Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Novikov Telegram

The Soviets were well-aware of Kennan's "Long Telegram" and in September 1946, they responded with a mirroring document of their own known as "The Novikov Telegram," which makes fascinating reading. Below, Novikov in 1945, from Life magazine.

Nikolai Novikov was the Soviet Ambassador to the United States in 1946-1947 and he prepared his telegram for Stalin and Molotov.  Although Novikov's telegram consciously mirrors the rather breathless and apocalyptic tone of Kennan's, he makes some interesting points.  

Section 3 of the Novikov document is particularly interesting.  Novikov wrote:

"Obvious indications of the U.S. effort to establish world dominance are also to be found in the increase in military potential in peacetime and in the establishment of a large number of naval and air bases both in the United States and beyond its borders."

In the summer of 1946, for the first time in history of the country, Congress passed a law on the establishment of a peacetime army, not on a volunteer basis but on the basis of universal military service. The size of the army, which is supposed to amount to about one million persons as of July 1, 1947, was also increased significantly. The size of the navy at the conclusion of the war decreased quite insignificantly in comparison with war time. At the present time, the American navy occupies first place in the world, leaving England's navy far behind, to say nothing of those of other countries.

Expenditures on the army and navy have risen colossally, amounting to 13 billion dollars according to the budget for 1946-47 (about 40 percent of the total budget of 36 billion dollars). This is more than ten times greater than corresponding expenditures in the budget for 1938, which did not amount to even one billion dollars.

Along with maintaining a large army, navy, and air force, the budget provides that these enormous amounts also will be spent on establishing a very extensive system of naval and air bases in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. According to existing official plans, in the course of the next few years 228 bases, points of support, and radio stations are to be constructed in the Atlantic Ocean and 258 in the Pacific. A large number of these bases and points of support are located outside the boundaries of the United States"

Novikov goes on to point out that Britain is completely dependent on the United States, that the US's new interest in the Middle East comes at Britain's expense and that the US is clearly trying to gain control of the oil resources of the Middle East under the pretext of supporting Zionism (this was immediately before the creation of the state of Israel).

After noting aggressive US actions in the Middle East, China, the Mediteranean and elsewhere, Novikov observes:

"The basic goal of this anti-Soviet campaign of American "public opinion" is to exert political pressure on the Soviet Union and compel it to make concessions. Another, no less important goal of the campaign is the attempt to create an atmosphere of war psychosis among the masses, who are weary of war, thus making it easier for the U.S. government to carry out measure for the maintenance of high military potential. It was in this very atmosphere that the law on universal military service in peacetime was passed by congress, that the huge military budget was adopted, and that plans are being worked out for the construction of an extensive system of naval and air bases."
Comparing the Kennan and Novikov Telegrams

Novikov's document was consciously written as a response to Kennan's telegram.  Like Kennan, Novikov was writing for his boss and calibrating his text to his boss's worldview. Novikov mixes an extremely clear and prescient analysis of the then-current global political situation with a somewhat alarmist view of American military expansion.  That said, many of Novikov's remarks seem dead-on 63 years later.

The fact was, in the post-WW2 environment, the US had an enormous power advantage over the rest of the world.  In the years immediately following World War Two, the US account for 50% of world GDP - an astonishing fact.   

Whereas Kennan's telegram was primarily a psychological exegesis on the Soviet character, Novikov tended to deal more with physical facts.  Joseph Stalin was much more interested in hard details - how many troops, how many tanks - than in theoretical psychological portraits or ideological musings.  Stalin had famously responded to a warning that he was about to have conflict with the Pope with the dismissive question "and how many divisions does the Pope have?"  Like Kennan, Novikov wrote in a language that his boss could understand.

Conversely, Kennan's telegram was intended for Harry Truman, a president with no foreign policy experience who held an extremely simplistic and Manichean view of the world, quite different from F.D.R.'s more nuanced view.  Kennan had to know how his telegram would be received by Truman. Although the immediate effect of "The Long Telegram" was to boost Kennan's career - he was immediately recalled back to Washington and made the first director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, he would soon be replaced by hardliners who had an even less nuanced view of the world.  The problem was, Kennan had framed the debate and there would be no backtracking from the baseline that he himself had set. 

Kennan drew on his 13 years in the Soviet Union as a Russian specialist to draw a psychological portrait of the Russians that, arguably, still dominates the American interpretation of Russian motivations to this day, nearly twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Novikov is basically saying, hey, look around us, the British are out of the picture and the Americans are everywhere and they're still enlarging their military. He generally refrains from Kennan's attempts at nation-state psychoanalysis.

Although Kennan was a product of the "hard realist" school of foreign policy, his telegram is remarkable for what it doesn't say.  He overstates the role of Marxist dogma and essentially ignores any Russian national security interest in protecting their borders that would have existed in Moscow in any case, irrespective of ideology.  Everything is interpreted in the context of a massive communist conspiracy aimed at global domination abetted by a Russian tendency towards psychosis.  Kennan also overstated Russian political and economic strength vis a vis the US's, which made the situation appear very dire despite the obvious facts to the contrary.

Novikov, although correctly assessing the geo-political facts of 1946, which clearly showed the United States emerging into super-power status, also viewed the United States' dominance as part of a larger plan for total global domination - an exact mirror of the Kennan worldview.

