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On this day, the first of February, in 1934, the New York Times carried Franklin Roosevelt’s proclamation of a new gold value for the US dollar. Previously it had been worth 25 8/10 ounces of gold 9/10 fine; now it would be worth 15 5/21 ounces of gold 9/10 fine—or, as it is more commonly said, the dollar had been valued at $20.67 to an ounce of pure gold and now it would be $35 to an ounce of pure gold. But the US was not in 1934, nor would it ever again be, on a gold standard.
Hillary Clinton is taking flak today for her summary repetition of the white supremacist Dunning School of historical interpretation, which held that the attempt in the 1860s and 1870s to provide African Americans with their civil rights was a terrible imposition on the white folks of the South.
[Lincoln] was willing to reconcile and forgive. And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.
But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.… let’s also think about how we do try to summon up those better angels, and to treat each other, even when we disagree, fundamentally disagree, treat each other with more respect, and agree to disagree more civilly, and try to be inspired by, I think, the greatest of our presidents.
I’ll leave critiques of the Dunning School in other hands because I think they’re obvious, sadly, and Clinton should really know better. I’ll even forgo detail on the obvious point that if you’re a modern Democratic presidential aspirant asked who’s the greatest of the US presidents, your answer is Franklin Roosevelt.1 Instead I want to focus on Clinton’s counterfactual: “had [Lincoln] not been murdered”. Read the rest of this entry »
In the current Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal Michael W. Clune1 writes about odd small episodes, “particularly ephemeral perceptual experiences” we have that may alert us to the gap between how things seem and what they are. Riffing on Rei Terada’s Looking Away, he lists mirages, after-images; “clouds taken for mountains … looking at a landscape with one’s eyes half-closed so that it appears underwater.” He notes that we have nothing to say to each other about these experiences even if we share them, but that they remain with us. They remind us that if we pay too much attention to the mechanism by which we draw meaning from appearance we attenuate that meaning. One of Clune’s examples is an imaginary exchange with a sales clerk about money.
A year from today, the US will inaugurate a new president. But inauguration day has not always been thus fixed.
In the early years of the Republic, habit (rather than statute) placed the date of inauguration at March 4—though even that convention was not quite firm. In 1821, with the incumbent President James Monroe about to take the oath of office for his second term, March 4 fell on a Sunday. Monroe asked of Chief Justice John Marshall whether he could take the oath on the following day, rather than sully the Lord’s day with secular business.
I dislike the term “Great Recession” to describe our times, for technical and political reasons alike. Technically, the severe recession ended in June 2009. But, as the NBER says there,
In determining that a trough occurred in June 2009, the committee did not conclude that economic conditions since that month have been favorable or that the economy has returned to operating at normal capacity.
And indeed it still hasn’t, six and a half years after the recession ended. In fact, as Kevin O’Rourke noted, in August of 2015
the inevitable happened: measured in terms of industrial output, our current recovery was overtaken by that of the interwar period. Pretty dismal stuff.
So now, having avoided quite so severe a contraction as the 1930s, we are suffering a less impressive recovery. What do we call this ongoing period?
“Malaise” is taken, and rather ruined, by Carter-related discourse. I’ve lately been suggesting “the great economic unpleasantness” but without, I confess, really expecting it to catch on. Krugman’s old “Lesser Depression” is looking depressingly correct.
Peter Hitchens is less well known in the United States than his late brother, but when asked to write for the New York Times, he delivers his Mail columnist goods, full-strength. Regarding Robert Tombs’s English and their History:
Even in free countries it is sometimes necessary to alter the past to suit the present. For instance, I recall the day at my English boarding school in the early 1960s when our sober, patriotic old history books were gathered up and carted away to a storeroom. In their place we were handed bright, optimistic replacements, with a good deal less to say about the empire, the Protestant martyrs or what we had been taught without embarrassment to call the Glorious Revolution.… Older English people look back fondly on 1940, when we supposedly stood alone. In fact we were a major industrial and exporting power with a global navy, more or less self- sufficient, nationally cohesive and bolstered by the tribute of a still-great empire. Now all of that is gone. Is it possible that, after a thousand astonishing years, our island story has finally come to a full stop? Will the next great history of our nation and people be written in Chinese?
Now that George MacDonald Fraser has died, the sources for such views of the empire and its history seem fewer each day.
