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This Saturday I’m appearing on a panel at the Organization of American Historians’ Annual Meeting in New York, with Dorothy Sue Cobble, Thomas Edsall, Michael Kazin, and Todd Gitlin, on “Does Liberalism Have a Useable Past?” First of all, if they’d asked me, I would have told them they should spell “usable” correctly. Second, I thought for my remarks I would draw on the below, which I originally wrote as a letter to the editor for Eric Alterman’s Altercation back in 2005:


Since we’re all writing about liberalism, here is a capsule history, written off the top of my head, that I hope might help.

1. Where did American liberalism come from? American liberalism, as we knew it in the twentieth century, developed from the wide acceptance of an observation that capitalism, while wonderfully creative, does not regulate itself satisfactorily. Neat theories notwithstanding, capitalist economies, left to themselves, quite often idle at equilibria that a substantial minority, if not a majority, of citizens find unpleasant or even unendurable. (People afflicted with scruples often find such equilibria unjust.) Let’s call this the Original Observation.

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I re-read Another Country this weekend — what a great book, by the way — and then decided to see if Baldwin was alive and well and living in YouTube.

On this day in 1933, William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, testified to a joint session of the Senate and House Labor Committees that he opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s proposed unemployment law as “smacking of fascism, Hitlerism and in some respects of sovietism”. This objection, from a prominent union leader, gives us a sense of how the New Deal was done: in ongoing negotiations among various groups, each looking out for its own.

The plan to which Green objected would become the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal’s first real effort at relieving joblessness (more on it in a few days). It was not a broad-gauged relief measure; it aimed specifically to solve the problem of unemployed young men—young men who might otherwise go out on the road to relieve their families of the burden of supporting them, who might become freight-hopping transients, criminals, a class of the lost.

Instead, if they enrolled in CCC, the federal government would give them a job preserving the nation’s forests, housing and clothing them in work camps out near said forests, paying their wages to their families, keeping them tied to their parents—hence AFL president Green’s objection to “regimentation”. But also, of course, he disliked the plan because “Won’t these men, therefore, be in competition with free labor in many places?”

On the very same day, in another part of the country, the Republican politician William A. Prendergast praised his party for backing the administration’s bank, budget, and beer bills, but said now Republicans should stop supporting Roosevelt. “[N]ow … we approach another period, a period of legislation that is not really emergency legislation,” he warned.

The union leader and the Republican had much in common: they worried that the New Deal might, in the name of addressing the crisis, erode the foundations of the interests they represented. They didn’t know quite what the Democrats were up to and they didn’t trust the administration to limit itself.

Nor do we, in retrospect, know that they should have. Roosevelt might well have used broader discretionary powers if he had been able to get them. As it was, the New Deal was always just what its name implied: a constant re-negotiation of the relationship of government to economy, with Roosevelt, the Democratic Congress, the Republican opposition, the courts, and various interest groups fighting their own corners of a polygonal arena. The many-sided opposition shaped the New Deal as much or more than Roosevelt’s own intentions.

When the voters put Roosevelt back in office by such an overwhelming margin in 1936, they almost certainly thereby expressed not (or not just) confidence in Roosevelt personally, but a willingness that this process of negotiation, of push and push-back, should continue. It was giving American liberalism a robust and lasting set of institutions.


“Job Bill ‘Fascism’ Alleged by Green.” NYT 3/25/1933, p. 4.

“Would Curb Roosevelt.” NYT 3/25/1933, p. 5.

Statewide initiative (prop. 98) would bar rent control in trailer parks; culture clashes for South Asian immigrants (pull-out table shows Californians of South Asian ethnicities [East Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi] from 30-34% likely to have BA as against 17.1% for average Californian; would have been better to show as against average non-South Asian Californian, right?); rising health care costs have cut real wages even without a recession.

Lifestyle corner is “Doonesbury” vacation.

PZ Myers tells perhaps the best story of creationist lunacy since Inherit the Wind.

Via Blacktriangle.

Via Becks.

[Update: See also B’s well-researched post on peeps dioramas.]

Eric Foner reviews two new books on the understudied (not anymore, it seems) Colfax Massacre and the end of Reconstruction: Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died and LeAnna Keith’s The Colfax Massacre. And he likes both. Whereas I, having just started The Day Freedom Died (I didn’t even know The Colfax Massacre existed), can’t yet offer much insight into their quality. I can, though, say these books come hot enough on the heels of Nick Lemann’s Redemption (reviewed by me here, if you care) to suggest a trend: historians and journalists increasingly are blaming the failure of Reconstruction on white supremacists, as opposed to, say, the scandal-plagued Grant administration or the freed people themselves. This is, I think, very welcome news (more below). But I’m still not sure Foner’s right about this:

The work of historians, however, has largely failed to penetrate popular consciousness. Partly because of the persistence of old misconceptions, Reconstruction remains widely misunderstood. Popular views still owe more to such films as “Birth of a Nation” (which glorified the Klan as the savior of white civilization) and “Gone With the Wind” (which romanticized slavery and the Confederacy) than to modern scholarship.

