Read All About It

Well, just look at the chart – this Great Recession, as many call it, is far worse than all modern American downturns. And this one’s different – the result of a financial industry collapse, not that it matters much when you’ve lost your job and then the house. That just makes it harder to fix, as you have to bail out the banks and fat cats and let all others wait. This makes many unhappy, and they look for a villain in all this. But if you want to explain it all by blaming it all on Obama and the give-everything-to-the-lazy-losers big spenders on the left, recently on Meet the Press Bill Clinton explained Obama’s dilemma well enough:

First of all, he became president just a few months after the financial crash. Now, keep in mind, even before the financial crash, in the eight years before the financial crash, we had almost no new jobs – only ten percent as many as we had when I was president. Real family income was lower than it was the day I left office. The economy was weak as could be. Then you had this financial crash. Historically these things take five years to get over…. The American people are not used to waiting five years for anything good to happen, but that’s what we’re facing. And if you want to speed it up, we got to do things in the government.

But that’s not the way we’re heading. The Republicans, firmly in control of the House, where all spending must originate, are dead set against spending one more dime on anything, and want to cut two to four trillion dollars of what we currently spend on everything from paper clips to the whole of the EPA, with its presumptuous mandate to keep the air marginally breathable and the nation’s water supply marginally clean. Who needs that? We’re too deep in debt already, and even if massive cuts means massive layoffs of government workers and those who supply goods and services to the federal government, that’s just the way it is. As John Boehner said earlier this year about the six hundred to eight hundred thousand jobs that are sure to be lost for each trillion dollars cut – So be it – and he hasn’t changed his mind since.

So this is the new reality. But everyone hears the arguments back and forth every day – borrow a bit more now and goose the economy and pay off the deficit when things improve – no, cut back all spending and live within our means, on only what tax revenues come in each week, as the economy always heals itself, and government always ruins things.

It grows tiresome. And it’s all theoretical – it’s macroeconomic theory. In real life everyone in every state sees the result of massive numbers of people out of work. With massive numbers of folks out of work no one is buying much of anything, so sales tax revenue falls off a cliff. And as people lose their homes and home prices are in the cellar, property tax revenue dries up. There’s no money coming in, so there’s no money for anything but the barebones functions of state and local government. Roads and bridges are not repaired. Cops and firemen and teachers get laid off. Parks close. And out here in Southern California this year, many Fourth of July fireworks shows were cancelled. There was no money for that.

And of course as you lay more people off because times are extraordinarily tough and there’s no tax revenue coming in, you assure that things will now get even worse, as you’ve just created new tens of thousands of folks who will spend nothing and will soon have no property to tax. Tax revenues will fall again. You cannot collect state income tax on people who have no income, after all. And now even lower tax revenues means that soon you’ll have to lay off even more people, which will assuredly make things even worse again. It’s a bit of a death spiral. And there may be no escape.

There are books about such things – Keynes and Adam Smith and perhaps Ayn Rand – but all across the nation public libraries are closing. Public libraries are the first things to go, as they seem to be from another age. The only book most people read these days is Facebook, and what passes for the intellectual elite these days read snippets of books on the net, or read just the book reviews on the net, or read about all the clever reviews of books – and then they argue with each other on blogs. Books, and certainly public libraries, have, like the Geneva Conventions regarding torture, become quaint.

Still, as mass information storage devices, not subject to content degradation from dropouts or being made useless by changes in storage formats, books are pretty cool. And they can be useful, and sometimes dangerous, or at least controversial. And the American Library Association would like you to remember this is Banned Books Week – yes that still happens, as Carolyn Kellogg explains in a brief note in the Los Angeles Times – that supernatural series for young adults, Twilight, and Harry Potter of course, and the award-wining picture book with the two same-sex penguins who raised an adopted chick together, and so on:

This year, the Sherlock Holmes mystery “A Study in Scarlet” was removed from a Virginia reading list for its portrayal of Mormonism. In 2010, Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak,” which deals with sexual abuse and rape, was targeted in Missouri for being “soft porn.” And Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” has been challenged for its language, explicit sexuality and racism – despite having won the National Book Award in 2007.

Other banned books come with literary pedigrees. James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” parts of which were published in the U.S. in The Little Review from 1918-1920, was banned in this country until a trial stemming from a 1933 import, in which a judge ruled it was not obscene. Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” published in France in 1934, spurred an obscenity lawsuit after it was finally published in the U.S. by Grove in 1961. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried in 1957 for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.”

This is silly stuff, but Kellogg wonders about Mein Kamp, and on that matter sites an essay for the Times in 2008 by David L. Ulin:

Banned Books Week offers up the sort of toothless, feel-good spectacle that makes us less likely to consider the actual ramifications of free expression. The basic message here is one of astonishment: Why would anyone ban books when literature is such a positive and ennobling force? Yet while I agree with that, I also believe that some books truly are dangerous, and to ignore that is simply disingenuous.

