 2012.  First, recovery from the Great Recession has been terribly slow even by post-financial crisis downturn standards; second, the Obama administration made a grievous error in relying on spending stimulus to renew the economy; and third, the tax cuts, spending cuts and deregulatory initiatives proposed by Romney will usher in a period of rapid growth to revitalize employment and generate a bountiful harvest of budget revenues.

  • Originally published 08/09/2012

    Myth Versus Myth: Remembering Nagasaki

    Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance rally against nuclear weapons at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, April 6, 2011. Credit: Wikipedia.The sixty-seventh anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki prompts me to indulge in a bit of autobiography. My path to the study of mythic America began when I was young historian of religion, writing highly specialized studies of rabbinic Judaism, and in my spare time an antinuclear activist, protesting the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Boulder, Colorado, where I lived and worked. When I first realized that I could apply the tools of my trade -- the analysis of mythic and symbolic language -- to the nuclear issue, I was glad to bring my professional life into synch with my political and ethical commitments.

  • Originally published 08/08/2012

    Why Do Married Women Vote Republican?

    Mitt Romney TV ad from the primary campaign featuring his wife Ann.An article in today’s New York Times takes on one of the enduring mysteries of recent American politics: Why do single women vote for Democrats in such greater numbers than married women? Single women, predictably, are suffering more than married women in this protracted recession. So if the election is essentially a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy, as so many pundits tell us, then the polling should show singles more eager to reject the president. Yet most single women still say they’ll vote for Democrats, while married women trend more to the GOP.

  • Originally published 08/05/2012

    The Secret Tie that Binds U.S. and Israel

    Israeli and American flags on a ship's mast on the Sea of Galilee. Credit: Wikipedia.I was really excited when I saw an op-ed in the New York Times by Israel’s most important critic of his own government, Avraham Burg. He’s the most important critic because of his high political standing (he served as the speaker of Israel’s Knesset [parliament]) because he so persuasively condemns Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and because he focuses on such an important, but too often neglected, motive for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians: the mistaken belief that Israel is a weak nation, vulnerable to enemies who want to destroy it.

  • Originally published 08/02/2012

    Pentagon Planning for War With China

     You usually have to dig a bit to find the mythic dimension in political discourse. But sometimes it is right there on the surface, staring you in the face.Latest example: A Washington Post report on “Air Sea Battle,” a Pentagon plan for war with China. They’ve gamed it all out, it seems, and, I’m happy to report, we win!  Here’s how it goes:The war games are set 20 years in the future and cast China as a hegemonic and aggressive enemy. Guided anti-ship missiles sink U.S. aircraft carriers and other surface ships. Simultaneous Chinese strikes destroy American air bases, making it impossible for the U.S. military to launch its fighter jets. The outnumbered American force fights back … Stealthy American bombers and submarines would knock out China’s long-range surveillance radar and precision missile systems located deep inside the country. The initial “blinding campaign” would be followed by a larger air and naval assault.

  • Originally published 07/31/2012

    New York Times: “All the Fear That Fits, We Print”

     I know, the Times’ motto is really, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” No scandal, no sentiment, no sensationalism. Just straight, sober, boring facts. That’s why they call it “The Gray Lady,” right? Well the times they are apparently changin’. “The Gray Lady” ended the month of July with two lurid lead stories in a row, stoking fear in vivid technicolor.July 30 top headline: “Jihadists Taking A Growing Role In Syrian Revolt.” The lead: “Syrians involved in the armed struggle say it is becoming more radicalized: homegrown Muslim jihadists, as well as small groups of fighters from Al Qaeda, are taking a more prominent role.”July 31 top headline: “Militant Group Poses Risk of U.S. - Pakistan Rupture.” The lead: “Grinning for the camera, the suicide bomber fondly patted his truckload of explosives. ‘We will defeat these crusader pigs as they have invaded our land,’ he declared. ... The camera followed the truck to an American base in southern Afghanistan, where it exploded with a tangerine dust-framed fireball.”

  • Originally published 07/30/2012

    The Olympics: New Model for Foreign Policy?