Kennan would later spend the next 50 years (literally - he lived to be 101) asserting that he had been misunderstood.  Perhaps.  The problem is, he set the tone, not only for US-Soviet relations during the Cold War, but for a certain approach to foreign policy that remains popular to this day. Moreover, he provided a somewhat dubious intellectual foundation (i.e., the Soviets are crazy and can't be reasoned with) that would be exploited and enlarged by his successor as director of Policy Planning, Paul Nitze and Secretaries of State Acheson and Dulles.

We're seeing some of this same hyperbolic and rather breathless rhetoric, i.e., "they are impervious to reason" being applied to Iran and North Korea today.  

NEXT: The British Perspective and Frank Roberts Telegram

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Lessons of the Cold War - George Kennan

I've been reading a lot about the Cold War era in American foreign policy lately.  My interest is partly historical but primarily in how and what we might learn from the Cold War to avoid making the same mistakes again in the current "War on Terror."

There are a lot of interesting ideas and people to discuss in this era but I think it's only reasonable to start with George Kennan, arguably the 20th century's most important diplomat, the author of the "containment theory" and one of the key thinkers at the time of the origins of the Cold War.

George Kennan and "The Long Telegram"
Most historians view the diplomatic cable sent by George Kennan from Moscow, commonly known as "the Long Telegram", as the founding document of  the Cold War. In February 1946 when he sent the document in question, Kennan was Deputy Chief of Mission (in other words, the number two diplomat) in Moscow, serving under Ambassador Averell Harriman. 
Exactly why "The Long Telegram" came about is a matter of some dispute.  One story is that it was personally requested by Harry Truman who was seeking a more hawkish interpretation of Russian behavior.  Another story says that it was sent in response to a request from the Treasury Department, puzzled by the Soviet Union's refusal to join the I.M.F. (which had been created at Bretton Woods two years earlier).  Regardless of the cause of its creation, Kennan sent a 5300 word telegram which became an instant hit with the hard-liners back in Washington and established his reputation as a big-time thinker in terms of US-Soviet relations.  In this message, Kennan stated, among other things, that the Soviets were "impervious to reason."

The following year, in July of 1947, Kennan published a major redraft of the "Long Telegram" in Foreign Affairs with the title  "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" which was signed by "X" and laid out his theory of "containment" in more detail.

Both of these documents are fascinating reading and would be the basis of American foreign policy vis a vis the Soviet Union for the next forty-three years, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. They are both relatively short and well worth reading and the links above lead to the full text originals.

The National Security Act of 1947
Kennan's arguments would become the theoretical foundation of the Truman Doctrine and lead directly to the creation of the National Security Act of 1947, which merged the War Department and the Department of the Navy into the Department of Defense, created the C.I.A. and the National Security Council.  Depending on your point of view, this was either the first step towards America's predestined role to become the lone post-World War Two superpower or the beginning of a permanent state of war and an official policy of imperialist expansion (see "Vidal, Gore" for more on that).

Kennan's "Long Telegram," in effect, laid the foundations for the creation of the national security state in America.  Kennan went on to play a very major role in the Truman administration, with the apogee of his career occurring in 1947-48 under Secretary of State George Marshall, when he became the first Director of Policy Planning at State and was a key architect of the Marshall Plan.

Unfortunately, George Marshall was not well and he was succeeded as Secretary of State by Dean Acheson in 1949, when Truman's second term began.  Although Acheson was also a believer in the policy of containment, he took more of a "cafeteria approach" to Kennan's work, saying of him:
"his recommendations were of no help; his historical analysis might or might not have been sound; but his predictions and warning could not have been better."

Kennan resigned in late 1949 and was replaced by Paul Nitze, who would go on to be the primary author of N.S.C. 68 the following year, which resulted in a tripling of the military budget and the creation of what Dwight Eisenhower would later term "the military-industrial complex."  More on that later.

Although he would never reach the heights of influence he had previously had in the 1946-1948 era, George Kennan went on to have a long and distinguished career, as a statesman (Ambassador to the Soviet Union and later Ambassador to Yugoslavia), as an academic at The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and as an author (winning The National Book Award, The Pulitzer Prize, The Bancroft Prize and The Francis Parkman Prize). He also spent most of the rest of his life claiming that his original ideas had been misinterpreted and hijacked by certain people (cough, cough, Paul Nitze) who had an interest in massively enlarging the role of the military in American life.

In a 1996 interview with CNN, Kennan said:

"distorted by the people who understood it and pursued it exclusively as a military concept; and I think that that, as much as any other cause, led to [the] 40 years of unnecessary, fearfully expensive and disoriented process of the Cold War."

Although some will undoubtedly find these comments somewhat self-serving, they have, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the added advantage of being true.  I don't think there's any doubt that Kennan's arguments were distorted for all the wrong reasons.   Kennan was rightly regarded as a genius and the most important US diplomat of the 20th Century.

The Anchoring Bias in The Long Telegram

There is a cognitive bias that is variously known as anchoring bias or focalism (in psychology) and framing (in economics) whereby human beings are sub-consciously prone to fixating on both numbers and points of view and once fixated, are quite difficult to dislodge from that position regardless of the facts.

