Category Archives: History

Monday’s Mtg (3/26/18): Do we need another Eisenhower?

People have been pining for “another Eisenhower” off and on for decades. As with most historical analogies, the desire for another Eisenhower probably says more about the political views of those pining away for him than it does about our current problems and the type of political leadership that could address them.

Wanting an Ike-like president can mean one or more of several different things, I suppose. It can mean a desire to revive an extinct species: Moderate Republicans, along with a leader that can make the GOP accept the Great Society and its extensions the way Eisenhower accepted the New Deal. Or, maybe it reflects a yearning for a return of the bipartisan consensus politics of the 1950s and a politics of decency and civility. Or, maybe some folks just like the idea of a successful military leader who can knock a few heads together in Washington. a.

Obviously, Eisenhower’s presidency and 1950s politics and culture were not as rosy as some folk think they were. The 1950s were before civil rights revolution was completed and before equal rights for women and LGBT folks were even on the table. The Cold War was at its most dangerous heights. Moreover, unless you have a “great man” view of history, it is not very enlightening to compare one president’s managerial and personal style and to another’s.

However, I think it could be useful to examine two things. First, we can explore how the social and political structures of the Eisenhower era shaped political decisions and constrained the choices that could be made.

Yes, President Trump seems to make decisions more based on the last thing he saw on TV and desires for vengeance against enemies (real and imagined) than on the normal factors that shape presidential behavior. Still, no presidency is about one person even if this one thinks it is. Comparing today’s political and social climate to the one that Eisenhower and other political leaders of the era faced might be instructive for today – and tomorrow, assuming someday American politics returns from the ledge it has crawled out on.

Second, we could discuss the whole idea of consensus-based politics. Is bipartisanship and cooperation even possible anymore, or desirable? Our nation’s politics are so polarized, its problems are so daunting, and its international position so rapidly-weakening that perhaps a return to the kind of cautious incrementalism that consensus politics usually requires may not make much sense anymore. In my opening summary on Monday I will explain this POV a bit more and introduce some possible historical parallels that might make the Eisenhower presidency relevant to our current crisis.

We probably should get into foreign policy a fair amount, too. Yesterday, Trump picked uber-hawk John Bolton to be his national security advisor. An Islamophobic fringe figure who has repeatedly called for war with Iran and North Korea will control the flow of foreign policy information to our knowledge-challenged president. I cannot imagine a better time to talk about Eisenhower, a fervent Cold Warrior president that was also known to exercise “strategic restraint” and left office warning about the over-militarization of foreign policy.

This week’s optional readings include backgrounders on Eisenhower’s presidency and some comparisons of Ike to Trump and Obama. WWID: What would Ike do? Let’s figure it out Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

His presidency –

Some specifics –

Comparisons –

 

NEXT WEEK: Will technology make war too easy?

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Monday’s Mtg: Lessons from past presidential corruption.

Obviously, investigations of Trump Administration corruption are still in the early stages and we will be talking about the subject many times in the future.  Still, it seems like a good time to gain a little historical perspective on what is occurring.

There have been lots of executive branch scandals in American history, as this list shows. Cabinet secretaries have gone to jail. Supreme Court nominations have been withdrawn. White House aides have been convicted of felonies.

But, far fewer scandals have reached all the way into the oval office and up to the President himself and/or his top-most advisors. The list of relevant ones is even shorter if we narrow things down to malfeasance that led to impeachments and near impeachments plus the specific types of crimes/corruption that Trump has been accused of being a part of: Obstruction of justice and undermining the rule of law; personal and family graft, and collusion with foreign powers to help get elected. I‘m thinking of:

  • Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.
  • Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
  • GW Bush’s 2006 firing of seven U.S. attorney’s allegedly for purely political reasons.
  • Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal (late 1980s)
  • Watergate (Nixon resigned 1974).
  • A few others; e.g., allegations that candidate Nixon asked the South Vietnamese government to avoid peace negotiations to boost his election prospects in 1968, and that candidate Reagan interfered in Iran hostage negotiations in 1980. (Neither proven; Reagan’s likely didn’t occur.)

