Turning Away From History


Have you ever had a favorite tv show that you’d been watching for years, had gotten to “know” the characters on, had become somewhat emotionally invested in them and their lives, and then one season the storyline involved one or more of them doing something (or having something done to them) that would have tragic consequences for them and for the show — so much so that you just couldn’t watch it happen? 

You had to turn away; stop watching?

I feel that way about the country right now.  I can’t watch.

I’m a political junky when it comes to policymaking.  (Elections, not so much.)  Have been for 20 yrs., give or take.  What we do as a nation (a national community) is something I care a lot about.  Reading and thinking about its history — political, social, legal, economic, religious, intellectual, and cultural; its trends and cycles and tendencies — up to and including current history, has absorbed the bulk of my adult life: full-time for the first 10 or so years, spare-time in the years since.  I am emotionally and intellectually (not to mention financially) invested in its story and characters; its themes and ideas.

Lately, I find I just can’t watch.  What we’re doing to ourselves is too sad, too tragic, to witness.  What the Founders and many European observers often referred to as “the American experiment” — a phrase that indicates the real fragility we Americans too often forget — is failing.  The country is dying. 

I’ve never felt that before, so I try to find parallels in our history; earlier times when the experiment was in similar jeopardy yet somehow recovered.  I can’t come up with one.  The nearest I can think of is the decades around the turn of the previous century — Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the Spanish-American War.  Even that era doesn’t seem as dismal for the experiment as the current one, however.  As many dangers and problems as there were, they were fewer, less dire, and less mutually reinforcing than now, and the resources for addressing them were greater and stronger than now.

All of that is my way of saying that political posts may become pretty scarce here at the Hippos.  Maybe my courage will return, but right now, I just can’t watch.  It’s too sad.


24 Responses to “Turning Away From History”

  1. alsturgeon Says:

    I feel that way about church right now, hence the lack of church posts from me.

    Maybe Mikey will make us laugh some more.

  2. urbino Says:

    No political posts, no religious posts. That’s gonna leave the ol’ blog a mite thin.

    Paging Dr. Peacock, Dr. Miranda, Dr. Unicorn.

  3. michaellasley Says:

    The two of you should write books on your respective subjects. Get famous. And stuff.

    I’m too busy basking to worry about making anyone laugh.

  4. unicorntx Says:

    I was feeling that we were losing the country in the Nixon era. In fact, I felt we were going the Gestapo Route as a result of Nixon’s paranoia (yes, I know, he did have real enemies!). At the time, I would have gone the guerilla route if I felt it became necessary.
    Then, with the threatened impeachment and his resignation, my faith in the nation was restored.

    I “quit watching” in the Reagan era because I was embarrassed to have to say he was ‘our’ president. Little did I know it would get worse.
    I do think we have never been closer to the “Noble Experiment” failing. Our constitution is being dismantled, and Congress is permitting it – and the Supreme Court may not save us.
    As for religion – with all its faults – anybody have a nomination for something better?

  5. michaellasley Says:

    I’d love to hear more, Unicorn, about why you lost faith during the Nixon and Reagen admins. I mean, I know the general history, but I really do like hearing history that comes from people rather than just what I can read in books.

    I completely hear what you are saying JU. I do wonder, though, if the experiment has reached a point where it is unfixable. It seems to me that from the get-go, the experiment has had some glaring problems. For instance slavery and Jim Crow. Those were institutionalized contradictions. And even though our country is still dealing with those problems, for a large number of people, those problems were — and are — a matter of life and death. Yet reading the works of Malcolm X or MLK or Fredercik Douglass, there was a faith in the theory of the constitution. So I’m just wondering if you thing the current problems, bad as the assault on the constitution seems to be, are more troubling than other aspects of our history. Innocent question — I don’t have an answer in mind. I’m just curious if you think that now is so much worse than before. Or if maybe there seems to be something about our leaders (in all three branches) that seems as though they care less about the experiment than past leaders.

    Maybe my question makes no sense. If not, then let me know and I’ll try again.

    (Also…I’m in no way trying to convince you to regain your interest…I’m just curious about your thoughts.)

  6. Capt MidKnight Says:

    I know you’ve read a lot of history and have a much better understanding of the law than I do, but I would respectfully suggest that things may seem dark partly because we are closer to them.

