Friday, July 29, 2016

Dreams, myths and reality.

I’ve voted in and closely watched a good number of presidential elections.  Okay I’m a borderline political junky.  The two candidates about whom I was most passionate — with whom I most identified — were John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.  No contest.  As it happens, they are a perfect duo when considering dreams, myths and reality.  Kennedy and Obama are connected in numerous ways.  While their family backgrounds are worlds apart, they are both examples of what Lyndon Johnson called “Harvards”: JFK the moneyed patrician, Obama the intellectual patrician.  But perhaps more than anything else they came before us voters at a young age.  In their time they personified youth, or to use one of Kennedy’s favorite words, “vigor”.  The youngest elected (TR was the youngest to take office) JFK was also the first president born in the 20th Century, our century.  Obama, the fifth youngest elected, built his campaign around enthusiastic young supporters.

Whatever the magic mix of their personas, these men as candidates evoked visceral emotion.  They made us dream in a special way.  Forgetting for a moment the adage that campaigning and governing are two entirely different things; what I’m thinking about here has to do with the measure of how presidencies are assessed.  In part that assessment involves how much of the dream going in translates into accomplishment.  It is also in that assessment where myth comes into play.  That is especially the case with Jack Kennedy.  Thanks to an assassin, his time in office was relatively short and in part because of how he died, myth took over almost immediately and has hardly abated.   Historians objectively assessing his stewardship of the office and his accomplishments would not include him in the pantheon of the greats, certainly no Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt.  Nonetheless he remains more than a half-century on an iconic figure, the kind that evokes in his countless fans, “don’t bother me with the facts”.   Why is that the case?

The early violent death is one reason, perhaps compounded and reinforced in brother Bobby’s poignant murder five years later.  Then too, there is that, despite a disastrous start, he ultimately successfully stood down Khrushchev averting a possible nuclear war.  Anyone who lived through those terrifying thirteen days will never forget the relief.  Cuba was the backdrop for both his gross misstep and then his most significant triumph.  Kennedy grew in the office, perhaps no more so than in how his views and actions on civil rights took a dramatic turn culminating in his afternoon embrace of the 1963 March on Washington, albeit after a cool and cautious morning start.  All of this is widely covered in the many volumes written about him.  I’d like to suggest that something else, perhaps more important is at play here: dreams.  Dreams precede a president’s taking of office and they linger on often in a most forgiving way when his candidacy evokes deep passion and emotion, especially when his espoused dreams coincide powerfully with our own.

One thousand days is a very generous period of grace, but coming off the depressing 1950s it’s not all that surprising.  We were all yearning for something different, and Kennedy’s ability to grow, indeed change, gave both him and us license.  We can legitimately argue about how much growth and change, but even critical historians tend to concede both were happening.  What I’m suggesting here is that Kennedy never moved from the glow of campaign mode — the dream stage — in his supporters and many in the greater public’s minds.  The foreshortened presidency never allowed for the usual transition to the post campaign reality by which we usually measure of the occupant’s tenure.  Left with only dreams a leap to myth is just a small step.

The dream phase of Obama’s presidency, now winding toward its constitutionally mandated end, is long since over.   This is not to suggest that it is no longer in the minds of those whose votes elected him.  Indeed, he continues to be measured against those dreams brought on by promises made or perceived.  Dreams are wonderful and can, often do, contribute to victory.  They also embody some hazard.  Some of Obama’s strongest critics have been supporters who have been disappointed with his translation from dreams into the necessary reality.  It’s that difference between campaign “poetry” and the “prose” of governing.  Governing is the reality that follows the grace period and then dominates.  It’s what Kennedy never had and on which Obama in the fullness of his presidential time will be judged by history.   Sure those who continue to be fans, myself included, will never forget the dreams, the “yes we can”, but that particular glow will diminish with time.   It may be recognized as an important part of his biography, but won’t have the emotional pull of “now”.