I agree that “Reconstruction remains widely misunderstood.” But I think that, for people under the age of, um, let’s say, just for the sake of convenience, forty-five, Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation very likely aren’t the reason why. To be fair, though, it may be that Foner is suggesting that the odious view of history evinced by those films lingers, even though the movies themselves may no longer be popular. And if that’s the case, my response would be: sure, that’s likely true enough. But I’d probably follow up by suggesting that if you asked most people about Reconstruction, they’d have no idea where to find it on a map. Ignorance, in other words, is a more important reason that people misunderstand Reconstruction — have no idea what it was, in other words — than familiarity with films that are now three-quarters of a century old or more. Add to that, I suppose, popular distrust of government, fostered by The Club for Growth and its allies, and also the fact that Reconstruction gets overshadowed in most lesson plans by the war itself.

All of which is to say: the more books that detail the bad acts of white supremacists, complicating American notions of terrorism, the better. Still, I remain skeptical that the cultural artifacts that shape my understanding of the way the past used to be understood collectively, or Foner’s understanding of the same issue, now have much impact on popular perceptions of history. Put another way: does anybody, excluding PhD candidates in history or related disciplines, still watch Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation? And, more important, do those films still have cultural weight?

On this day in 1788, a huge fire, fanned by wind coming off the Mississippi River, consumed most of the structures in New Orleans. Exactly how the fire started remains a mystery. (It would have been a long commute for Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.) We do, though, know that New Orleans, like most cities at the time, had almost no firefighting apparatus. So the results were predictable: the city’s French-era architecture, including the original Cabildo, was reduced to ashes. The Customs House and the Ursuline Convent were among the very few major buildings to survive the blaze.

New Orleans’s Spanish authorities would rebuild, replacing wooden structures with brick buildings, often constructed around airy courtyards, and ornamented with elaborate wrought-iron balconies: the misnamed French Quarter’s signature architectural style. In sum, as with previous disasters and many that would strike the city later in its history, New Orleans emerged from the catastrophe better than ever.

I’ve been doing a lot of navel-gazing* this week about blogging. In part, because I had jury duty, which kept me away from my computer and the blog. But also because I’ve been getting hate mail — about recent posts — for the first time. No, I don’t need sympathy. It’s just that the notes have made me think about what it means to have a blog. So I hope you’ll forgive (or ignore) a post that’s absurdly meta.

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Has anybody else noticed the raft of stories and posts (most notably here and here, but also here and here, as well as, take my word for it, many other places) all saying pretty much the same thing: Clinton can’t win. Or, more accurately, she can’t win unless the superdelegates choose, come summer, to spurn Obama despite the fact that he’ll have the lead in pledged delegates and almost certainly also in the popular vote.

So what gives? That’s a serious question, by the way. Is it that re-running the Michigan and Florida primaries now seems like a long shot? Is it that Obama weathered L’affaire Wright? And he may even have transfigured that tedium into a triumph by giving a great speech on race? (Speaking of which, imagine that Kerry, in the summer of 2004, had delivered a thoughtful and direct speech about his Vietnam service. He’d just be coming to the end of his first term now, right?) Is it that the Clinton campaign increasingly seems to be composed of what, in a post I’ll try to put up later tonight, I’ll call D.W. Griffith Democrats? Is it that Bill Richardson endorsed Obama, effectively ending the Wright news cycle? Is it that the press finally grew tired of a horserace that wasn’t really much of a race? Or did everyone suddenly learn to add? Honestly, I don’t understand it. What do you think?

[Update: Here’s Ygelsias again. And now Ezra Klein’s offering his two cents. Also, I just noticed that Nick Beaudrot, one of my personal faves, is getting in on the act.]

Here’s a book reviewer I quite like, Scott McLemee, reviewing a writer I quite like, Lou Masur (who is also an editor I quite like). When a reviewer I like takes on a writer I like, it’s a bit like Batman v. Superman, or Stanford v. Cornell; I hate to see either side scoring too many points. Putting my sensitivities aside: both the reviewing and the reviewed texts meditate on this picture.

The history encapsulated in that photo may well be the reason Obama won’t win the primary in Pennsylvania. It’s probably also the reason for this:

Overall, 20% of white Democratic voters say they would vote for McCain if Obama is the Democratic nominee. That is twice the percentage of white Democrats who say they would support McCain in a Clinton-McCain matchup. Older Democrats (ages 65 and older), lower-income and less educated Democrats also would support McCain at higher levels if Obama rather than Clinton is the party’s nominee.

Which doesn’t, in that poll or others, mean Obama would lose—that poll shows him winning (and take all such polls with grains of salt; many things could happen between now and November). But it does suggest he would win with a different mix of votes than Clinton. In choosing a nominee, primary voters and convention delegates are choosing between different historical and future versions of the Democratic party, in which different mixes of people identify as Democrats, going forward.

And as with all Batman v. Superman matchups, the question is inevitably, which one is more powerful? Why?

Local Ford dealer to stop being one, AIDS vaccine trials halted: “‘This is on the same level of catastrophe as the Challenger disaster'”; floods in the Midwest.