The way this works is pretty simple.  Basically, our minds tend to fixate on whatever we hear or see first.  Once that "anchoring point" is in our head, it's stuck in our head as "an anchor" that - knowingly or unknowingly - becomes the basis for further decision making.  This number can be relevant to the specific issue under discussion or it can be irrelevant.  It makes no difference.

This is also one of the reasons that propaganda is so effective (e.g., "but what about his birth certificate!") even if the anchor is unreasonable or illogical.
In the case of Kennan's "Long Telegram," in the course of a very long and erudite, if staccato, 5000 word history of Russia, Kennan used the specific phrase "impervious to reason."  This phrase appears one time and one time only, but it's the phrase that's quoted in virtually every article on Kennan and it's the phrase everyone remembers.  For better or worse, it's the phrase that stuck.  Towards the end of the "Long Telegram," Kennan says the following:

"(3) Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meets Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqu├ęs. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit--Moscow cannot help profiting by them in its foreign policies."
Wow!  That's pretty amazing stuff, particularly when its coming from a man generally recognized as the father of the Cold War.  In other words, the best way to fight communism is to keep our own house in order to prevent the communists from ever getting a toehold in the first place.  This philosophy would be put into practice in the Marshall Plan two years later, when the decision was made to focus on fighting the Soviets economically and politically rather than militarily.

The real point is this.  Kennan was a brilliant man and a Russian specialist who wrote an incredibly dense content-rich 5300 word memo with one phrase that became the anchor point for an entire generation of cold warriors, even as they misunderstood and misapplied it for their own purposes.  In my view, Kennan was a first-rate thinker surrounded by second-rate thinkers (at best) who only grasped the crudest parts of what he was trying to convey.

As Albert Einstein once said about common misunderstandings regarding the Special Theory of Relativity, "The problem is now everybody thinks everything is relative."  In the case of Kennan, he said the Soviets were "impervious to reason," so it must be true.   It became the "anchor" that the latter stage arguments would be built on and it would go in an entirely different direction than Kennan had recommended.

Next: The Novikov Telegram

Many of George Kennan's articles are archived and available online at Foreign Affairs.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Speech I Heard and the Speech I'd Like to Hear

"Damaged Child, Oklahoma" 
Dorothea Lange, 1936

I watched Obama's speech to Congress last night and I thought it was very good.  He was interrupted by some heckling by a Congressman from - where else -  South Carolina, continuing their illustrious 220 year historical tradition as the US's "problem child."   

As usual Obama was calm, focused, articulate and presidential.  Like I said, it was a very good speech.  But what I'd really like to hear is something a bit different.  

FDR's October 31 1936 Madison Square Garden Speech

FDR gave this speech to a packed house at Madison Square Garden near the end of the 1936 presidential campaign on October 31, 1936.  He was running for a second term and the election was only a few weeks away.  For four years, FDR had been the subject of the most vile propaganda from the Republicans who, then as now, had no alternative ideas whatsoever.  They said he was "insane," that he had syphilis, they called him a class traitor and said it was "the Jew Deal."   

By the time of this speech, FDR decided to take the gloves off and deal with their hatred and incapacity to govern head on.  This is the famous "I welcome their hatred" speech.
Full text and audio of the actual speech here and an excerpt below:

"For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

"For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace‹business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

"They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

"Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.

"I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master."
Basically, when he gave the above speech FDR just decided what the hell - if they want a class war I'll give 'em a class war.  Here were the election results a week later:

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cool Links of the week

Some of the more interesting websites that I've come across this week.  This week's picks all focus (in different ways) on the methodology and politics of information processing.

Really funny faux-propaganda posters here:

An interesting demographics site edited by Joel Kotkin, urban theorist and author :

An education-oriented site about African-American history with photos and video:

This is an extremely cool site, set up for teachers with a focus on critical thinking and interpreting the media. Way cool, with teacher's guides presented as downloadable PDFs. 

This site is new but looks promising, focusing on trends and news relating to information design:

Monday, September 7, 2009

Happy Labor Day!

Happy Labor Day!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Chicken-Fried Paranoia: Southernization and the Paranoid Style

The last four posts were about Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, how it remains relevant today and how it may relate to our current politics of racial hysteria and the previously successful Southern Strategy.

Although Hofstadter may remain relevant today, it appears that the Southern Strategy is not.  And what that means is that the GOP is in serious trouble.  Obama is the first Democratic President who is not from the South since the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.  That simple fact is arguably at least as politically significant as his race.  Moreover, the election of 2008 was the first presidential election that the Democrats have won without a southerner on the ticket since 1940

Let's take a look at some electoral and demographic maps:

The Political Landscape

First, the 1948 Election results.  The orange states represent the Dixiecrat/Strom Thurmond "States Rights" wins:

Here's the 1964 Election results, with Barry Goldwater's states in red.

Now let's look at the 1968 Election Results.  George Wallace, running on a segregationist, "states rights" campaign carried the states in orange.

And finally, the 2008 Election results:

The key point about the above electoral map is that the Republicans only carried one major state (as defined by population and economic strength) and that is Texas.