Lest this make me seem an apologist for the book banners, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I’m against restricting anything other than material that graphically portrays certain illegal acts. Yet it’s foolish, self-defeating even, to pretend that books are innocuous, that we don’t need to concern ourselves with what they say. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t really matter if we ban them, because we have already stripped them of their power.

But his point is that books do change things:

Just think of “Common Sense,” which lighted the fuse of the American Revolution, or “Mein Kampf,” which laid out the blueprint for Hitler’s Germany. These are very different books – one a work of hope and human decency, the other as venal a piece of writing as I’ve ever read – but what they have in common is a kind of historical imperative, the sense that, at the right place and time, a book can be a galvanizing factor, for good or ill.

“Mein Kampf” is a title you don’t hear a lot during Banned Books Week; the focus is more on classics such as “Song of Solomon” or “The Catcher in the Rye” that have been challenged in libraries and schools. That’s understandable, but again, it reduces the territory of censorship and free expression to something neatly clarified, rather than the ambiguous morass it is. What happens when our ideals require us to defend a piece of writing that is reprehensible, that stands against everything we stand for?

That’s a good question, and maybe it’s best that all our libraries are slowly closing, one by one. Books can mess up your carefully constructed notion of how things really are. Politicians don’t do that, nor do their advocates or detractors in the media. All that talk is about what you want to hear, and all of that is in turn reinforced by what you see on the web. Look at your bookmarks list. Everyone seeks to confirm what they know is true. It’s comforting. Libraries are not – or more precisely, most are quite comforting in their décor and quiet calm. It’s the books that are the problem.

A minor example might be the new book for Jim Newton, the Los Angele Times’ editor at large. It’s a biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower – Eisenhower: The White House Years – and it is what they call revisionist:

America’s thirty-fourth president was belittled by his critics as the babysitter-in-chief. This new look reveals how wrong they were. Dwight Eisenhower was bequeathed the atomic bomb and refused to use it. He ground down Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism until both became, as he said, “McCarthywasm.” He stimulated the economy to lift it from recession, built an interstate highway system, turned an $8 billion deficit in 1953 into a $500 million surplus in 1960. (Ike was the last President until Bill Clinton to leave his country in the black.)

The President Eisenhower of popular imagination is a benign figure, armed with a putter, a winning smile, and little else. The Eisenhower of veteran journalist Jim Newton’s rendering is shrewd, sentimental, and tempestuous. He mourned the death of his first son and doted on his grandchildren but could, one aide recalled, “peel the varnish off a desk” with his temper. Mocked as shallow and inarticulate, he was in fact a meticulous manager. Admired as a general, he was a champion of peace. In Korea and Vietnam, in Quemoy and Berlin, his generals urged him to wage nuclear war. Time and again he considered the idea and rejected it. And it was Eisenhower who appointed the liberal justices Earl Warren and William Brennan and who then called in the military to enforce desegregation in the schools.

The Republicans are not going to like this. And it’s also about a master of consensus politics – not something in vogue these days. But there are newly declassified documents, and rare interviews, newly discovered records. It’s not like it seemed. And not-what-it-seems is the realm of books, not out current discourse.

And that’s why the Times’ review of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation by Michael Kazin seems to have been assigned to Jim Newton. If you’re going to argue that the history of the American left is not a history of failure that argument should be assessed by someone from the world of not-what-it-seems, the book world.

And Newton points out the key highlights:

Michael Kazin tackles a conventional wisdom so deeply believed that even those it disparages tend to accept it – namely, that the history of the American left, for all its drama and artistry, brilliance and passion, is one of failure. It is, in that telling, a story of causes unfulfilled, elections lost, unions busted, communes dispersed. Kazin emerges with a counterpoint, not so much of hidden victories as of grand and enduring achievement, often carried to fruition by moderates but envisioned by the left and propelled by its energy.

Perhaps the left has always been important to America:

His narrative unearths the obscure contributions of Frances White, who urged her sexually integrated audiences to “turn your churches into halls of science,” and revisits the great works of Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the overlapping causes of abolition and women’s suffrage. He describes the union leaders and rivalries that defined the early 20th century left, and he pays homage to the counterculture of the 1960s, including the iconic Tom Hayden (“Mickey,” one colleague reports after meeting Hayden, “I’ve just seen the next Lenin.”).

Finally, he comes loping to an ambivalent conclusion in modern times, when radicals seek an outlet for their intellectual energy and fret over the moderation of America’s first black president. Indeed, every half-wit who accuses President Obama of being a socialist should read this book, if only to discover what real ones look like.