Some of these events bring up the tricky issue of how to define corruption for our purposes. Is “unfitness” corruption? Is corruption just personal graft, obstruction of justice, and/or a sex scandal? The Constitution does not specify that impeachment be only for a criminal act. The Founders meant it to be a political solution to an unfit president. And, what about political acts or policy decisions that we think stem from corrupt motives; e.g., Bush’s deregulation or Obama’s deal with the insurance and hospital lobbies to get Obamacare passed? LBJ’s unseemly legislative arm-twisting?

Since the lines get blurry the more we expand corruption’s meaning I will give a short opening presentation that covers only two things:

  1. The above bulleted scandals, focusing on their elements that have potential analogs in the Trump era; and
  2. Some thoughts on the types of lessons we can learn from this history. I’ll focus on how the major actors that are supposed to hold a president accountable in times like these have acted or failed to act (e.g., special prosecutors, Congress, SCOTUS, the press, and public opinion).

That’s a tall order, so I will try to be concise. Most of it will come from memory so it isn’t directly supported by the material in this week’s optional background readings. Instead, the links are bare-bones descriptions of past scandals and summaries of what is known so far about Trump’s possible corruption. I did find a few good commentaries directly on point re what past presidential corruption scandals augur for holding Trump and his people accountable.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Major presidential corruption scandals –

October Surprises –

Trump: What we know so far –

History’s lessons –

 

 

NEXT WEEK: Does religion promote empathy or diminish it?

FYI, a great Philosophical Minds mtg on 1/9/18

BTW, CivCon’s sister group, founded by Gary G. and now led by Jim Z., has a great topic for its January 9th (Tuesday) meeting, FYI.  Details here:

Cold War Brinkmanship

Tuesday, Jan 9, 2018, 7:00 PM

Kafe Sobaka Restaurant Pomegranate
2469 Broadway San Diego, CA

3 Philosophers Attending

Alex de Volpi will present, based on his new book

Check out this Meetup →

 

Monday’s Mtg: Does the “paranoid political style” dominate U.S. politics now?

American politics seems to be gravely afflicted these days with an old virus: The paranoid political style. The term “paranoid style” was coined in 1964 by historian Richard Hofstadter, first in a speech and then in an essay in Harper’s Magazine that later became a book. I wanted us to explore the extent to which that style now dominates our American politics, why it has returned with such a vengeance, and whether it will persist. I think it’ here to stay.

Hofstadter wrote that:

“American politics…has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

“…[To] the modern right-wing wing…America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modem radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home.”

Sounds familiar? Hofstadter’s explanation has been used for years to explain right-wing (but NOT all conservative) politics. Lots of commenters are using it today to try to make sense of Trumpism and its capture of the Republican Party.

The theory of the paranoid political style has its critics. In the 1960s it was pointed out that it fails to take conservative philosophy and ideas seriously and comes close to defining conservatism as a mental aberration. (Hofstadter said he was not using the term paranoid clinically.) Also, Hofstadter suggested that the paranoid style is only a feature of right-wing politics American politics. Subsequent events in the late 1960s showed that the American left-wing can appeal to rage, paranoia, and conspiracy theories, too.

Fast forward 50+ years to first the Tea Party and now Donald Trump, and I think we have to ask hard questions. Is this a triumph of the paranoid style we’re seeing, or something else? If so, who or what is to blame and will it outlast Trump’s presidency?

As you know, I have my chief culprits. Fox News and right-wing talk radio have exploited fear and resentment and pushed conspiracy theories for 20 years straight. If you have avoided paying attention to what gets repeated every day in these forums, you really should take a look. Just skim some of the daily output of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Seann Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Coulter, Malkin, D’Souza, and Alex Jones. If they are not pushing the paranoid style, then the term has no meaning.