To put it another way, when comparing a list of the US states by GSP (Gross State Product, an index of economic output), of the top 10 states, only two (Georgia and Texas) voted Republican.  Of the top 20 states, four voted Republican (Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Tennessee) and 16 voted Democratic.  The map below shows the states ranked by population:

The four key Confederate states of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia, while reliably Republican and highly susceptible to racist rhetoric are not significant electorally (30 combined electoral votes) or economically (866 billion dollars in combined economic output, equal to about 6% of total GDP).     Even if you throw in South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma, you've only got 9 states and 71 electoral votes. So that leaves Texas and it's 34 electoral votes.  More on that in a moment.

Birthers - A Strong Southern Bias
A poll taken in July 2009 by Research 2000, showed the following:

The South Versus Obama
Clearly, there is a strong Southern bias here. Michael Lind had a terrific piece about this last week in the The Daily Beast

With the notable exceptions of the two outliers from the far north, Sarah Palin (R., freelance) and Michelle Bachmann (R., Minnesota) the loudest voices against Obama are coming from the former Confederate states of the deep south and Oklahoma and they tend to have distinctly southern accents.
  • Jeff Sessions (R., Alabama)
  • Jim Inhofe (R., Oklahoma)
  • Tom Coburn (R., Oklahoma)
  • Jim DeMint (R., South Carolina)
  • Paul Broun, (R. Georgia)
  • Mitch McConnell (R. Kentucky)
  • Rick Perry (R., Texas)
As if the message wasn't clear enough, we have the last name on the list, Governor Rick Perry, openly talking about seccession from the Union.  Now, as easy as it may be to make fun of Rick Perry for being a venal doofus desperately trying to stay in the running in the middle of a  tough primary challenge, stop and think for a second about this.  A sitting governor of a former slave state and member of the Confederacy goes on national television and talks about secession!  That's just... astounding.  

How did "the party of Lincoln's" leadership respond to this?  For the most part, with either smiles of approval or total silence.  And of course, once again, we hear about that old chestnut, "states rights."  Meanwhile, Perry's key aide David Carney says "the GOP should not open itself up like a whorehouse," presumably meaning, let's keep it white, male and Christian.

A winning strategy?  I don't think so.  The demographic trend in Texas is clear.  Texas is already 36.5% Latino, 11.9% black and 3.5% Asian and most estimates have Texas flipping permanently Democratic by 2020 at the latest.  Minority-bashing and Rebel flag waving may not be the smartest way to win an election.

So, what gives? 

Above, an advertisement from the Dallas papers on November 22, 1963, the last time a non-southern Democrat was elected President of the United States. They were upset because he was a Catholic.

So what is going on in the South?   Are they just plain crazy?  I would argue something a bit different.  Although there is no doubt that they are in denial about the demographic changes that are sweeping the country, the roots of that denial are interesting and have their basis in southern history.  The map below shows the Confederate states in dark green and the border states, which had significant Confederate contingents, in light green.

A Brief Digression on the History of the South
The antebellum South was first and foremost a feudal society. There were no public schools in the South until reconstruction. Not one.  There wasn't a state-funded public school until the 1890's.

Although black people were obviously the most oppressed in the old South, so were poor white people.  And sitting on top of the hill, literally, was a tiny rich white land and slave owning aristocracy that fancied themselves the smartest and best people in the United States.   They literally believed that they were better than anyone else.  And many of that same southern aristocracy still do.  As horrible as they were to black people they were equally horrible to the poor white people whenever they had the opportunity to do so.  The feudal aristocracy had a vested interest in keeping those people as dumb as possible and manipulating them to maintain their power.  One of the ways that they manipulated them was by pitting the poor blacks against the poor whites. That's how it was in 1880 and that's how it is now, in many respects.

Southern Politicians Have Always Supported the Rich and Oppressed the Working Class, Regardless of Race
Southern politicians have historically been anti-democratic.  Poll taxes and literacy tests were used to exclude whites as well as blacks.  This general disenfranchisement of the poor was abetted by the - at first, refusal - and later, grudging reluctance to pay for any public education whatsoever.  It's kind of hard to pass a literacy test if you can't read.

What many Northerners never understood about the South is that they weren't ashamed of their low educational standards, they were striving for low educational standards as a matter of policy to keep the population ignorant, uneducated and controllable. Many poor whites never voted in the South until after World War Two.   See Alexander Keysar's excellent "The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States" for more on this shameful subject.

In the now infamous South Carolina Democratic Primary for the US Senate in 1938 (which pitched Ellison D. "Cotton Ed" Smith (photo, right) against the then current governor of South Carolina, a New Dealer named Olin T. Johnston), out of a total population of 1,738,000 people, only 336,000 people voted.  Even though that was only 18% of the population, Cotton Ed was taking no chances. He had teams of red-shirted thugs patrolling poll locations, intimidating both blacks and whites.  "Cotton Ed's" slogan that year was "Cotton is king and white is supreme." Here's a 1938 Time article describing his victory.

I would argue that the hysterical rhetoric that we're seeing now is because the sense of entitlement that these anachronistic feudal lords continue to feel to this day is threatened.  Not just by Obama's race, but by everything about him.  He's from Chicago.  He went to Harvard.  He eats arugula.  He represents everything they abhor.  Sure, it's racial, first and foremost, but beyond that, it's just everything.

