Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Nostalgia as Amnesia

I have the recurrent fantasy of stopping off at a historical marker in the middle of nowhere and reading on the corroded plate: Site of the First Historical Marker. Our content-free regard for the past is perhaps not always this self-referential; but the parks and pageants seem to be heavier on the local color than the contemporary relevance. Going to Gettysburg can and should be a numinous and frightening experience, an encounter with guardian spirits and vengeful ghosts. For most of the tourists, the trip is more like visiting a foreign country and staying at a Radisson the whole time. Last year’s word of the year was truthiness. Perhaps we can speak of pastiness in the same spirit.

Against this grumpy and not very original complaint, it might be urged that the last few years have seen the publication and considerable commercial success of a remarkable number of serious historical works about the founding of the country. I agree that these books reflect a genuine desire on the part of at least some Americans to come to terms with their own history. David McCullough’s 1776, David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, and Gary Wills’ book on Henry Adams; a whole series of new biographies of the founding fathers; and, above all, the more than magisterial Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz all testify to a renewed commitment to history. But even the Wilentz book only covers political history to the advent of Lincoln. What strikes me as interesting and perhaps symptomatic is the absence of notable books about the whole era from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt—the bona fide American historians I’ve consulted can’t come up with any recommendations. Now I suppose it is possible that the only Jeopardy contestants need to know about Rutherford B. Hayes and Grover Cleveland, but I wonder if the lack of focus on this period doesn’t have another meaning. Between 1865 and 1898, America became a world power and underwent profound social transformations in the process. It is hard to believe that nothing interesting happened in the inflation phase of our national cosmogony. I don’t dispute that the debates over the Constitution remain relevant to current concerns, but maybe they are less relevant to us than the regional and class struggles of the 70s and 80s. The Bush administration, after all, a lot more like Grant’s gang of thieves than Washington’s cabinet.

Obsessives aren’t really interested in their obsessions. The whole point of the ritual is to avoid thinking about that other thing. Let us therefore endlessly refight the Battle of Brooklyn rather than notice that the country is once again being sold to the highest bidder as it was in the times of McKinley.

Monday, January 23, 2006


I have a problem with the policy debates I read on the Internet. They all seem to assume that the difficulties we face are technical. I don’t think that’s often true, which is not to say that there aren’t all sorts of technical issues to consider. If our political leaders were serious about confronting the dilemmas of the day, it would certainly be time to conduct a massive debate about ways and means. In the absence of a non-pathological politics, however, gestures towards solutions will just make things worse as we see in the current case of the new Medicare drug benefit. The Administration passed the new law solely and only to win an election, and the resulting bill is a monument to its bad faith. Like everything else the Bush team claims to do in the public interest—Homeland Security, New Orleans disaster relief, rebuilding Iraq—it is proving to be just another opportunity to plunder the national treasury for the benefit of the same bunch of financial interests and good old boys. The quote from Casablanca, though inevitable, is not really applicable—in the movie, the usual suspects were always rounded up but seldom guilty, whereas the members of the corresponding group in our country are always guilty but never rounded up.

It’s easy to get people to argue how to deal with the energy crisis. Should we be building new nuclear plants? Increasing research on alternative fuels? Putting more money into renewables such as solar and wind? Drastically improving gas mileage in cars? Increasing the efficiency of industrial processes for recovering petroleum from tar sands and oil shales? Figuring out how to limit carbon emissions and capture the carbon dioxide from smokestacks? Installing heat pumps in public buildings? We should we probably be doing all these things and great many more, but the better answer, the sine non qua of dealing with the very serious pickle in which we find ourselves, is neither increased conservation or alternative fuels. Absent a revolution in our politics, nothing is going to happen and nothing is going to help. Unless political power is somehow reconnected to the real interests of real people, the politicians will go on doing the bidding of people with the most ready money no matter how short their temporal horizons. I have no idea how to end the convertibility of dollars into votes; but absent such a political revolution, technological discussions won’t matter very much. And since power in our system has barricaded itself formidably against democracy and the Constitution itself is part of the problem, I doubt if normal political remedies will suffice. I’m afraid the oil isn’t going to stretch until and unless some necks get stretched first and not just figuratively.