    I don’t mean to deny that there are many things today which concern me too – maybe not all the same things that bother you, but still things I wish were different. From the constitutional perspective, one of the most disturbing things to me is the almost complete politicalization of the Supreme Court, including the nomination/confirmation process. Legal skill and scholorship has almost been total replaced by political litmus tests. Both sides do it, but I feel that the liberal side is the most openly agressive and partisan. They cry that Bush has tried to “pack the court” to coincide with his conservative vision, when, in fact, as soon as they have a chance, they will do exactly the same thing – more so if they can – claiming that they are correcting the “balance,” meaning, of course, the balance in favor of their view, while portraying the other side as just short of the anti christ. Maybe the thing I miss most is the loss of the ability of honest people to disagree without being cast as stupid or evil by the other side.

    As for things today, I know we have an unpopular war, started under dubious circumstances with little hope of a favorible outcome, but I remember another war like this one where Americans were dying in the streets, not from terrorists but from US military units. I helped carry the 82nd Airborne into Washington DC to deal with an anti war protest from American kids. I also remember, a few years before, wondering if my grandfather’s storm celler would work as a fallout shelter when the Russian bombs fell – which we all assumed was just a matter of time. Things may not be too good today, but there are no troops in the streets.

    There are a lot of things that need to be addressed today, for sure, but my advice is:
    Take a nice long weekend, relax, and start watching again. Sometimes we view the current situation a little like a teenager views sex – nice transition, right? Every generation thinks they discovered it.

    I’m not trying to make light of your concerns – honest. I just think that we’ve been here – and a lot worse – before. If the government has any silver lining, it’s that it has so much inertia that nobody can move it very much in just one term or even two. At least that what I hope.

    Ireland is beautiful. Wish you were here.

  7. urbino Says:

    I’ll try to post my fuller thoughts when I have time and energy to organize them, Mikey and Cap’n. Perhaps late this evening.

    In the meantime, in honor of Cap’n’s invocation of teenage sex, I offer the following, courtesy of Philip Larkin, which I will cross-post on Mikey’s poetry thread:

    Annus Mirabilis

    Sexual intercourse began
    In nineteen sixty-three
    (which was rather late for me) –
    Between the end of the Chatterley ban
    And the Beatles’ first LP.

    Up to then there’d only been
    A sort of bargaining,
    A wrangle for the ring,
    A shame that started at sixteen
    And spread to everything.

    Then all at once the quarrel sank:
    Everyone felt the same,
    And every life became
    A brilliant breaking of the bank,
    A quite unlosable game.

    So life was never better than
    In nineteen sixty-three
    (Though just too late for me) –
    Between the end of the Chatterley ban
    And the Beatles’ first LP.

  8. msmiranda Says:

    JU, I think I was where you are back in 2004; the nadir was the 2004 election. I was really pessimistic about the direction we were headed at that time. Now that public opinion has turned against Bush (sorry Bush supporters — the guy is an embarrassing boob), I’m feeling much better about things. Although the next election looks like a train wreck waiting to happen, too … I am so disinterested in the campaign. I hope to God Hillary doesn’t get the nomination or we’re sunk … but anyway. I guess what I’m wondering is why right now at this moment, you feel you can’t watch. What specifically is happening (or not happening) that is distressing in 2007 as opposed to, say, 2003?

    I can understand losing faith during the Nixon era. Having read about his shenanigans, I was aghast. Ditto Reagan — another boob. It is sad and hilarious that we have elected someone less intelligent than Reagan.

    I’ll tell you what I find alarming, though — the fact that the American electoral system greatly underrepresents left-leaning folks because they are clustered in cities. What makes it even more maddening is that Wyoming has two senators and people like me who live in the District (as large or larger population than Wyoming) have no senators. Now THAT’S unfair. I don’t know whether this trend has reached its peak yet or not.

  9. msmiranda Says:

    Oh, and I’ll tell you what gives me hope — watching the Daily Show. Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine.

  10. dejon05 Says:

    I really suck at commenting on this blog’s consistently interesting conversation… But I pop in quickly to ask msmiranda to elaborate on her Hilary comment.