Don't get me wrong - there are racists and demagogues and just plain crazy people everywhere, but they reach a certain critical mass in the American South. The powers that be in the South have been arguing against democracy since the first Constitutional Convention in 1787, when they demanded (and got) the  northern states to agree to the bizarre political proposition that slaves would count as 3/5 of a person for purposes of determining political representation but the slaves themselves would have no political voice or human rights.  They applied this same "count but disenfranchise" policy to as many citizens as they could up through World War Two.

Southern Baptists
Both Texas and Louisiana passed laws this year requiring the teaching of  "creationism" in biology classes.  This could only happen in the American South.  How could this happen, in 2009?  And more importantly, why?

The red areas indicate Southern Baptists.  Southern Baptists originated as a unique denomination back in the 1840's, when there was a schism between the northern and southern versions of most protestant churches over the issue of - slavery.  Kind of keeps on coming up over and over, doesn't it?

We can see several things converging here: good old-fashioned red-baiting, racism and Christian fundamentalism.  At the same time, the former Confederate states are banding together, threatening secession and getting just plain hysterical when you suggest that there might be something racist about any of this. 

Through some perceptual maladjustment that I am simply unable to comprehend, it's "OK" in some quarters to send out images like the one above but "racist" to suggest that it's racist.  Now THAT'S just plain crazy, but it's the same logic whereby both Rush "Puff the Magic Negro" Limbaugh and Glenn "he hates white people" Beck have proclaimed Obama to be the racist.  Quoting Hofstadter again:

"...a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process."

Here's a link to the full text of "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

As Hofstadter points out in the paragraph above, there is always a small portion of the electorate that is prone to this type of paranoia and who are easily manipulated for political gain.  We're seeing that today with the manipulation of the "birthers" and  "teabaggers" by cynical corporate interests who, in truth, have no political values or ideological interest other than making money but who have an interest in suppressing both dissent and democracy. And who aren't ashamed to pander to that minority's basest racist instincts in order to win.

The South has dominated American politics for more than 200 years.  The first 76 years of American history were basically spent arguing over slavery until it finally erupted into the Civil War.  Then came  the Civil War which left 600,000 Americans dead,  followed by twelve brief years of attempted Reconstruction until the Federal troops were removed and the South was allowed to return to its old evil ways.  A corrupt Supreme Court permitted segregation and we had 88 years of Jim Crow (between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965).  Ending Jim Crow required sending federal troops back in, because, as is their historical wont, the South would defy Federal law whenever they felt like it unless compelled to do otherwise by force of arms. 

What we're seeing now is the last, dying gasp of a sub-culture that has had a vastly disproportionate influence on American politics since the founding of the country.  We need to understand what it is and call it what it is.

And most importantly, we need to let it pass away.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Revisited - 2009

Above, a not-at-all-racist example of Republican humor, circa 2009, circulated by a Republican activist and AMA House of Delegates member.

So here we are in 2009 and we have an African-American president.   Actually, a bi-racial president but in the bizarre context of American race relations, where 144 years after the Civil War, the "one-drop" rule, although no longer the actual law, apparently still applies. If you have a white parent and a black parent, you are apparently considered "black." I could write a few thousand words on this topic alone, but let's move on.

Meanwhile, we also have - and I will argue that it is not a coincidence - the most virulently hateful political rhetoric that we've seen in 50 years, since the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950's.

The Rhetoric

An index of various fringe memes about President Obama, with a translation on the right:
  • He is not one of us.  (the "one-drop" rule, again)
  • He hates white people (uhm, but his mother is white, oh yeah, the one-drop rule again)
  • He is not really an American. (Foreigners are weird, dangerous, bad!)
  • He's a "puppet" and is being controlled by someone else. (Because, he's, you know, stupid.)
  • He is a Muslim. (Muslims are bad!)
  • He is a communist. (Communists are bad!)
  • He is a fascist.  (Because he's forcing us to... well, he just is!)
  • He is Hitler. (When all else fails, compare them to Hitler)
  • He is the Anti-Christ! (Apparently, even the Anti-Christ can't get universal healthcare passed)
These are the common memes and they are omnipresent.  They are also all demonstrably false.  Hardly a day goes by that I don't get some nutty e-mail from someone I am vaguely acquainted with containing a variation on one of the above.  We've all seen them.

Before going on, let's stop for just a minute and actually look at Obama's background and what he's done as president.  Reading the list of right-wing claims above, you'd think Louis Farrakhan was President.  But that's not the case.

Obama went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School.  He was president of the Law Review at Harvard.  He was a college professor and then a state senator from Illinois and then a U.S. Senator from Illinois.  He was elected president by a decisive majority.  He has continued the foreign policy of George Bush almost verbatim, including the retention of Bush's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.  At the Treasury Department, he's replaced Bush's Goldman Sachs guys with his own Goldman Sachs guys. He is a centrist, arguably to a fault. Personally, he vacations in Martha's Vinyard, not exactly a hotbed of working-class revolutionaries or the Nation of Islam.  He's extremely intelligent, articulate and likable. 

So what's up with the crazed hostility from the Republicans and the right-wing?