     Amid all the extravagant hoopla of the Olympics’ opening ceremony in London, one striking contrast caught my eye. Though some of the athletes parading into the stadium looked like they had come for a great party, many were obviously taking the occasion very seriously -- especially those from smaller and “less developed” nations. You could tell that being in the Olympics was the greatest occasion of their lives. But even those who looked most dignified were often smiling. Their big broad smiles made these beautiful young people look absolutely radiant. Even if they weren’t smiling, you could see the obvious pride and pure joy bursting out of them.Contrast that with the uniformed soldiers who were conscripted to perform in the ceremony. Maybe they were just as proud, perhaps even just as joyful. But their appointed role and the ethos of military culture combined to prevent them from showing it, or showing any emotion at all. They kept their faces stiff and blank, while they moved like life-sized robots.There’s nothing surprising in that rigid demeanor. It’s what we expect from military personnel performing military jobs. After all, the people in uniform are obligated, above all, to follow orders. They have largely given up their individual personalities to become merely extensions of the state apparatus that gives the commands.

  • Originally published 07/26/2012

    Ignoring the Homeless is Un-American

    Homeless man in The Bowery, Manhattan. The advertisement is for luxury condos.The other day I read that homelessness in my small, typical, middle American city has jumped 39 percent in just one year. Still reeling from the shock, I wondered, “What would Thomas Jefferson say?” Jefferson spent long hours worrying whether the fledgling United States -- the first country based on the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- would survive. He wasn’t sure that ordinary people would be willing to contribute their hard work and tax dollars to support the common good and needs of the nation.Jefferson’s solution was that everyone should have a home of their own. Homeowners would be the most responsible, civic-minded citizens. They would realize that their own place would prosper best if the whole community prospered.

  • Originally published 07/24/2012

    Toppling Dictators Can Be Dangerous, Even If You Are Exceptional

    Billboard of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, 2006. Credit: WikipediaI can’t resist a brief comment on the debate about American exceptionalism that’s now the headline offering on History News Network. If you’re interested in the mythic dimension of American political life, exceptionalism is bound to be an important topic. Even if you just casually peruse the day’s news you are likely to meet it in one guise or another.Today you can meet it in its purest form, with no guise at all, in Mitt Romney’s speech to the VFW:  “Our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known. ... Throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair. ... Our influence is needed as much now as ever.”

  • Originally published 07/23/2012

    Fantasy of Absolute Safety is Killing Us, Even in Movie Theaters

    A group of handguns. Credit: WikipediaMy son was spending the night in Aurora, Colorado, when all hell broke loose just a few miles away. He wasn’t in the Century 16 theater. But he might have been; he loves those opening nights. And there wasn’t a thing I could do to protect him.I’m a professor at the University of Colorado (though not on the campus where James Holmes studied). I’ve surely had quiet students who were deeply troubled but, like Holmes, drew no attention to themselves. So there wasn’t a thing I could do to help protect them. I’m active in a community organization trying to improve Colorado’s abysmal mental health services: The state ranks dead-last in per capita psychiatric hospital beds, and services of every kind have suffered drastic budget cuts. I’ve had more than one family member who needed help badly and got that help only after a long wait, persistent struggle, and nasty fights with insurance companies. Lots of folks don’t have decent insurance, or anyone to fight the woefully inadequate system on their behalf.

  • Originally published 07/19/2012

    Obama’s Killing Problem -- Or Ours?

    Predator drone firing a missile. Credit: WikipediaEsquire magazine has just brought out their new Fall Fashion Preview issue, and they somehow thought it made sense to include an article on “Obama’s Killing Problem.” You can see that title featured on the cover, just above “29 Reasons to Watch the Olympics.”Obama’s problem, if I understand author Tom Junod right, is that by relying so heavily on drones meting out targeted assassinations, he’s changing the face of war in ways neither he nor anyone else can predict. Whatever the U.S. does, the rest of the world is bound to follow, and those drones will probably some day come back to haunt us.This was also a major theme in American media in the first days after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: We are now vulnerable, too. It was true then, and it’s true now.