    Where I come from the good Senator is the devil incarnate, but I can never get anyone to tell me why. The best answer I usually get is, “She looks like a b/witch.”

    Is it her lack of elect-ability that has you concerned or something more substantive?

  11. dejon05 Says:

    As for JU’s pessimism, I feel I spend more time than I should wringing my hands about this God-forsaken war we’ve got. I don’t mean to beat this dead horse any more, and I don’t mean to hint that the issue isn’t worth some serious consideration.

    Its just my offering don’t go beyond fruitless worry, and perhaps a beseeching of the deity to end this insanity.

    On this issue I can identify with an inability to keep one’s eyes (or mind) focused on the disaster unfolding before us.

  12. urbino Says:

    Well, I have the time, but still not quite the energy to write an intelligible response.

    I’ll just say for now that my concerns are larger than the war — the war, in fact, I see as a symptom — or the Supreme Court or the current president. My concerns are structural and psychological, the latter referring to the American people.

  13. msmiranda Says:

    JU — what a teaser!! Do elaborate …

    Dejon — I’m primarily concerned about Hillary’s electability. Beyond what some see as her insincerity and the whole sticking finger in the wind thing, I don’t think the American people would elect a woman president — any woman. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t happen, I’m just skeptical that it could. Particularly because of the underrepresentation of left-leaning viewpoints in our electoral system that I pointed out above. By and large, the people who would elect a Hillary are in Manhattan, not Mississippi. And New York only has so many electoral votes. Speaking of which, I read something in the New Yorker a few weeks ago that about turned my hair white. In CA, someone has put an initiative on the ballot to split that state’s electoral votes by county or something like that. That would throw most of CA’s electoral votes to the R in any election, making it virtually impossible for a D to ever win the presidency. Yikes.

  14. urbino Says:

    That effort imploded, Miranda. Internal bickering and lack of financial backing.

    I’ll try to elaborate on the other thing at some point.

  15. urbino Says:

    As luck would have it, someone else elaborated for me.

    The most salient point, for me, is that the most fundamental rules of how our democracy governs itself — of how We The People will govern it — have changed. This was accomplished, initially, by sheer fiat, by one person. If that can happen, our Constitution has failed. I don’t say that to be politically melodramatic. I say it as an empirical observation of history and political science.

    People referred to Watergate as a “constitutional crisis,” which is what it was.

    This is not a crisis. It is a total structural failure. The Constitution failed. I mean “failed” in the same sense that engineers use when a building collapses. A crisis would be if somebody noticed the impending collapse and there was an all-out effort to avert it. That crisis point — the opportunity to prevent failure — is already in the rearview mirror, and receding.

    That’s the structural problem I referred to. (Or one of them, at least.)

    The psychological problem, also discussed in the linked article, is that We The People have simply accepted this. Unless and until this redefinition of our fundamental governing principles affects us personally, we simply don’t care. As long as the tv still works and we’re still getting a check and the local Ford dealership is offering a rebate, we’re happy.

  16. Whitney Says:

    Very interesting post and comments. JU, aside from the fact that most people just don’t care…many of the ones that do are SO polarized as to make everything a war at home. You know the drill, people hate everything Bush or Hilary do out of the principle of hating Bush or Hilary, not because they’ve actually considered the issues at hand. Or they love them and accept everything they do…and still don’t think. So, what we end up with is people either don’t care or they just don’t want to think for themselves (and will therefore accept anything that is said that supports their stance and ridicule anything that does not). You are one of the rare exceptions.

  17. urbino Says:

    Thanks, Whit. That’s very kind of you to say. Not very comforting, though. 🙂 Benjamin Franklin quotes keep rattling around in my head, and they’re not very comforting, either. One about “a republic, if you can keep it.” One about those who trade liberty for security.

    Miranda, you asked why I was troubled now. It’s because it’s now that I’m getting the sense that the opportunity to correct the structural problem — to limit our situation to a crisis rather than a failure — has passed.