In The New Republic, Jeet Heer says that Donald Trump is not a populist, he’s “the voice of aggrieved privilege—of those who already are doing well but feel threatened by social change from below, whether in the form of Hispanic immigrants or uppity women.” Or the voice of the white American man enraged at the possibility he might lose his ill-gotten privilege. Heer doesn’t use the f-word, but it’s the elephant in the room.
For the alleged misunderstanding of Trumpism as “populism,” Heer blames the historian Richard Hofstadter, who in the middle 1950s explained he was interested in “that side of Populism” that sounded to Hofstadter a lot like McCarthyism. Hofstadter was right: there was a side of Populism, and not a trivial side, that sounded like McCarthyism—and Trumpism too. Read the rest of this entry »
Ronald Reagan in “A Time for Choosing,” the Gipper’s speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964:
Welfare spending [is] 10 times greater than in the dark depths of the Depression. We’re spending 45 billion dollars on welfare. Now do a little arithmetic, and you’ll find that if we divided the 45 billion dollars up equally among those 9 million poor families, we’d be able to give each family 4,600 dollars a year. And this added to their present income should eliminate poverty.
David Brooks in the New York Times, regarding the case of Freddie Gray in 2015:
The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.
Annie Lowery points out why Brooks’s argument is numerically bogus: just as conservatives don’t count millions of government employees as employed in 1930s, Brooks doesn’t count federal money as money in the 2010s:
Brooks is claiming that federal spending on anti-poverty programs is not lifting families out of poverty… when the government specifically does not include the value of those very programs in its poverty calculations.… A fuller accounting shows that food stamps alone lift 4 million people above the poverty line. The earned-income tax credit lifts nearly 6 million above it. Which is to say that “not bringing down the official poverty rate” is not a good yardstick by which to judge these programs.
But I would like to take David Brooks up on his suggestion: with the absolute same degree of sincerity as 1964-era Reagan, he’s supporting a straight-up transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. It is a radical solution to poverty, this long-standing Republican proposal, but perhaps one that we should consider.
With Abenesia in the news, I thought it might be useful to talk about another Axis nation’s complicated struggle with the memory of the Second World War. Jennifer Teege found out, at the age of 38, that not only was her grandfather a Nazi, he was an especially infamous Nazi: Amon Goeth, the commandant of Płaszów concentration camp, the man played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. On trial after the war, Goeth sneered at the witnesses against him, “What? So many Jews? And we were always told there’d be none left.” He gave a Hitler salute on the gallows.
Hence the title of Teege’s memoir: she has an African father, and a Nazi grandfather who would have regarded as subhuman a person of African descent. The book is a great deal subtler than the title suggests. It is saturated in memory, and forgetting, and the fault lines between memory and history run throughout it. Teege describes her attempt to reconcile what she learns about her grandfather with the kind – but, she now knows, complicit – grandmother she remembers. The book presents Teege’s reminiscence and necessarily somewhat therapeutic work alongside the sober, reportorial voice of Nikola Sellmair, whose dry factual rendering of verifiable history often undermines Teege’s hopeful, emotional writing.
There are different kinds of memory in the book. Teege’s adoptive German family had a more usual relationship to the Nazi era – her father didn’t really know the extent to which his family had taken part in Nazi crimes. Sellmair discusses such modern Germans, summarizing Harald Welzer’s study “Grandpa Wasn’t a Nazi.” Latter day Germans seize on any opportunity to construct a guiltless, even noble past for their forebears – as with the French, they were all in the resistance.
Teege’s brief narrative also encompasses also the memory kept by Holocaust survivors and their descendants: before Teege found out about her grandfather, she traveled to Tel Aviv, made friends there, and lived there. Her discovery imposes silence between her and her Jewish friends. She doesn’t know what she can say. Her grandfather might have shot their grandparents.
“There is no Nazi gene,” Teege insists, struggling against the idea that she must bear some guilt for her grandfather. But she clearly feels that guilt. We all inhabit the world the bloodthirstiest conquerors made; only some of us grew up with them, personally.
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In the TLS for 17 April, you can find my essay on Nicholas Wapshott’s The Sphinx, about the presidential election of 1940, the isolationists, and how Franklin Roosevelt engineered the US shift toward war. The essay starts like this:
Franklin Roosevelt recognized the threat Adolf Hitler posed from the moment of the German Chancellor’s appointment. In January of 1933, Roosevelt—not yet inaugurated, though already elected, President—told an aide that Hitler’s ascent was “a portent of evil”, not just for Europe but “for the United States”. He “would in the end challenge us because his black sorcery appealed to the worst in men; it supported their hates and ridiculed their tolerances; and it could not exist permanently in the same world with a system whose reliance on reason and justice was fundamental:. From then onward, Roosevelt’s policies raced Hitler’s: the New Deal was not merely a programme for recovery from depression, but one to rebuild economic strength while preserving democracy in the United States so the nation would be ready to fight Nazism when the time came.