  • Originally published 07/17/2012

    The War on Drugs and the Wars on Mexico

    Mexican troops in a gun battle, 2007. Credit: WikipediaThere’s a growing debate among policymakers about how to wage the war on drugs, the New York Times reports. No one doubts that the war must be waged, apparently. At least the article, in the nation’s most influential news source, doesn’t hint at any doubts. Like any mythic truth, the need to keep the war going is simply taken for granted.But how should we fight it? That’s the question now, it seems. In one corner is the traditional “stop the flow from abroad” approach. In the other corner, a new and rising view:

  • Originally published 07/13/2012

    Slavery and “Big Government”: The Emancipation Proclamation’s Lessons 150 Years Later

    First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864.One hundred fifty years ago today, on July 13, 1862, Abraham Lincoln went out for a carriage ride with his Secretary of State, William Seward, and his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. Lincoln told them (as Welles recalled it) that he had “about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves.” That was the seed of conception for the Emancipation Proclamation, which came to birth five and half months later, giving Lincoln his greatest legacy: “He freed the slaves.” It’s a story everyone knows.But it’s not quite accurate. Only the slaves in the Confederate states were emancipated. Citizens of the Union could still own slaves.

  • Originally published 07/11/2012

    If the U.S. Is The World's Fireman, Who Rebuilds The Burned-Out Neighborhoods?

    U.S. Air Force firefighters during a training exercise. Credit: WikipediaOne of the advantages of a mythic approach to political culture is that it gives us a chance to put the pieces of the puzzle together in new ways, opening up new, sometimes unexpected, perspectives. Today’s pieces are wildfires in the West and politics in the Middle East.When fire ravaged some 360 homes in Colorado Springs, federally-funded firefighters were quickly on the scene. Soon Barack Obama was there too, offering more federal aid. I expected the mayor of the Springs, a bastion of shrink-the-government conservatism, to declare indignantly that his people could take care of themselves perfectly well, thank you. In fact, local officials didn’t just take the money. They asked for it even before the president arrived.

  • Originally published 07/09/2012

    Election 2012: What’s the Real Story Here?

    Changes in the Electoral College from 2008 to 2012. Credit: U.S. Census BureauCome Election Day, we’ll learn two very important things: Who will be president for the next four years? What story will be told about the presidential election of 2012? I’m not sure which of those two is ultimately more important. Some presidential elections create stories that last longer than the presidents who get elected. Sometimes the stories may have even more impact than the presidents themselves.Richard Nixon, for example, went down in disgrace. But the popular story told about his two winning campaigns -- “The people want law and order, not abortion, acid, and amnesty” -- still strongly affects our political life. So does the story that was used to sum up Ronald Reagan’s two victories: “The people want big government off their backs.”So far, it seems like the story of 2012 will be a pretty predictable repeat of Bill Clinton's 1992 win: It’s the economy, stupid. If Obama wins, we’ll be told that most voters are optimistic; they believe the economy is generally on the upswing. If Romney wins, we’ll hear that most voters feel hopelessly mired in a seemingly endless recession.

  • Originally published 07/08/2012

    U.S.-China Policy: Hiding the Military-Economic Link

    “For Clinton, an Effort to Rechannel the Rivalry With China.” Under that headline the New York Times’s Jane Perlez reports: “At a gathering of business executives in Cambodia this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to urge the expansion of American trade and investment across Asia, particularly in Southeast Asian nations on the periphery of China,”Perlez explains: “The extra attention devoted to economics is intended to send a message that Washington recognizes that it initially overemphasized the military component of its new focus on Asia, setting up more of a confrontation with China than some countries felt comfortable with. ... Both sides have an interest in channeling their rivalry into trade more than weaponry.”This story has two implicit punch lines: China poses some military threat; the only question is how much. And the Chinese military threat is essentially independent of economic issues.If Alfred Thayer Mahan can read the New York Times in his grave, he probably can’t decide whether to roll over or laugh -- or maybe both, considering what a howler Perlez offers from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy since Mahan’s time.