In that sense the Obama presidency will be ordinary in that historians will weigh its accomplishments against what he promised and, to some significant degree, what was achieved relative to the records of the forty-three presidents who came before him.  As said in my previous post, presidential assessments are tricky.  I firmly believe Obama will fair well — he certainly will always be remembered as our first African American chief executive — but it’s far too early for history’s retrospective judgment.  Many factors will go into that judgment mix including his extraordinary gifts as an orator.  A number of his speeches will assuredly be judged as classics and thanks to contemporary technology future generations will be able to hear and see them as well as read their well-crafted texts.  They will hear his campaign speech on race, his singing of Amazing Grace in Charleston his stirring words at the foot of the Pettis Bridge, and of course the one that brought him to national attention at 2004’s DNC convention.

I’ve been contrasting campaign dreams and reality to governance suggesting why Kennedy’s lingering dreams morphed into myth while reality will define Obama.  This is not to suggest that myth does not attach itself to other presidents, perhaps most of all to Lincoln another fallen hero.  FDR certainly basks in the glow of some myth and in the near term, for Republicans at least, so does Ronald Reagan.  There’s always been the myth of George Washington and his fictional cherry tree and the myth that makes us overlook Thomas Jefferson’s human frailties.  Fact is, we humans need myths and always have.  We need myths and equally so we need dreams.  They sustain us when we’re overcome by reality and they arm us with the will to move forward.  That’s always been true, perhaps all the more so this election year.  

Monday, July 25, 2016

Transient color.

I have been reading historian William Leuchtenburg’s excellent The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.  It’s a hefty meaty book and a good read.  I’m purposely taking one president at a time, pausing between them to read something else while considering their individual legacy.  Being born into and raised in the twentieth century, the book covers a good chuck of my lifetime.  So it’s familiar territory put in perspective by an astute observer.  Professor Leuchtenburg, in his vigorous 90s, is hard at work (mostly here in Chapel Hill) on a Washington to McKinley volume.  I look forward to it.

Assessing presidencies is tricky business.  Who were truly the best, who the worst, requires some time and distance. It also involves, even for the historian, a dose of subjectivity.  What strikes me in reading of their collective tenures is how imperfect, even flawed, each of them were.  Faced with momentous decisions, they often made significant steps forward, but at times each also made disastrous mistakes that took decades, if ever, to set right.  We like to think of our leaders, particularly the ones for whom we have voted and supported, as something special.  Some of them are, of course, but always in the context of being human.  They may play on history’s stage with breathtaking brilliance but at times with dazzling ineptness.  Of course, while in hindsight we may see their missteps clearly, they were often far from self-evident at the time.  They could lead us to victory but could also snatch defeat out of a victory that had been it hand.   One prime example was when Harry Truman, after successfully achieving his stated goals in Korea, disastrously extended the war into what remains an unresolved stalemate.  We still suffer the consequences.

To be sure times change and with them our view of things, sometimes leading to some ironic twists even in how we add color to the scene.  Reading about the 1950s under Truman and then Eisenhower brought back especially vivid memories.  They were my formative school years.  For today’s nostalgia buffs, let me tell you that the 50s were not a great time in American.  They were dominated in large measure by an obsessive fear of communism.  That obsession impacted both our foreign and domestic policy for decades to come.  Communism had a color: red. 

Our ears and eyes were exposed to scarlet words, attributes and slogans.  There was red by itself, “the Reds”, “red states” (especially Red China), “red bating”, the “red scare” and, of course, the “red menace”.  The Cold War was in its infancy in 1950 and Truman himself submitted to the hysteria.  The House Committee on Un-American Activities (first established in the 1930s) infamously grew in reckless power running roughshod over individual rights.  Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin became a national largely unchallenged finger-pointing figure.  The lion’s share of this terrible decade was presided over by war hero Dwight Eisenhower supported by fellow Republicans an right wing Southern Democrats (who would switch over to the GOP a decade later).  

That history brings me back to the color red.  It’s no wonder that in reading about those years in a current context I couldn’t help but think of a supreme irony.  While the GOP in the 1950s derisively referred not only to communists as red and liberals as at least “pink”, today’s Republican dominated states are, of all things, labeled red.  They wear the red designation with pride hoping to spread it across the land.  How times change us and how we talk.

