Archive for June, 2009

“A People’s History of the United States”

June 23, 2009

     Howard Zinn is one of my least favorite public intellectuals – one of those guys, like Noam Chomsky, whose entire philosophy seems to boil down to “America bad.” I was never keen to read his book, A People’s History of the United States, but I got a copy at a used book sale, out of masochism, I guess.

      Zinn professes to present the history you don’t get in schoolbooks. But it’s not a “history of the United States.” It’s mainly a history of societal division in the United States: black against white, Indian against white, poor against rich, workers against owners, women against men. And, of course, “imperialism.”

      Most is presented in a straightforward manner, but Zinn does make his own feelings very evident. Of course that’s his right; and many of the outrages he denounces were, indeed, outrages. But what he denounces, in the main, were people pursuing their self-interest and personal advantage at the expense of others. This Zinn seems to find inexplicably shocking: for example, that 19th century mill owners would deny workers generous wages, when they could get away with paying stingy wages. The book becomes kind of tedious in nattering on and on about “the privileges of a wealthy elite,” etc.

      Zinn’s overall attitude is evident in the way he discusses the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Zinn seems to feel those men really ought to have abolished slavery, given votes to blacks and women and the propertyless, and maybe even to have established an egalitarian socialist utopia where no one would be allowed to exploit economic advantages. That this wasn’t done Zinn considers more or less criminal.

      Our entire history, indeed, he considers more or less criminal, for which we should seemingly feel stained with guilt down to the hundredth generation.

      But it’s just silly for Zinn to write as though all society’s ills should have, or could have, been cured if only people had acted in self-denying ways he would approve. It takes struggle, and Zinn’s book is much about chronicling (indeed, glorifying) that struggle; but what is bizarrely missing is any sense of the results achieved. In Zinn’s mirror, America and its “system” now are just as rotten as ever. A Martian reading the book would infer that, despite all the struggle, no progress has occurred since colonial times. Where Zinn does acknowledge some seeming progress, he always immediately dismisses its significance. For example, he cannot avoid noting that women got the vote in 1920; but says it meant little because their votes reflected the same thinking as did men’s votes!

      I take away from all this a completely different lesson: America today is an incomparably better country than when it started (and it started incomparably better than any other – a perspective also absent from Zinn’s book). It is a country where people have indeed struggled to improve their own situation, and society; and a country wherein such struggles can succeed, and have succeeded, gloriously. That is the one big lesson of American history.

What to do about North Korea

June 11, 2009

     There isn’t an easy answer. Diplomacy has reached a dead end. The North Korean regime has proven that it treats this as a sucker’s game: milking bribes for agreements that it then flouts. After decades of this, North Korea still continues its nuclear weaponry development. And with North Korea heavily armed and possessing nuclear weapons, there really isn’t a military option, the risks and costs would be too forbidding. Meantime, within the country, a humanitarian nightmare continues.

     Actually, what the chief nations concerned want most is to preserve the status quo: including keeping North Korea’s regime in power. Why? Because if the regime implodes, there would be a huge mess to clean up, including a flood of starving refugees. South Korea in particular fears the cost of having to take over an impoverished, devastated north.

     But this is one of those situations that will have to get worse before it gets better.

     I believe the only path to an ultimately acceptable outcome is to bite the bullet of allowing the North Korean regime to fail. That is, stop negotiating, stop bribing, stop effectively propping up the regime, and quarantining the country with sanctions. And, yes, stop food aid. That sounds cruelly inhumane. Our aid is the only thing that keeps many northerners alive. But even with that aid, this is still a land of endemic malnutrition and starvation, not to mention all the other hideous human rights evils. Our food aid enables the regime to cope, prolonging the agony. Withdrawing that aid would mean great suffering for today’s North Koreans, but if we continue it, that would mean great suffering for generation after generation of North Koreans.

     The regime will bluster about “acts of war” and shriek threats. Let them shriek. It’s obvious the only thing they care about is maintaining power. A military adventure would have huge potential for upsetting that apple cart. I don’t think they’re suicidal. And, if we do cut off aid, they’ll have their hands full just trying to somehow survive, even without an added military complication.

     In a previous entry, I wrote that the only thing that matters, cosmically, is the suffering or joy of sentient beings. My notion for North Korea would entail great suffering, but I see it as offering the only prospect of minimizing suffering in the long run. The vile North Korean regime cannot endure forever; all the horrors we fear will have to be faced sooner or later. Better that it be sooner, so we can get on with the job of making that corner of the world livable for human beings. History teaches that squeamishness about biting bullets like this only makes the mess, when it finally comes, worse.

A brand new, Grand NEW Party?

June 2, 2009

    When Tony Blair won leadership of the British Labor Party, it had long been unelectable. A previous party platform had been dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” because of its loony left agenda. Blair set out to fix that, most importantly by getting Labor to rescind the dearest left-wing shibboleth of the party charter, nationalization of premier business firms. And, to signal this decisive break with the party’s unappealing past, it was rechristened the “New Labor” party.

    America needs a New Republican party.

    Or, rather, a new OLD Republican party. The pre-Tom DeLay party; the pre-Jerry Falwell party; the pre-Karl Rove party; and, yes, the pre-Bush party.

    Those guys’ approach may admittedly have won a few elections, but at the cost of positioning the Republican party athwart the tides of history.

    The colossal irony of the GOP’s later years in power was how it tried to buy votes and achieved the opposite. The whole point of “pork” spending is to bribe voters (with their own money, i.e., tax dollars) – and the GOP tried to compound it with tax cuts besides, having the government go into hock to pay the bribes. But what it got for its pains was not gratitude for doling out goodies, but instead, becoming known as the bribery party.

    Somehow, the Democrats had managed to play the same game with impunity for decades. Maybe they had perfected the art of such bribery. For Republicans it did not come naturally, they weren’t slick enough at it.

    Its height was the prescription drug program. After decades in which Democrats perennially scared elderly voters that the GOP would take away their Social Security, Republicans actually imagined they could turn the tables with a massive new bribe to elderly voters. Even though existing entitlement programs were already careening toward a huge budgetary train wreck. This was fiscal insanity. The Republicans did it anyway, for the wrong reason – not because they really thought it made sense, but in a crass bid for political gain. They didn’t understand the difference between seduction and whoredom.

    As if becoming the bribery party was not enough, they also thought it was somehow a good idea to become the intolerant party, the anti-immifgrant party, the torture party, the anti-science party.

    But don’t get me started on all the ways the Democrats too have their heads up their posteriors.

    Yet I’m still an optimist. I’d far rather live in this crazy country with its crazy politics than in, say, China, with no politics at all – at least none that ordinary people can participate in. This blog would not be allowed in China. It would be shut down, and I’d be jailed.