  • Originally published 07/05/2012

    Medicaid and the Eurozone Crisis: Beware the Wages of Sin

    MythicAmerica.us is hereby launched, with special thanks to History News Network editor David Walsh, an excellent harbor pilot who has steered this new vessel out of its dock and headed us toward the deep waters of America’s mythic narratives. Now we’re free to explore wherever we like. Welcome aboard the maiden voyage.Most posts on MythicAmerica.us will begin with something in the news that jumps out at a myth-seeker, like this gem: The states should reject increased Medicaid funding from Washington, now that Chief Justice Roberts has given them that option. Why? because if the federal government spends more, “sooner or later you become Greece or Spain or Italy.” That explanation comes from Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who was Newt Gingrich’s press secretary when Gingrich was Speaker of the House.You don’t have to be an ultra-conservative to fear seeing America turn into one of those Mediterranean lands. No doubt it’s a prospect that disturbs plenty of Americans across much of the political spectrum. 

  • Originally published 05/27/2012

    Eurotrash

    Another week, another crisis for the euro -- and there's plenty of more crisis weeks to come! It's going to get a lot worse for the euro -- but can it ever get better? It's far more likely that the euro project is in terminal decline and that nothing can save it.If the euro were a business, it would have been wound up by now. It has an awful business plan that only appeared to work in the benign economic conditions of  the first few years of this century and whose inadequacies were painfully exposed when it first experienced economic problems. Only the core business -- that is, Germany -- has been able to withstand the harsher economic conditions in existence since 2007. There is boardroom squabbling, the workforce is in rebellion, and no one has a viable Plan B for a sustainable way ahead.Eurozone leaders claim to have a survival plan but the details are murky and appear largely to be more of the same: structural reform to make member economies more competitive; a new fiscal pact to ensure member states live within their means; and some new infrastructure spending to soften the impact of austerity that is making voters angry.

  • Originally published 03/20/2012

    BRIC by BRIC: The Changing Global Economic League

    China’s anticipated overtaking of the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy has become the focus of much comment of late. Equally important, however, are the changes already happening and likely to accelerate regarding the rising challenge of other BRIC nations in the world economic league. Earlier this month, Brazil replaced the U.K. as the sixth largest economy. This was a moment of some symbolism: Brazil used to be part of what historians have called Britain’s "informal empire," being under the sway of British trade, capital, and inward investment in the nineteenth century.In the last decade, Brazil has consolidated its status as an agricultural and processed foodstuffs superpower, commodities that now account for a quarter of GDP and 36 percent of exports. It has become the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, coffee, tropical fruits, and commercial cattle (whose number is 50 percent larger than in the United States.). Brazil has also discovered massive oil reserves in the Atlantic, which have helped make it the world’s ninth-largest oil producer and raised the prospect of it eventually becoming the fifth-largest. The country is currently engaged in a massive program of infrastructure improvement to enhance growth, funded by the proceeds of its recent wealth creation.

  • Originally published 02/16/2012

    Is the U.S. in Relative Decline? Sadly, the Answer is Yes.

     The U.K. press is currently full of reports about the visit of China's leader-designate, Xi Jinping, to Washington this week. "The princeling and the professor" was one paper's editorial take on the Xi-Obama get together. Apart from personalities, however, what has consumed British interest is the accompanying debate about whether the U.S. is in decline.  We've been there a century before, so we're agog to discuss if this signals a historic moment in the process of principal power succession from the U.S. to China.This blog is contribution to this debate. It focuses on the issue of America's relative economic decline.  I have to say -- with regret -- that I see this as already in process: it's no longer a question of whether -- but of pace and extent. 