Lifestyle corner is March Madness (Cardinal over Carnelian, 77-53).

Lower right of front page refers to Sacramento featuring in the Brookings study, Twenty-First Century Gateways, on the increase of immigrants to formerly white-bread American towns: “fewer McDonald’s and Wienerschnitzel eateries.”

On this day in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book, which already had been serialized in an abolitionist newspaper, made an immediate splash, selling out its initial print run and capturing international attention. Just a year later, readers had purchased more than 300,000 copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, vaulting it toward its destiny as the nineteenth century’s most widely read work of fiction.

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I’m off to do my duty as a citizen of Yolo County. While I’m gone, have a good day. And remember to be nice to Eric. Or he’ll euthanize the blog.

This post by Robert Farley gets it exactly right. Boys don’t grow up knowing this stuff, they seek it out, or they get it in the classroom. Girls can too. Even after adulthood. There’s no shame in studying up on something you don’t know.

Farley’s further point that experience teaches pretty well too seems right also. If only there were a moral equivalent of war that would give people a low nonsense threshold for policy matters. Or at least a course. Why, perhaps economists could take it, maybe from economic historians.

Sources: UC hopes to hire Mark Yudof, UT chancellor, as system-wide president; Bush on Iraq war: “The world is better, and the United States of America is safer” (Photo is peace symbol made of luminarias at Sacramento’s Unitarian Universalist Society church).

Lifestyle corner is March Madness: “Stanford, USC, UCLA play today.” (Sports section hed on Stanford-Cornell game: “‘Battle of Nerds’ is waged today.” I’m hugely proud of my alma maters [or almae matres, if we want to continue the theme] for that description.)

And as long as I’m on the subject of granfalloons, there’s a Business section piece on UC Davis olive oil, now in its fourth vintage.

You might like Mitch Benn’s music; I certainly do. He performs satirical songs featuring catchy tunes and smart lyrics. One of my favorites is his reply to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I couldn’t find my other big favorite, “Call Me during Doctor Who and I’ll Kill You.” I’m also quite fond, at the right time of year, of “The True Meaning of Christmas.” (It’s “to eat until it hurts, then to drink until it don’t hurt anymore.”)

Here is his MySpace page, with music. Here is his homepage and the updated video version of “Happy Birthday War,” (which WordPress, hating us all, won’t embed, even with VodPod) and as brought to our attention by, uh, Mitch Benn.

So I just last night saw Disturbia on cable. Wouldn’t it have been better if the first two sequences—the one showing Kale with his father, and the one showing Kale punching his teacher—had been eliminated?

That way, you would begin with house arrest—you would not leave the near neighborhood of the house for the entire movie, thus increasing the sense of claustrophobia, and creating unity of time, place, and action.

Also, that way you would introduce doubt in the viewer’s mind as to Kale’s stability and his reliability as a p.o.v. character. As it is, your sympathy is locked in from the “fathers and sons” fly-fishing moment at the start. And so what’s probably the movie’s absolute best moment—when Kale tells Ashley what he’s noticed about her as he’s been spying on her—would have been even better, because the balance between creepy and sweet would not have been so obviously tipping toward sweet.

Yeah, I know, if I’m so smart how come I’m not rich.

Because of the faculty lounge, I’m now hip-deep in this Constitutional thicket:

Could Hillary Clinton pick Bill Clinton as her VP running mate? The 22nd Amendment says only that “no person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice” and bars any person who has served “more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President” from being elected President “more than once.” But Bill would be elected Vice President, not President, and should Hillary die or resign from office Bill would become President but could not be elected to the office. So, is Bill constitutionally eligible to be VP? If not, why not? And if Bill is eligible to be VP, does this constitutional lacuna bother anybody?

Not only does this interest me as a hypothetical — because, who, I ask you, doesn’t like a good Constitutional hypothetical? — but also because I’ve been arguing for months that as the economy gets worse, the Clinton brand becomes more and more valuable. Add Bill to the ticket and you’ve got electoral gold. Or maybe not.

I.

Late in the evening of this day in 2003, President George W. Bush announced “the opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign” whose purpose was “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and defend the world from grave danger.” It might be hard slogging, he said: “A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict.”

II.

Not much after this day in 2007, Mitch Benn sang “Happy Birthday War.”

Of course, “war” rhymes with “four”; now he’ll have to rhyme something with “five.”

III.

The cost of the war has come to almost 4,000 dead American servicemen, 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians and maybe $527 bn in direct expenses. Or maybe more; Stiglitz and Bilmes put the cost in the trillions of dollars and there are other ways to measure civilian deaths which get that number much higher, too.

IV.

It is difficult to compare the current situation to any previous in our history. To recapitulate:

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This is officially an award-winning blog

HNN, Best group blog: "Witty and insightful, the Edge of the American West puts the group in group blog, with frequent contributions from an irreverent band.... Always entertaining, often enlightening, the blog features snazzy visuals—graphs, photos, videos—and zippy writing...."