Friday, July 31, 2015

"Immature sentimentality"

The NYT Book Review for July 17 carried a review by Randall Kennedy (prolific author on race relations and professor at Harvard Law School) of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman.  The 'teaser' for the review says (this is a close paraphrase): "Go Set a Watchman forces readers to abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school and the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird."  The nice thing about these teasers or summaries is that occasionally, as in this case, they make reading the review, if not exactly unnecessary, then perhaps optional.  One question though: Doesn't Atticus Finch lose the case in To Kill a Mockingbird? How "sentimental" can that outcome be? (Yes, I've seen the movie; no, I don't really remember it that well. Was a hell of a long time ago. And no, I haven't read the Kennedy review of Watchman yet.)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

An unrealistic summer reading list

The Patterson School's 2015 summer reading list, linked by Farley here, strikes me as unrealistic in the sense that I don't know who except for a speed reader is actually going to plow through every word of eight pretty hefty books (one of which is Piketty, btw) in the space of a month or two.  The prefatory note says something like: "get an iPadAir2 and take advantage of your spare hour or two at the beach or in the mountains."  Ok, whatever you say.  The inclusion on the list of Bass's The Blood Telegram is interesting; I reviewed a book on the same subject, Raghavan's 1971, on this blog some time ago (here).  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On "turning points" and "critical junctures"

It is a truism that historical narratives impose a pattern on the past.  Narratives demand a structure, which the messiness of reality resists.  Hence historians' talk of "trends," "major developments," "main events," "phase transitions," "turning points."  Most writers deprived of recourse to these sorts of words and phrases would probably produce something either unreadable or confusing, or both.

Moreover, historians have long understood that metaphors -- tides, winds, take-offs, etc. -- can help make their narratives more vivid.  To take a not-quite-random example, E.J. Hobsbawm, in his chapter on the industrial revolution in The Age of Revolution (Mentor paperback ed., 1962, pp.45-6), borrowed the phrase "take-off" from W.W. Rostow.  Hobsbawm wrote:
...[S]ome time in the 1780s, and for the first time in human history, the shackles were taken off the productive power of human societies.... This is now technically known to the economists as the 'take-off into self-sustained growth'.... [C]areful enquiry has tended to lead most experts to pick on the the decisive decade, for it was then that, so far as we can tell, all the relevant statistical indices took that sudden, sharp, almost vertical turn upwards which marks the 'take-off.' The economy became, as it were, airborne.


The recognition that history has to be narrated and that most narratives involve the imposition of pattern and order has given rise to at least two sorts of academic controversies, or, to use a perhaps better word, conversations.  Both of these conversations themselves have a long history, but to simplify things we can restrict ourselves to their recent installments. 

One of these discussions has revolved around issues of objectivity and truth.  As recounted by Andrew Hartman in A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015, pp.259-60), a divide emerged or re-emerged in the 1980s and '90s between those historians who, influenced by postmodernism, were inclined to emphasize the subjective dimension of historical narrative, and those who stressed, in the words of the authors of Telling the Truth about History (1994), "the need for the most objective possible explanations...."   Much could be said about all this, but it's not the focus of this post.

A second scholarly conversation, the one with which this post is concerned, involves the question of continuity and change.  Almost everyone agrees that these are not completely opposed categories.  There is no such thing as a completely static social system, and even those that appear to be static are subject to changes or variations in the course of reproducing themselves, as sociologist Wilbert Moore, among many others, pointed out (Social Change, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp.11-16).  The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins put a very similar point this way: "Every actual use of cultural ideas is some reproduction of them, but every such reference is also a difference.  We know this anyhow, that things must preserve some identity through their changes, or else the world is a madhouse" (Islands of History, Univ. of Chicago Press, paperback 1987, p.153).      

The proposition that continuity and change are not cleanly opposed categories, that no change is ever total, doesn't resolve the issue, of course, but simply opens it.  Which changes are more or less important, and how does one decide?  John Lewis Gaddis has endorsed another scholar's suggestion that historians should look for "a point of no return," i.e., "the moment at which an equilibrium that once existed ceased to do so as a result of whatever it is we're trying to explain." (Gaddis, The Landscape of History, Oxford Univ. Press, 2002, p.99, citing Clayton Roberts, The Logic of Historical Explanation, 1996.)