  • Originally published 01/05/2012

    The Lost Generation? Youth and the Great Recession

    As the governments of the European Union countries and (possibly, but less likely) the United States peer ahead to the threat of a new recession in 2012, one common demographic group in these nations is still deeply mired in the effects of the Great Recession that supposedly ended in 2009.  Youth unemployment for the 16 to 24-year-old age group averaged 18.3 percent in the U.S. and 21 percent across the 27-member E.U. in 2010-2011.  In the E.U., the highest youth unemployment rates have been in Spain, with 45 percent, and Greece, with 42.9 percent, which offer a marked contrast to the relatively low levels in some economies—notably the Netherlands (7 percent), Austria (8.3 percent), and Germany (8.9 percent).  Unemployment is also above the E.U. average in Italy (27 percent) and France (23 percent), while in the U.K. it has been around 20 percent.  These figures are not far behind the 21.8 percent youth unemployment in the long stagnant MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries.   

  • Originally published 12/01/2011

    The UK's Deficit Dogma: The Lessons for the U.S.

    In the U.S., the failure of the congressional super-committee to reach agreement on deficit reduction looks set to trigger massive automatic spending cuts in both domestic and defense programs from 2013 onwards.  While debt reduction is unquestionably necessary in the medium to long-term, placing it ahead of building a strong economic recovery is likely to do more harm than good.  The United States should look no further than the United Kingdom for proof of the folly of prioritizing fiscal austerity over laying the foundations for post-recession economic growth.

  • Originally published 11/17/2011

    The European Debt Crisis: A Problem of Political Will?

    Back in the summer, as US politicians seemed on the verge of failing to agree a debt limit extension to avoid default on America's obligations, Europeans looked on in scornful amazement at an apparent failure of leadership.  Now the shoe is very much on the other foot.  Speaking on November 16, President Barack Obama accused the Eurozone of suffering from "a problem of political will" that put the future of the single currency at risk. America's leaders succeeded in averting a default crisis when common sense finally prevailed (though the Democrats paid a higher price for reason than the Republicans).  Whether Europe's leaders can pull off their own great escape is much more open to doubt because in their case their sovereign debt problem is much graver than America's debt limitation problem and the solution to it is far less readily apparent. Signifying the sense that there is a problem of political will, the current leaders of the single currency project - Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy - are widely compared unfavorably in the media with their predecessors who built the foundations of the European project in the

  • Originally published 09/26/2011

    Lessons from History on the Double-Dip Recession

    In early August, The Economist put America's chances of a double-dip recession in the coming year at 50 percent.  If anything, things look even bleaker some two months on.  The recovery that began in 2009 is in danger of petering out.  In the first two quarters of 2011 the United States achieved an annualized growth rate of just 0.8 percent, far below the 2.5 percent annual expansion that economists consider the minimum necessary to make a dent in the present unemployment rate of 9.2 percent.  On a per-person basis, inflation-adjusted GDP now stands at virtually the same level as in the second quarter of 2005.  If this trend continues the United States is in the sixth year of what could go down in history as its version of Japan's "lost decade" of the 1990s.

  • Originally published 09/13/2011

    The European Sovereign Debt Crisis and America

    Three years ago, the conventional wisdom in Europe was that its economic problems were made in America.  This was widely believed true because of the toxic spread of the sub-prime crisis from the U.S. through the agency of debt-financing derivatives.  Now, however, Europe's problem with sovereign debt has worrying consequences for the United States.  As such, America's prospects of economic recovery continue to be entwined with those of Europe.  Although other euro zone countries have experienced sovereign debt problems, the epicenter of the crisis continues to be Greece.  Fear of a Greek default remains the source of considerable agitation in European banking circles.  It is now evident that French banks, which were largely immune from the effects of the sub-prime crisis, are particularly vulnerable to such a development because of their holdings in Greek bonds.  This is especially the case with BNP Paribas (the biggest French funder), Societe Generale, and Credit Agrocole.  To make matters worse, French banks did not build up their reserves in the wake of the sub-prime crisis in the manner of U.S. and UK banks because they did not consider the effects to be so severe for them. 

  • Originally published 08/11/2011

    The Fed's Not the Cavalry in this Crisis

     Iwan Morgan is Professor of U.S. Studies and Head of U.S. Programmes at the Institute for the Study of the Americas [ISA].  He was previously Professor of Modern American History and Head of Department of Politics and Modern History at London Guildhall University and Professor of American Governance at London Metropolitan University.  He has also taught at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne as a Fulbright Educational Exchange Lecturer. Most recently, Professor Morgan's work The Age of Deficits won the American Politics Group's 2010 Richard Neustadt Book Prize.