    Cap’n suggested the radical late ’60s (and early ’70s) as perhaps a darker time in our history, when the 82nd Airborne was deployed in American cities against American citizens. That certainly is a sobering thing to consider. Unfortunately, ISTM the only reason that isn’t happening today is because a) the American people are asleep at the wheel rather than protesting, and b) citizen protests simply don’t matter enough anymore for those in power to bother with that strong a response. If those were not the case, I believe we’d see the 82nd Airborne in the streets. (Well, maybe not, since they’re otherwise engaged right now, but troops of some kind.)

    What’s worse, if the 82nd were out picking up protestors today, the arrestees, unlike in the ’60s, would have no legal rights. And that would be fine with all the Americans not directly affected. Cheered, in fact, by 25-30%.

    Mikey mentioned slavery and the Civil War. Certainly, the issue of slavery was one the Founders punted on, and it did lead to a crisis. ISTM there are 2 key differences, though. One, the issues causing today’s crisis/failure were not left fuzzy by the Founders; they expressed themselves very clearly on them. Two, the Civil War was a crisis about the size of the American nation-state, not its nature. If the South had won, the orginal USA would have gone on as before, with the same fundamental political structure; just smaller. Today’s issues go to the nature of our nation-state.

    I still see the Gilded Age and Spanish-American War as the nearest parallel to the present. Teddy Roosevelt, primarily, kept that crisis from becoming a failure. I just don’t see anybody comparable on today’s political landscape. It would have to be a Republican, like TR; just like it had to be an ardent anti-communist like Nixon to open talks with China. There just isn’t anybody in the Republican leadership or presidential race who wants to change course on these issues. (Well, nobody with any shot of winning, anyway.) There are some lonely voices in the House GOP — libertarians, mostly. There are some very lonely voices in the GOP punditry — Bruce Fein, Bob Barr, and Andrew Sullivan, for instance — but they’ve got no traction at all with the party’s base. (Speaking of lonely GOP pundits, here’s one catching up with my long-standing position on the Iraq War. (That is: fight it for real, or get out.))

    The hard, irreducible, terrifying fact is that 25-30% of Americans want America to become what it’s becoming — or think they do, at least — and they are the only people driving national policymaking. Everyone else has been relegated to the sidelines.

  18. urbino Says:

    To your point, Whitney, about people just lining up with a party or politician and reflexively loving everything they do and hating everybody who opposes them in any way or says anything critical of them, you’re right. That’s been with us non-stop through 4 consecutive presidential terms, now. It’s another parallel with the Gilded Age, too, btw. The country was very closely divided then, too.

    Very interesting post and comments.

    I was hesitant to link to Greenwald’s blog, frankly. I know he is a much hated figure on the Right. I often think his rhetoric is over the top, myself, and have discussed it with him (briefly to good effect). Nonetheless, I do find I generally agree with the issues he chooses to write about; he and I seem to agree on what the most serious issues are, and on just how serious they are, even if I generally wouldn’t (and hopefully don’t) write about them in quite the way he does.

    As for the “comments,” I’m not sure if you’re referring to the comments here, or the comments on Greenwald’s blog. I rarely read the latter, and haven’t in this case, either.

    (And now that I think about it, I’m not sure if the “post” you’re referring to is mine or Greenwald’s, either. I’d assumed you meant his.)

  19. urbino Says:

    the guy is an embarrassing boob

    another boob

    That’s a lot of boob talk, Miranda. You sure your personal situation isn’t, er, leaking into your comments?

    Triple-post. Yes!

  20. Whitney Says:

    this post; these comments.
    I rarely read much of anything that’s linked here; I skim it. I spend too much time reading this when I should be working…..except now when it’s 10 pm here and very early morning for the rest of you.

  21. msmiranda Says:

    JU, LOL on the boob thing. I actually thought about that as I was posting it … I’m not sure why that is the word that has been coming to mind about him for some time now …

    FWIW, I don’t really love Hillary either, so I’m not one of those who blindly follows one side or other. I don’t know that there are any politicians out there I 100% like. I was a Bill fan, in his day, but I took serious issue with some things that he did (welfare reform, Lani Guinier, and Joycelyn Elders, to name three). Hillary feels fake and opportunistic to me and I’m bothered by that. Among other policy positions I’m sure if I had time to make a list.

    I hardly ever read Greenwald but am always moved when I do — that guy is right on top of it. (Of course, I read Salon, so I would think that, I guess).