I am not of the “history repeats itself” school.  That said, it’s not surprising that echoes of other ages — of human behavior — find their way into the present.   The Soviet Union is no more and the meaning of “red” has clearly taken a sharp attribution turn, but there is something of the 1950s in our present discourse.  And it’s something no less disturbing or, if it gets out of hand, threatening to our democracy.  Today Islamophobia has replaced our 1950s irrational fear of Communism and people who sound increasingly like the purveyors of a “red scare” are seeking to fill us with twenty-first century terror.  The idea of barring Muslims from entering our borders or seeking that citizens who happen to follow Islam should take some kind of loyalty oath or disavow tenants of their faith and practice are chilling reminders of past trumped-up bad times.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking but “trumped-up” is the good English language term to describe what happened during the late Truman and Eisenhower years.  It fits again.

This is the year of an appeal to fear.  It’s what we heard or read about all last week.  And it’s not over.  Just as Trump and the Republicans stoked up fear of the Other whether an implied Islamic “third column” or its equally dangerous Mexican criminal immigrant counterpart, Clinton and the Democrats are sure to invoke the fear of what his presidency would bring.  Now don’t get me wrong.  This isn’t a matter of being even handed — there is no moral equivalency in these two candidates or their present party configurations — but to state how things are likely to go down between now and November.   Objective reasoning will probably go out the window because it simply won’t work in the present national mood.   Lyndon Johnson’s infamous 1964 “Daisy Commercial” was the ultimate presidential election appeal to fear.  It helped bring down Barry Goldwater.  And by the way, don’t let anyone tell you that going viral is something new, the exclusive domain of our digital age.  Daisy aired only once, but its power reverberated to such a degree that it remains controversial more than fifty years on.  Despite a lack of social media and instant communications everyone knew of it and even those who didn’t see it aired in real time can still picture that little girl picking daisy pedals in a countdown that ends in a mushroom cloud.  Some version of Daisy is likely to raise its ugly head during the current campaign.

I know what I’d like some future historian to be writing as the 2016 election.   My only hope is that a majority of Americans feel the same.  I think my hope will be fulfilled, but there is no guarantee.  Absolutely none.  We have had demagogues on the scene throughout our history and some, like Huey Long and Joe McCarthy, were elected to statewide public office.  We’ve had bitter campaigns with poisonous rhetoric since John Adams and Thomas Jefferson contended in the early days.  But we’ve never had the likes of Donald Trump nominated for the presidency by one of our two major parties.  Nothing is sure in elections and his being on the ballot represents a real and meaningful risk.  He appeals to those who want a return to an America that once was.  That’s impossible.  So his big lie is that his victory will almost certainly insure an America that neither they nor we have ever seen before.  And looking at what happened in Cleveland last week, it will be a very dark America.

The color red was considered dangerous to America in the 1950s.  As things have evolved since the 1980s its morphed redness, most especially since John McCain brought the person and ilk of Sarah Palin to the national ticket, seems no less so.  At least that’s how I see it and hope a majority of my fellow citizens will as well.  We’ve taken down the demagogues and fringe politicians in the past.  Hopefully, we will have the will, the courage and most importantly that we will make the required effort, to do so again.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Unaddressed consequences.

Progress is a great thing, but always comes with consequences.   We tend to focus on the great while too often giving short shrift to those consequences, especially when they’re negative.  We celebrate winners not losers, often dismissing them out of hand.  We get frustrated when every giant step forward seems to be followed with one or even multiple steps backward.  We’re astounded by how long resistance holds on and how hard fought it can be.  Notice I didn’t describe the consequences as “unintended”.  That’s important, because progress implies change, overturning what those who embrace it now consider retrograde, past its use-by date.  So the consequences are often intentional.  Not surprisingly, action breeds reaction, often vigorous and unbending.  Unaddressed consequences are the story — and perhaps the explanation — of our time.