Or is that too easy? Surely we cannot just blame right-wing media for creating all of this fear and anxiety out of thin air. In the last 15 years the USA has experienced the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor and a continuous, seemingly permanent state of war against shadowy and frightening new enemies that target U.S. civilians. The worst recession in 80 years trashed the economy and the folks that cause it got off with barely a slap on the wrist. Our government is paralyzed and helpless – or just bought off by special interests. Social media amplify and spread every fear and crazy rumor and allow the angriest among us to organize more easily. Maybe some of people’s fears are grounded in reality.

What do you think?

Here are some of the questions I hope we can wrestle with on Monday, plus some background readings. Hofstadter’s original essay is long and a bit dated, but I’ve included it. I will explain a little bit more about the paranoid political style to open our meeting.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is the “paranoid style” in American politics? Is it a theory of politics, sociology, or psychology?
  2. Critiques of it, then and now?
  3. Is the paranoid style in vogue now? Who uses it? Who is it used on and why are they vulnerable?
  4. Causes: Why is this happening? Traumatic events? Economic stress? Changes in news media or political institutions? Growing fear of national decline? Racism/xenophobia?
  5. Fixes: What would calm public anxiety? Fixing our big social problems? Reducing immigration? Tax cuts?
  6. Future: Is any resurgence in paranoid style politics just temporary? Will it survive Trump’s presidency?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

The “paranoid style” and its critics –

 

Return of the Paranoid Style –

Future of the Paranoid Style –

NEXT WEEK: Is there a “Third Way” between capitalism and socialism?

Monday’s Mtg: Lessons of the Vietnam War.

Fifty years ago 485,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam, and in November, 1967, alone almost 500 died there (sources 1 2). Since 1968 began our long, cruel exit from that place, we will be inundated with anniversaries over the next few years. Also, many of us saw at least some of the 15-part Ken Burns’ PBS series on the war that ran last month. I thought it would be a good time to discuss an age-old topic: What should we have learned from the Vietnam War, and did we learn it?

Candidates for lesson-hood are many. Off the top of my head, possible ones include (in no particular order ideological or otherwise) the following.

  • Don’t take over other countries civil wars.
  • Distinguish vital national interests from peripheral ones – and be willing to live with the consequence.
  • Don’t abandon an ally after you spend a decade fighting the enemy to a standstill (Congress cut off military aid in 1973).
  • Cutting losses beats compounding them forever just to preserve “America credibility.”
  • Counter-insurgency is a different kind of warfare – and easy to lose.
  • Carpet bombing cities cannot break an enemy’s will.
  • Americans can be as brutal in war as anybody else.
  • Don’t assume all U.S. adversaries worldwide are united against us (USSR/China/N. Vietnam; Al Qaeda/ISIS/Hezbollah).
  • Anti-war protests can – or cannot – stop a war.
  • Protests rarely are popular, especially if the most anti-American elements get out in front.
  • Military power alone can’t win wars.
  • U.S. wars require broad public support or at least “silent majority’s acquiescence.
  • Poor Americans shouldn’t bear all the burden of the fighting.
  • Huge wars cause huge refugee flows and we need to have a plan.
  • The government sometimes tell big, whopping lies.
  • The Best and the Brightest often are neither.
  • Domino theories are stupid. Or: Sometimes they come true.
  • The USA is an imperialist power. Or: No, the Left just thinks we are.
  • Journalists reporting war’s ugly details saps public support.
  • We shouldn’t let our troops fight with “one hand tied behind their backs.”
  • Americans hate to lose so much we create myths when it happens (like one hand behind or stab in the back).

I could list these all night. You probably can, too, since most of us in Civilized Conversation were alive and/or adults during the Vietnam War era and several of us were there. I doubt you need much background material, either. Here are a few timelines and summaries of the conflict, along with some “lessons learned/unlearned” retrospectives. I’m egregiously adding a few readings on the parallels between Vietnam and the wars on terror, Iraq, etc.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Understanding the Prosperity Gospel.

Monday’s Mtg: What is the legacy of the 1980s?