They look like this:

Eugene Debs, “the most popular messenger American socialism has ever known,” is described not only by his mission but his mannerisms, “stretching out his long arms as if to touch the crowds.” Ernestine Rose, a relatively obscure early feminist, fought for women’s right to own property and also invented an early deodorizer. And Kazin quotes Max Eastman’s unforgettable description of Bill Haywood, the towering figure of the International Workers of the World, forever known as the “Wobblies.” Haywood, according to Eastman, was “the arch-rebel, the one-eyed gigantic Satan … prepared to storm the fortress of Capitalism with a proletarian army as soon as he could get one together.”

But of course the left always self-destructs, as an historical fact:

To take just one example, the Wobblies are easy to romanticize – brawny field workers razzing capitalism – but Kazin characteristically resists. The IWW, he acknowledges, “was an organization of beautiful losers.” And no one has ever better captured the paradox of the Communist Party in America, which appealed to Americans only insofar as it was willing to distance itself from Marx, Lenin and Stalin and thus from its ideological roots. Kazin writes that to win followers at home, American communists “delayed and diluted their ultimate ends… Their success was also their failure.”

So we have what we have:

The left has never held power in the United States and thus can neither point to the accomplishments nor must answer for the atrocities of its compatriots elsewhere. And yet it is wrong, as Kazin demonstrates, to conclude from that that the left has been a failure. We are a freer and fairer country because of the work of abolitionists and suffragists, environmentalists and anarchists, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Some reached their goals; many more died trying. In some cases, the nation is lucky they failed.

The Kazin book will be published on October. The left is not a bunch of self-destructive losers? Read the commentary on left-leaning blogs. Even the left believes this. There’s all that disillusionment with Obama – ah, we blew it again with the wrong guy, as we always do. That’s what you hear. So perhaps it will be banned. No one can argue such things. On the other hand Banned Books Week end on October 1 – so banning it may have to wait until next year.

Still, Obama can now and then come through as he did recently in Cincinnati at a bridge connecting Ohio and Kentucky, while promoting the American Jobs Act:

Maybe some of the people in Congress would rather settle their differences at the ballot box than work together right now. In fact, a while back, [Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell] said that his “top priority” – Number One priority – was “to defeat the president.” That was his top priority. Not jobs, not putting people back to work, not rebuilding America. Beating me.

Well, I’ve got news for him and every other member of Congress who feels the same way. The next election is 14 months away, and I’ll be happy to tangle sometime down the road. But the American people right now don’t have the luxury of waiting to solve our problems for another 14 months. A lot of folks are living paycheck to paycheck. A lot of folks are just barely getting by. They need us to get to work right now. They need us to pass this bill.

Is the old left back, just a little bit? Obama wants these guys to admit that they intend to just kill time until the 2012 elections. That’s strong stuff. And consider Roy Blunt – the senator from Missouri:

Blunt said he has long believed that “the country is essentially in almost a holding pattern” until November 2012, when voters will have to decide what direction they want government policy to take. Until then, he said, “I’m not overwhelmingly optimistic” that Congress will be able to get much done.

That is not an admission, but it is close. Some things are unavoidable, and Steve Benen comments:

Voters will have to decide the nation’s direction. I can appreciate the underlying point – voters elected mainstream Democrats to lead the White House and Senate, and then elected right-wing Republicans to lead the House – but does anyone seriously believe the electorate wants and expects 14 months of dysfunction and inaction? By Blunt’s reasoning, any time an election cycle produces power-sharing between the parties, policymakers should simply stop working and wait for voters to pick one-party rule the next time.

But that’s ridiculous. In recent generations, there have been plenty of instances in which one party controlled one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the other party was in power at the other end. Indeed, in the modern era, this has been more common than the alternative. Somehow, policymakers were able to function, more or less, without decades of “holding patterns,” waiting for voters to break the tie.

Yep, there were the Eisenhower years, for example. And Benen adds this:

For that matter, public opinion can often be nuanced and complicated, but it’ not that inscrutable. We actually have a pretty good sense of what the American mainstream wants policymakers to do right now – polls show strong, bipartisan support for investing in infrastructure, preventing public-sector layoffs, and tax credits for new hires.

“Voters will have to decide what direction they want government policy to take”? We already know what direction they want government policy to take. So why wait in a “holding pattern” when there’s a bipartisan plan to address the nation’s most pressing needs sitting on the table, waiting for Congress to act?

If Americans aren’t satisfied with this, they’re going to have to say so.

But you see what’s going on here – people are stuck in how they think things work, and how they think the left or left-leaning is useless, That happens in the media echo chamber of course, where they idea is to make your core constituency comfortable, or your audience comfortable enough to stay tuned and sit through all the ads for gold coins and toilet paper. So the idea is let’s do nothing and see how things work out in fourteen months or so.

That’s not good enough. And you’d know that if you read books. On the other hand, all the libraries are closing. And could that be the plan? Who needs to ban books when no one can get to them?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Liberalism, The Angry Left, The Conservative-Liberal Divide, The Economy, The Problem with Democrats, The Uses of History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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