Selected Quotations
"Obama is at war with the American people." Sean Hannity
"This president has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep seated hatred for white people, or white culture, I don't know what it is." Glenn Beck on "Fox and Friends"
"So I find it interesting that among those who oppose Obama a lot of people think he couldn’t be doing this on his own. There’s gotta be somebody behind him, somebody writing the speeches. We know that’s Axelrod. Somebody putting words in the teleprompter. We know that that’s Axelrod. Somebody who may have chosen him, prepped him, groomed him, what have you, some man behind the curtain." Rush Limbaugh
"I want my country back!"
a middle-aged white woman "birther" at a townhall meeting
As CNN pointed out that last comment -  which is the most on the nose - translates to "How is this black guy all of the sudden running the country?"

This bumper sticker articulates that last thought a little more clearly:

Congressman Paul Broun (R., Georgia) comparing Obama to Hitler:

"It may sound a bit crazy and off base, but the thing is, he’s the one who proposed this national security force. I’m just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may — may not, I hope not — but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism. That’s exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it’s exactly what the Soviet Union did. When he’s proposing to have a national security force that’s answering to him, that is as strong as the U.S. military, he’s showing me signs of being Marxist.”

Back to our guide through this bizarre landscape, Richard Hofstadter, from 1964's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics:"
"The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse."
Last month, Broun - a physician - suggested at a rally at the North Georgia Technical College that Obama might "use a pandemic" to take over America.
He also spoke of a "socialistic elite" - Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - who might use a pandemic disease or natural disaster as an excuse to declare martial law. "They're trying to develop an environment where then can take over," he said.  "We've seen that historically."
Richard Hofstadter:
"The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way."
Just in case this type of rhetoric is too theoretical we have images like this, that make the point in a more down to earth fashion:

You see, he's just not "one of us."

Remember what Lee Atwater said:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff."

And in 2009, you talk about "birth certificates" and "death panels" and the like.

Why Is This Happening?
What has caused this crazy and hateful rhetoric?  How have we arrived at a situation in America where a "black" man can get elected president but where images like the ones above are still considered acceptable?, at least to a certain segment of the population.

Take a look at the following chart from The Washington Monthly.

There is clearly a strong geographical bias to this.  Only 47% of the people in the South believe Obama was born in America.  Tomorrow I'll examine that geographical bias in more detail.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Revisited (Part 3, 1980)

On August 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. And he talked about "states rights," a phrase he hadn't previously used in the campaign. 

A lot has been written about this since then with various apologias penned by Republican pundits.   Their story is that basically it was just "a coincidence" and he certainly didn't mean to imply anything about blacks, when addressing an all-white crowd at the scene of one of America's most notorious civil rights murders.

On October 18, 1980, the New York Times reported on Andrew Young's reaction:
Mr. Young was quoted as saying that Mr. Reagan's use of the term ''state's rights'' at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi on Aug. 3 ''looks like a code word to me that it's going to be all right to kill niggers when he's President.''
Plain words, but really, how else could you possibly take it?  In order to evaluate that, let's take a closer look at the seemingly innocuous phrase, "states rights."

A Brief Digression on the subject of "States Rights"
Even today, throughout the South, it is common to hear Southern partisans refer to the Civil Was as being about "states rights" and not about slavery.  This is a kind of revisionist attempt to build a justification for something that was completely unjustifiable, not to mention ahistorical.

The Civil War was about one thing and one thing only - slavery.  It started at the very founding of the country and continued throughout the early 19th century, the spokesman for the South made it very clear that maintaining slavery was their priority.

Alexander Stephens was the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America.  On March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, he gave what has come to be known as the "Cornerstone Speech."  Let's listen to what Stephens said: 
"The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution - African slavery as it exists among us - the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.  This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.  Jefferson said the Union would split.  He was right.  What was conjecture to him is now a realized fact.  But whether he full comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.... (Jefferson's) ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong.  They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.  This was an error.... Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery - subordination to the superior to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition."
Funny, he never mentions "states rights" even once.  After the Civil War, Stephens would write a two-volume history of the Civil War in which he barely mentioned slavery and only talked about the rights of the states to usurp the tyranny of the majority.  Confederate apologists have stuck with the same story ever since Stephens and have even managed to get this nonsensical, revisionist view of the Civil War (i.e., that it was about states rights and economics, not slavery) into many high-school history books.  What do today's apologists say about "The Cornerstone Speech?"  They say it was "taken out of context" and he "didn't mean it, it was just political."  Hmmmm.....

If you review the history of the United States between the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it is impossible to conclude that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery.  Slavery dominated the American political landscape for forty years and, from the time of the Compromise of 1850, it was virtually the only subject talked about in American politics.

As Henry Adams pointed out in 1882:

Whenever a question arose of extending or protecting slavery, the slaveholders became friends of centralized power, and used that dangerous weapon with a kind of frenzy. Slavery in fact required centralization in order to maintain and protect itself, but it required to control the centralized machine; it needed despotic principles of government, but it needed them exclusively for its own use. Thus, in truth, states' rights were the protection of the free states, and as a matter of fact, during the domination of the slave power, Massachusetts appealed to this protecting principle as often and almost as loudly as South Carolina.
Starting in the 1830's, the South's strategy changed from preserving slavery in the current slave states to extending it to the new states of Texas and California.  John C. Calhoun, the preeminent Southern spokesperson, advocate for slavery and Secretary of State under John Tyler, wrote to the British Ambassador in an official correspondence and stated that the South's interest in Texas was in perpetuating slavery.  The idea was that Texas could be carved up into five slave states, giving the south 10 pro-slavery senators.