    Okay, just read the post you linked to. Wow. When it’s all set forth so baldly, it’s hard to argue with. I think the reason no consequences have been imposed and nothing has changed is because the average person has NO IDEA what is going on. Hell, the average person has no idea how the Constitution works at all, or about what our treaties prohibit us from doing, or about domestic surveillance, or any of it. Part of the insidiousness of the whole enterprise is that the secrecy of it has succeeded so well, despite the media coverage. What does this tell us? That people don’t read newspapers. These things are by their nature not visible (with the notable exception of Abu Ghraib, about which the outrage was not strong enough and didn’t last long enough). Even if you read about it in a newspaper, those are just words on a page. They don’t affect the average (or even above average) American. A friend of mine said, as long as the potato chips keep coming and the tv is still working, nothing is going to change. I think that’s what’s going on here. My life still seems fine, most people think to themselves. It doesn’t affect the day to day.

    The other issue is that a lot of those who do know, don’t know WHAT to do, although they might like to do something. Sort of a collective action problem.

    Anyway, I see why you’re pessimistic, but I would say wait until the next Administration to see if it sticks before concluding that All Is Lost.

  22. urbino Says:

    The thing is, though, Miranda, that was pretty much the case with Watergate, too. The general public didn’t know and didn’t care.

    But the Congress did.

    People from both caucuses recognized the danger to our constitutional system, and they took appropriate action. Even though we were in the middle of a shooting war. And even though that war was [supposedly] part of a larger conflict that represented a “clash of cultures” and an existential threat. They recognized the greater threat and did the right thing.

    Aside from a few lonely voices, our era’s Congress doesn’t give a darn — nobody in either party. The Dems are too terrified of getting blamed for anything. The GOP is too busy placating its base — that 25-30% I spoke of earlier — which, coincidentally, is also driven almost entirely by fear. (So is the White House, if Jack Goldsmith’s book is any guide.)

  23. msmiranda Says:

    I wasn’t alive during Watergate, so I didn’t know whether or not the public was engaged. I thought they were, but I guess not. Yeah, the fact that Congress doesn’t care about this is troubling. Bill was on the Daily Show a few weeks ago and said something that I thought was interesting — that they have to spend so much of their time campaigning that they don’t have time to reflect on the decisions they make, and that lack of sleep plays a role in how ornery everyone seems to be these days. I don’t think that completely explains why nothing has been done here, though … but what does? Has the character of elected politicians changed for the worse since the 70s? Even if there is a lot of fear on both sides (of the electorate for the Dems and of the base for the Rs), shouldn’t good character trump that? Has the nature of campaigning changed such that the kind of people who are elected has changed too? Does money and television advertising have anything to do with it? If so, maybe Bill was closer to the mark than I thought.

  24. urbino Says:

    I do think money has something to do with it. That’s another of the structural problems I referred to. Not so much the way Pres. Clinton described — though that may well be a problem, too — as the fact that such a large amount of government expenditures are funnelled to what are essentially “party” companies, so that they can, in turn, make large contributions to their party’s candidates; which, in turn, gives them unprecedented access to and influence over government policy, with the effect of a) jaundicing that policy, and b) funnelling still more government spending to “party” companies, creating a giant, self-reinforcing feedback loop.

    The effect is that, increasingly, national policy is not based on national interest, but on party interest. It’s the return of the spoils system.

    We’ve survived the spoils system before (the Gilded Age again), so maybe that’s not such a big deal. However, we weren’t a major international power then — military or economic. We were basically economic protectionists and military isolationists. As bad as things were for ordinary Americans in the Gilded Age, they were bad in a purely domestic sense. (Until the Spanish-American War, that is.) Nowadays, our spoils system affects the entire world, economically and militarily; people get killed for it and countries get destroyed.

    We also didn’t have mass media when we last had a spoils system. Political advertising wasn’t the be-all, end-all of getting elected, so money wasn’t quite as important to a campaign, so campaign contributions weren’t quite as important. There was less feedback in the spoils system loop, and the effect of what feedback there was was less amplified by the media. Elected officials could be more independent in their policy judgment.

    That’s how things look to me, anyway. That’s why I’m so discouraged.

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