If you can remember the decade you weren’t there.  Wait, that’s the 1960s. Anyway, we did a meeting on the 1960s (pre-blog) and on the 1970s, too. They were pretty good ones, I thought, even though admittedly it is a little arbitrary to consider ten year periods as distinct epochs, especially ones with first and last years ending with zeros.

Still, most CivCon members were alive in the 1980s. Where were you? What do you recall as significant about the 80s? Did the events and trends you thought were important then still seem that way now? If you were not an adult in the 1980s, what did you learn about it and how? What’s the consensus on what came out of that decade?

Below are the usual ABC-level discussion questions,  and links to timelines of events to refresh your memories and to some commentary on a few of the big things that happened or trended in the 80s.  I will start Monday’s mtg with a “Where were you” question for the group and we can go from there.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Where were you? How did you experience the 1980s? How did the perch you viewed it from affect your perspective?
  2. Major events of the 1980s: USA + abroad? Which ones were foundational from today’s perspective and which were ephemeral?
  3. Major changes in U.S. culture and people’s lives, same questions?
  4. Looking backwards: How inevitable was what happened? What about the 1980s could (should?) have gone differently?
  5. 30 years from now? What might we infer from our 1980s vs. now assessment about how history develops and how well we can predict what things today will have lasting significance?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Is it hard to be a man these days?

Monday’s Mtg: Does history have a direction or purpose?

I think this will be a really fun topic. We love our history in CivCon. Yet, this one asks a bit more of us than usual. Determining what “history” is and how and why it moves the way it does can get very complicated very fast. An entire subfield of philosophy is devoted doing so. It’s called the Philosophy of History, and some of the giants have wrestled with its questions, including Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Vico, and Foucault.

But, those links are more FYI. For our purposes, I think just asking some of the basic, big questions about history would be a good way to start our discussion. It also might guarantee we go a bit deeper than History Channel-level generalizations about what history’s direction or purposes might be.

Now, many religious people, obviously, claim history has a divine purpose and/or end-point. YMMV. But, secular people also like to believe that history is governed by comprehensible rules and mechanisms. Some of the philosophers and historians have even seen predictable cycles and scientific laws in history. We can talk about those, too.

If I can find the time this weekend I will work up a short opening presentation on some of this stuff. Try to peruse some of the recommended readings or at least briefly ponder questions like these, please.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What: What is “history?” Just facts and events? Which events and whose facts? Does history contain a central narrative, or do we make one up? Is history more myth and rationalization than science?
  2. Why: How can historical cause and effect be determined and combined into mechanisms? How complicated is contingency? Can we detect an overall narrative or meaning to history that isn’t just self-reflection?
  3. Who: Who/what drives history? Role of big, impersonal forces (e.g., economics, science/technology, war, cultural interaction) versus individual agency and chance?
  4. Direction:/purpose
    1. Is there a natural direction to history? Are we “progressing?”
    2. Does history repeat or move in cycles?
    3. Does biology or some other natural force provide us a purpose?
  5. Lessons: Types of lessons from history and their use/misuse.
  6. Examples: What is your favorite and least favorite Law of History / theory of history’s purpose/direction?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Can California resist Trump’s agenda?

Monday’s Mtg: What does the United States stand for?

[Update Saturday:  See above for Ali’s suggested readings for this topic.]

[DavidG’s original post follows]

Ali had this great topic idea for the day before Independence Day. At least I think it’s great. It seems to me like fundamental and long-standing notions of what America stands for are up for grabs.  A lot of it is Trump’s election, sure. But I think it goes much deeper than just him.

 

We just seem to be re-litigating bedrock principles these days. Should the United States remain a world leader and provider of expensive global public goods? Does the 20th century American social contract need to be junked or expanded? Are we still a nation of immigrants? Arguably, even very basic aspects of our democracy are in doubt, like voting rights and federalism.  I guess the exact meanings of even basic principles are always in flux in a modern democracy like ours.  Still, something sure seems different to me.