  • Originally published 08/08/2011

    Five days that shook America

    There was fictional movie called "Seven Days in May" about the foiling of a military coup in the United States.

  • Originally published 08/05/2011

    Are America and Europe Sinking into Meltdown 2.0?

    On August 5, the Dow had its largest single-day fall since December 1, 2008.  Things were just as bad across the Atlantic, with the equivalent of nearly $80 billion wiped off the shares of Britain's 100 biggest companies. The recent debt ceiling crisis in the U.S. produced a very inward-looking perspective among pundits and economist, and the same was true in Europe when the financial crisis hit individual countries over here.  However, yesterday's stock market declines show that America and Europe are in the same sinking boat.  We are no longer the different planets of Mars and Venus, to use Robert Kagan's terms.  We're one and the same planet  (and I'd say it was Pluto with its all its gloomy connotations). 

  • Originally published 08/02/2011

    A minority victory without precedent?

    Drawing on nearly forty years of teaching and researching US history and politics, I cannot think of a greater victory won by a minority party than the Republican success in forcing a solution to the debt limitation controversy that met GOP preferences. I would be grateful if anyone could provide me with a better example. The Democrats know all too well that they have been bested.  It's possible to pick out any number of admissions to this effect after the House vote, but two will suffice.  Raul Grijalva (Arizona) declared: "We have given much and received nothing in return.  The lesson today is that Republicans can hold their breath long enough to get what they want." Congressional Black Caucus chair Emmanuel Cleaver of Missouri , a Methodist pastor, graphically described the House bill as a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich." Republican success is mainly built on the party's determination to stand by its clearly held beliefs, while the Democrats were always looking for a deal (though not necessarily this one).  The impending crisis of default also played to the advantage of the intransigent party in the negotiations.  Yet it should be recognized that the GOP's success is further built on its ability to define the debt/deficit problem as a spe

  • Originally published 08/01/2011

    The debt deal in sight - but what next?

    To the relief of financial markets from the Far East to London and by now Wall Street, the congressional leadership appears to have a debt limit deal to hand.  Assuming that it gets approved by both Houses, however, the debt problem is simply moving onto a different level rather than being resolved. There's still a danger that the current imbroglio over debt limitation will result in a downgrading of the US debt by credit rating agencies.  That's less serious than would have happened in the event of a default, but lenders could interpret it as signaling that the US is no longer risk-free in terms of debt repayment. More significantly for those of us more interested in the impact of the debt issue on ordinary people, there's a lot of politics still left to flesh out the details of the debt limit agreement.  There's still room for revenue enhancement and a portion of the spending retrenchment will come from the rundown of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But that still necessitates a big bite out of federal domestic spending. Whatever the distribution of the eventual fiscal retrenchment that will follow a debt limit deal, the effect on the economy is likely to be contraction.  There is a school of economic thought which argues that fiscal austerity brings expansionary ben

  • Originally published 07/29/2011

    The Perils of Moderation

    In the past Europeans have often been critical of American political parties for being non-ideological coalitions dedicated to election-winning and deal- making.  Now these distant days seem like a golden age of common sense and pragmatism! We hear a lot over here about Republican ideological commitment, currently manifested in intransigence over raising the debt limit.  But we're not sure what to make of the Democrats.  If American politics is polarized, it's difficult to make out where President Obama's party is situated.  They are certainly nowhere near as liberal as the Republicans are conservative - in fact, the partisan battle seems to be right v center-right rather than right v left.  Paul Krugman's commentary "The Centrist Cop-Out" in yesterday's New York Times has certainly resonated over here.    President Obama has made so many concessions to the Republican preferences on taxation and spending that it is difficult for us outsiders to make out what the fight is all about.  The agenda seems dominated by the party that controls just one chamber of Congress, while the party that controls the other chamber and the White House appears in retreat from power.