Somewhat more helpfully perhaps, Paul Pierson, a political scientist, has emphasized in Politics in Time (Princeton Univ. Press, 2004) that the evolution of societies or institutions is often heavily influenced by relatively small events that happen early in a developmental path; that is, he stresses the "self-reinforcing" character of path-dependent processes.  Pierson cites (pp.52-3) as one example his sometime co-author Jacob Hacker's "analysis of the development of health-care policy in the United States...."  The failure to adopt national health insurance during the New Deal "generated powerful positive feedback, institutionalizing a set of private arrangements that made it much more difficult to make a transition to national health insurance at a later point in time" (emphasis in original).  In other words, the U.S.'s failure to adopt national health insurance in the 1930s was not a dramatic-appearing event, but it had long-term consequences for the direction of future policy.  This is the sort of 'self-reinforcing' effect that Pierson suggests occurs quite often.  

This point that "critical junctures" need not be large-scale, big-bang events -- that they can even be the failure of something to occur, rather than a positive occurrence -- is a significant one, as are, no doubt, some of the other arguments in Pierson's book (I haven't gone through all of it carefully).  But I suspect that, in the end, an element of subjective judgment is inescapably involved in deciding what counts as a critical juncture or a turning point, except for a few obvious instances that would garner wide agreement.  Some may find this a disappointing conclusion, but so be it.

Added later: See also Michael Bernhard, "Chronic Instability and the Limits of Path Dependence," Perspectives on Politics (Dec. 2015): 976-991.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Quote of the day

From Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (1973), p.5:
When General Maxwell Taylor admonished the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1966 that France had lost its Vietnam war not in Vietnam but in Paris, which he considered to be an important object lesson to the United States, the proper reply might well have been: "Of course; where else should they have made the appropriate decision?"  The French army, which is to say its professional officer corps, was outraged by its government's decision after Dien Bien Phu to liquidate the war, and these feelings were to accentuate the subsequent bitterness over Algeria.  However, Premier Pierre Mendes-France agreed with the common judgment that whatever benefits accrued to France from keeping Vietnam as a colonial dependency were in no sense worth the cost.... Significantly, Mendes-France remained under the Fifth Republic the most respected of the political figures of the preceding regime, an attitude shared even by so nationalistic and imperious a figure as Charles de Gaulle, who in fact followed his example under the more difficult circumstances of Algeria.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Kasich's economics

Announcing his presidential candidacy today, John Kasich said that the way to create jobs is to "balance the books," and he had kind words for the idea of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

It's as if these Republicans are living in a mixture of the austerian 2000's and 1920.  As if the Great Depression never happened and Keynes never existed.

ETA: Remember Nixon's "we're all Keynesians now"? When it comes to domestic policy, Nixon would be derided by today's Republicans as a RINO. (Clarification: I'm talking about Nixon's domestic policies when he was President.  His earlier career is a different matter entirely.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Very brief thoughts on the Iran deal

From what I've gathered from the coverage, the Iran nuclear agreement is a good outcome; Susan Rice, appearing on the NewsHour this evening, did an excellent job of explaining and defending it.  Jeb Bush (according to the opening summary on the same program) called it appeasement, which is a silly remark showing that he is more worried about his right flank in the primaries than he's willing to admit.

Monday, July 13, 2015

An indirect route to the two-state solution

An article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs (Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon, "The Death and Life of the Two-State Solution") argues that the best way for Palestinians to get their own state "is, paradoxically, to give up on trying to get one."

The authors suggest that one thing Israeli officialdom would like even less than a viable Palestinian state is the roughly 4.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza incorporated into Israel as citizens with voting rights.  Hence Palestinians should push for such incorporation, saying that what they really want is to be Israeli citizens (which is apparently true for much of the younger generation; Rumley and Tibon cite a 2013 poll showing that only 48 percent of the 18-to-28 age group favor two states).  As a result, the two-state solution would appear in a new light to Israelis: i.e., as the preferable alternative to Palestinian incorporation.

Would this approach work? I don't know, and I don't agree with every single statement in the article.  Still, the piece is interesting.  The concluding passage:
In such a situation...this [two-state] outcome could credibly be presented to Israeli voters not as a soft act of justice or charity...but as a hard act of self-preservation.  Dov Weisglass, who was [Ariel] Sharon's chief of staff during the Gaza disengagement negotiations, has said that Sharon presented the pullout to Israeli voters in "fluent Likudish."  Sharon did not conjure up fantasies of everlasting peace; he framed the decision as necessary for Israel's survival.  A pullout from the West Bank will need to be explained in similar terms.  Only then will the threats [or claimed threats--LFC] that come with it stop trumping the supposed opportunities of some distant peace accord.

ETA: On a related issue, Tom Gregory at Duck of Minerva had a post on the UN report on last summer's Gaza war (here).