The New Deal gave Americans not only the material capacity to fight fascism, but faith in American institutions. Which is why, of course, the prevalence of remarks like this one remains so appalling.
If you’re interested, Slate just posted an excerpt from a chapter — on Appomattox and memory — from Battle Lines, the graphic history of the Civil War I’ve written with Jonathan Fetter-Vorm.
Perhaps my favorite story of the Civil War comes from Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, which took place 150 years ago today. Here’s an excerpt, below the fold, from a piece I wrote last year about that episode.
Leonard Nimoy’s Spock made the most powerful case for the value of emotional intelligence* that I’ve ever seen. I’m also pretty sure that the Roanoke episode of “In Search Of…” made me the historian I am today. And, more important still, his life offscreen suggested that personal decency can far outstrip fame. RIP to a wonderful entertainer and a better person.
I’d like to think that he wouldn’t want this forgotten:
And here’s Nimoy on Roanoke:
Also, as commenter Kevin points out, Nimoy was good for the Jews:
* Yeah, it’s not a great phrase, but there it is.
As this article makes clear, I’m a plucky outsider who beat long odds!
Nothing brings me more joy than Edgar Allan Poe’s obituary.
I don’t know enough to know for sure, but this looks like potentially big news. Relatedly, I don’t know where I was when the Challenger blew up, but I do have a flashbulb memory from when I learned that Magic Johnson had HIV.
Possibly the right response to Gordon Wood’s “History in Context” in The Weekly Standard – a “get off my lawn essay,” as one historian says – is parody. After all Wood does begin the essay by saying his mentor Bernard Bailyn is woefully under-appreciated, and then proceeds to mention that Bailyn has two Pulitzers.1 What else can one do but mock?
Well, one can take Wood earnestly, as is one’s wont, and ask, what happened to the younger Gordon Wood? How would he fare before the stern tribunal of Weekly Standard Wood?
I ask because Wood the elder expresses dissatisfaction with those historians “obsessed with inequality,” who
see themselves as moral critics obligated to denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present. They criticize Bailyn’s work for being too exquisitely attuned “to the temper of an earlier time” and, thus, for failing “to address the dilemmas of its own day.”…
These historians need to read and absorb Bailyn’s essay on “Context in History,” published in this collection for the first time. Perhaps then they would be less eager to judge the past by the values of the present and less keen to use history to solve our present problems. In some sense, of course, they are not really interested in the past as the past at all.
But, as another Bailyn student pointed out to me, Wood was not always so scornful of judging and using the past for present purposes, nor so principled about letting the past be past. Consider this important passage from Wood’s remarkable first book, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787:
Considering the Federalist desire for a high-toned government filled with better sorts of people, there is something decidedly disingenuous about the democratic radicalism of their arguments.… In effect they appropriated and exploited the language that more rightfully belonged to their opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics between ideology and motives that never again closed. By using the most popular and democratic rhetoric available to explain and justify their aristocratic system, the Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which differing ideas of politics would be intimately and genuinely related to differing social interests.… and thereby contributed to the creation of that encompassing liberal tradition which has mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics.… the Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics.
Listen to what Wood the younger is saying, here: “disingenuous” surely sounds morally critical, as does “appropriated and exploited.”
Talking about what might “never again” be, and even about “the future” certainly doesn’t sound like thinking about “the past as the past.”
And bringing up “differing social interests” and “real social antagonisms” sounds like it might entail concern about, if not obsession with, inequality.
Perhaps Wood the younger would have to get off Wood the elder’s lawn.
I am actually more interested in what Wood the younger would say to his older self, concerned as he was with arguments that foreclosed discussion of genuine social antagonism. I have never really found persuasive Wood the younger’s argument that 1787 marked some kind of end-of-Eden, after which honest political discourse was never again possible in the United States. Rather, I think the Federalists’ disingenuous behavior has constantly to be emulated and that initial foreclosure reenacted to keep differing social interests unexpressed.
1A feat rarely matched, and then only by the likes of another giant among colonial historians, Alan Taylor.