The South had been scheming to grab Cuba and had designs on Central America as well, envisioning a vast slave Republic arcing across the southern US and Caribbean.  After the Civil War, more than 10,000 ex-confederates actually moved to Brazil where they were known as "Confederados."  Brazil had cotton and slavery wouldn't be outlawed until 1888.

The South used federal power whenever possible - to maintain slavery.  Again, their interest was not in being "left alone" as the revisionists would tell you, but in forcing the free states to accept slavery as an institution.  What they were seeking was a moral validation of slavery.  This reached its culmination in the Dred Scott case in 1857, when Roger Taney's Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no authority to regulate slavery because slaves were property, not people. 

After the Civil War and a few brief years of Reconstruction, the last federal troops were pulled out of the South in 1877 and the era of Jim Crow began - and lasted until 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education and President Eisenhower once again sent federal troops to the South to enforce the law.

The key point is this: the South had no issue with the federal government as long as the federal government supported its discriminatory policies.  They never gave a hoot about "states rights," they just wanted to continue their lifestyle and they wanted the Federal Government to support them in that endeavor. 

And for a long time, the Federal Government was there to help Jim Crow along.  Supreme Court heard the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, which effectively overturned the 14th Amendment.  In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v Ferguson that segregation was just fine, thank you.  In both of these cases, the South had no issues with the Federal Government because the Federal Government was on their side, that side being racial discrimination and the disenfranchisement of blacks.

Harry Truman and the Dixiecrats
At the end of WW2, there were several horrendous cases involving black servicemen returning home to the South after being mustered out and being horribly beaten or killed.  Harry Truman was shocked by these events and in 1946, he signed Executive Order 9808, creating The President's Committee on Civil Rights.  After receiving their report (yes, there is racial discrimination in America) he signed Executive Orders 9980, desegregating the Federal Government's employees, and Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces.

At the Democratic National Convention of 1948, held in July of that year in Philadelphia, South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond led a walkout of the Southern Democratic segregationist.  They formed their own party - the "States Rights Democratic Party" -  and held a convention in Birmingham, Alabama, the original capital of the Confederacy.  They became known as the "Dixiecrats" and they had a one-issue platorm: maintain Jim Crow and continue segregation. That's Strom, spreading the love, on the right.

At their convention in Birmingham, they waved Confederate flags and nominated Strom Thurmond to be their presidential candidate. When it was Governor Thurmond's turn to speak, they played "Dixie" and he strode to the podium followed by the Confederate battle flag and a portrait of Robert E. Lee.  He tried to stick to the "states rights" story but he had a hard time staying on message, saying "There's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, schools and homes."  See Kari Frederickson's excellent "The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South" for more.

Throughout Mississippi, the press was thrilled with the walkouts and they saw it for exactly what it was. Fred Sullins, the editor of the Jackson Daily News wrote the following in the summer of 1948 which is exactly representative of local coverage of the Dixiecrats:

"We will not surrender our most sacred constitutional rights in order to placate a vicious minority that seeks to rupture race relations and establish social equity.  If damn fool Democrats in other sections want to eat, drink and sleep with Negroes, that is their business.  We can only deplore their degeneracy and declare that we will have none of it." 

Ronald Reagan's Neshoba County Speech

So in light of all of this are we really to believe that Ronald Reagan went to Neshoba County and gave one of his first speeches after receiving the Republican nomination and spoke about "States Rights" by accident?  What's interesting is that the Reagan defenders say the same thing that the Alexander Stephens apologists say, that it was "taken out of context" and that he "didn't mean it."

Here's the thing: in 1980, the murders of the three civil rights workers was only 16 years in the past - as close to them then as 1993 is to us now.  It wasn't ancient history.  It was something that had happened in the near past and it was the singular event that had made Neshoba County nationally famous. Everybody knew exactly what Reagan was talking about when he used the phrase "states rights."

In November of that year at a Reagan fundraiser in Jackson, Mississippi, Trent Lott would introduce Strom Thurmond by saying that if the country had elected him " 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today." Strom himself said "we want the federal government to keep their filthy hands off the rights of of the states."  Reagan's message might have been opaque in Massachusetts but it was crystal clear in Mississippi.

Lee Atwater, Strom Thurmond and Ronald Reagan
Nobody understood the "Southern Strategy" and the value of racially-charged code words in grabbing southern voters better than Lee Atwater.  Atwater started out as an intern for Strom Thurmond, then became director of his 1978 re-election campaign and in 1980 was the director of Ronald Reagan's campaign in South Carolina.  He would go on to work in the Reagan administration and achieve some notoriety in 1988 when he was running George H.W. Bush's campaign and created the infamous "Willie Horton" ads.  Atwater was unusually candid about the issue of race in American political campaigns.

In an interview with author Alexander P. Lamis, for his book, The Two Party South, Atwater made the following statement:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.