Luckily for all concerned, I have no time this weekend to over-think this topic, so I won’t give much of any opening presentation.  Instead, I will give Ali first crack at opining.  So we don’t just have everybody pontificating all night on their broad (uselessly vague?) vision of America, I will step in from time to time during the discussion to bring up specific points for us to debate.  Happy 241st birthday to us.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

 

NEXT WEEK: Is technology ruining our…attention spans?

Monday’s Mtg: What Should Americans Be Nostalgic For?

Candidate Donald Trump’s explicit appeal to nostalgia, to “make America great again,” was one of the keys to his victory. We never “win” anymore and he alone (!) knew how to return us to our former greatness. It would be essay to do, actually, since the only thing keeping us from a restoring this glorious past was weak leaders. Political sophisticates laughed it all off, confident that, like other populists, he was just telling folks what they wanted to hear, that the best of a gauzily-recollected past could be easily restored through force of will.

Who’s laughing now?  More specifically for Monday’s meeting, what did President Trump mean about making “us” “great” “again?” What did the voters that responded to it hear? Why are so many Americans so nostalgic suddenly and why? A sea of ink has been spilled already trying to answer those questions, so I thought we should take our best shot.

I imagine our main focus will be trying to understand why and how Trump marshalled a vague nostalgia and those beliefs’ ongoing role in our current political crisis.  But, I think a close look at the phenomenon could be enlightening in other capacities.  The study of nostalgia appears to be its own little sub-field in social science these days. According to Professor Google, experts believe that feeling nostalgic about the past (whether a real or imagined past) is common.  It’s normal and even healthy. Every generation pines for the good old days.  Even these kids today, with the hair and the clothes and the Mary Jane.

But, a lot of people have commented on the dark undertone of today’s highly-politicized nostalgia. Trump’s vision of an American Carnage is of a glorious past betrayed by domestic traitors and rapacious foreigners.  It’s zero-sum and divisive, authoritarian, and pretty much unobtainable the way he promised it.  Still, in my opinion voters’ desire to go back to happier times should not be haughtily dismissed as only a desire for restored White supremacy or U.S. hyper-dominance and imperialism.  I think we could have a great discussion on many aspects of this topic, not just the worst ones.  Maybe using these questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is nostalgia? Are there different kinds of it or motives for it? What psychological and sociological functions does it perform?
  2. Are Americans really more nostalgic than usual these days? Why? Who is the most/least nostalgic and what does that tell us?
  3. What specifically do (some) people want back? (e.g., personal/physical security? Economic opportunity/independence? Societal respect? Societal morality or hierarchy? Racial, ethnic, or gender privilege? National prestige/domination?)
  4. Who and what do they blame?
  5. How did nostalgia get weaponized for our current political era?
  6. Can politics really restore any of these things? What do people want our leaders to do?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Sanctuary cities.

Monday’s Mtg: Lessons of the Six Day War, 50 years later

It started on June 5, 1967, and was all over by June 10. In response to Egyptian military mobilization and naval blockade, Israel’s air force attacked Egypt pre-emptively. Syria and then Jordan joined in, backed by other Arab countries, and Israeli ground forces fought and won on three fronts. An armistice (not peace) was signed on June 11.

As you know, the Six Day War transformed the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. To quote a 50th anniversary NYT retrospective the war “tripled Israel’s landmass overnight and gave it dominion over the lives of more than a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” It also gave Israel control of the Sinai desert and Golan Heights, killed off pan-Arabism, and set the stage for five more decades of war and strife.  Just for starters.

I don’t really have an agenda on this one. I know there is a lot of historical controversy concerning a number of revisionist histories of the Six Day War and its immediate aftermath. I just don’t follow these issues closely enough – nor do I have the time – to link to all of the major POVs and arguments. I just thought it would be interesting to try to take a half-century perspective on the war’s legacy. Perhaps some of you are well-versed in this particular era.

Here is some general background on the Six Day War and a few retrospectives.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  What should Americans be nostalgic about?