Conclusions About the Southern Strategy
First of all, let's just admit the obvious about the Southern Strategy - it works!  In fact it works really well. You talk to the crowds, you use code words and later on, you act shocked (shocked!) when someone observes that your speech was taken in a racial context.  Perhaps you even accuse those people of cynically playing "the race card."  This is now a two-fer.  You get to make a racist statement and then turn around and accuse your opponents of seeing everything through the perspective of race.

I'm an American and I grew up in the South and I am a First Amendment absolutist. I think anybody should pretty much be able to say anything they want.  But please don't insult my intelligence by telling me that "states rights" has any other meaning than supporting institutionalized racism in the South.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Revisited (Part 2, 1968)

Despite Johnson's landslide victory, all was not well for the Democrats in 1964. The Convention had been marred by an embarrassing situation with the delegates from Mississippi. There was the official delegation, all white and elected under Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised blacks, and then there was the MFDP (photo, left), the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was demanding representation.

Eventually a compromise was worked out but not before a number of delegates from Mississippi and Alabama walked out.

The core problem was this: Lyndon Johnson was bucking one hundred of years of southern history wherein the Democratic Party was the official party of racism and Jim Crow and Republicans were the party of Lincoln and abolitionism. Although the Republicans had effectively ended Reconstruction and black suffrage in 1877, when they negotiated a deal with Southern Democrats to fix the presidential election of that year, most blacks still voted Republican and virtually all Southern racists voted Democratic. That was all about to change.

By signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and by sending the FBI to Neshoba County, Mississippi later that year to investigate the murder of three Civil Rights workers, Johnson was running the risk of permanently losing the Democratic Party base in the South and reshaping American politics.  To his credit, he did it anyway.

The events in Neshoba were fairly accurately dramatized in the movie Mississippi Burning.  Three civil rights workers - Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney -were arrested by the Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a member of the KKK, as was his boss, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey. They were "released" and then captured and summarily executed late in the evening of June 21, 1964.

FBI agents were on the scene the morning after the disappearance and by the end of the next day, there were at least 10 other agents in town working the case.  The military arrived on June 25 and the following week, J. Edgar Hoover himself came to town to announce the opening of the first F.B.I. office in Mississippi.

The investigation went nowhere until the FBI offered a large cash reward.  Informants soon came forward.

When their bodies were found on August 4,  the situation got even uglier. Indictments were handed down on December 4, 1964 and 17 men were arrested, including Sherrif Rainey and Deputy Price.

On February 24, 1965, Federal Judge William Harold Cox, a Kennedy appointee, threw out all of the indictments except those against Rainey and Price.  The photo below was printed in newspapers all over America and millions of people were confronted with and appalled by, what was going on in Mississippi.


The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, who overturned it and returned it back to Judge Cox and the indictments were reinstated. There is a lot more to the story and it's quite interesting to read. You can find a much more full account here. Suffice it to say, it was a travesty of justice and I've gone through all of the facts, not to dwell on the horrors of Mississippi in the 60's, but because Neshoba will be critically important to the future of the Republican Party 16 years later.

This would all come to a head in 1968, an extremely traumatic year in American history. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in April, Bobby Kennedy had been shot in June and the country had been beset by race riots for half the year in cities across America. The Vietnam War was going full-force and the counter-culture's anti-war riots were splitting the country in two. Or as it turns out, three.

Johnson declined to run for reelection and, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee chosen to run against the Republican contender, Richard Nixon. But there was an unexpected spoiler in the race - the Democratic governor of Alabama George Wallace, who was running as an independent.

So who was George Wallace and who voted for him? George Wallace had started out as a relative liberal, running for the governorship of Alabama in 1958 on an anti-Klan platform with the endorsement of the NAACP. He lost the Democratic primary to the Klan candidate, John Patterson and afterward, he vowed, "I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again." 

Wallace promptly switched sides, became the voice of white racism and segregation and won the 1962 governor's race easily. "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," Wallace said at his inauguration speech.

Wallace made the cover of Time in 1963 when he personally stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama and blocked the admission of a black student.

Wallace ran in 1968 under the American Independent Party banner, with retired General Curtis LeMay as his running mate. General LeMay, famous for being the creator of the phrase "bomb them back to the stone age," was interested in running to help dispel America's "phobia" about using nuclear weapons. Wallace's camp attempted to get LeMay to keep quiet about this with mixed results. (Below, Wallace supporters in Ohio.)

Nonetheless, Wallace polled just under 10 million votes. Moreover, George Wallace carried five states - Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. Wallace got 13.5% of the total popular vote. Besides segregation, Wallace was very much channeling white working-class anger and his platform called for increases in social security and medicaid spending as well. Most significantly, Wallace touched a raw nerve in both of the mainstream parties when he told his working class voters "there's not a dime's worth of difference between them."

The Southern Strategy
This phrase was popularized by Kevin Phillips in his 1969 book "The Emerging Republican Majority." The crux of Phillips prediction was this: Republicans didn't need and were not going to get a significant number of black votes ever again. But by encouraging the end of Jim Crow and the enfranchisement of black voters, they would be pushing previously Democratic racist voters in the South over to the Republican Party.

And that's exactly what happened.  Wallace ran again in 1972, but in May of that year, an attempted assassination took him out of the race.  Nixon ran against George McGovern and won every state except Massachusetts.

But the Southern Strategy wouldn't really reach its zenith until the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1980.