Long after Brown, there remain powerful forces fighting integration manifest, for example, in some all too obvious efforts to undermine public education.  Just last week, the Supreme Court had to turn back another blatant assault on abortion rights which, almost forty-three years since Roe, are still under constant and systematic attack across the land.  The same kind of resistance is underway in the wake of the more recent Obergefell marriage equality decision.  North Carolina’s HB-2, the so-called “bathroom bill”, is just a thinly veiled blowback to newly won LGBT rights.  Each of these can be attributed to the intentional consequences of progress.   It’s easy to see this resistance as bigotry or narrow-mindedness, but each step that many of us consider a move forward disrupts the ways, ideas and often deep seated and heartfelt beliefs of people firmly rooted in “the way things were.”  That society at large accepts, or in some cases that the Constitution mandates, moving on doesn’t mean that individual’s or institution’s belief systems have, or can, change on a dime.  They were poorly prepared for the consequences of progress, but so too were we.  This lack has caused much bitterness and friction.

Some of the reactions to consequences seem misdirected, and sometimes purposefully so to mask some hidden agenda.   But sometimes that misdirection stems from confusion or an unwillingness to accept and more importantly to address, the consequences of progress.  In the social area where previous “norms” are upended and beliefs challenged — like abortion, integration and marriage equality — an often toxic mix prejudices and differing religious doctrines come into play.  These are often emotional reactions involving dogmas that are difficult to objectively prove or disprove, where logical arguments and the finer points of law have little currency.  We can, though often we don’t, understand the reaction at play, but are unable to resolve what is seen in absolutes; as a matter of black and white, not greys.

That isn’t the case where core beliefs are not threatened.  Here, consequences can be more easily and successfully addressed.  But here, too, they are often neglected.  I’m thinking specifically about progress like the Industrial Revolution and in our own time the Technology Revolution that has so changed and clearly improved the way be function and work.  What might be considered one bridge between these two revolutions happened just a little over one hundred years ago.  As recounted in 2013 by the Daily News, Henry Ford revolutionized car manufacture with his assembly line.  He reduced the time it took to assemble a Model T from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes.  Daily production in his Michigan plant moved from 100 to 1000 cars per day.  “In 1914”, the News wrote, “Ford's 13,000 workers built around 300,000 cars -- more than his nearly 300 competitors managed to build with 66,350 employees.”  Consider what impact of that next-step-revolution-influenced reduction of manpower meant in 1913.  Technology has gone so much further, something I mentioned in my most recent post.  As the News article noted three years ago “…just 500 people work directly on the assembly line at Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant, which now builds 605 Focus and C-Max sedans in each of two 10-hour shifts. Some 48,000 people worked at the Crystal Palace at its peak.”  Progress and consequences.

The unrest we’re experiencing today both here and abroad has been building for some time.  As most assuredly happened before in other disruptive periods, scapegoating and misdirection abounds but the underlying problem seems clear.  We’ve made huge technological progress but have failed miserably at addressing and mitigating its consequences.   Once highly sought after and valued as skilled workers find themselves out in the cold unprepared to meet the challenges of progress.  The skills they have are no longer needed.  The new skills required for twenty-first century employment are not in hand.  Public and private policy embrace and benefit from progress, but have fallen dangerously short in addressing the consequences.  That requires investments and a reorientation of priorities that we simply have not made.  That doesn’t have to be the case.

In his famous reach-out 2009 speech in Cairo President Obama declared: “I will host a Summit on Entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world”.  That program was expanded to all communities and has resulted in an annual event sponsored by the State Department and held this year on the campus of Stanford University.   On its final day, the president delivered a short talk and then, along with Mark Zuckerberg interviewed three young entrepreneurs.  Among them was Mariana Costa Checa, Founder-CEO of the Peruvian technology education social enterprise Laboratoria.  Her company is focused squarely on the consequences of the technology revolution.  Her story says it all:

“…I started [Laboratoria] in Peru two years ago. We are now in Peru and Chile and Mexico. And what we tried to do is to go out and find talent where nobody else is looking for it, ...to identify young women who haven’t been able to access quality education or job opportunities…and train them to become the most awesome developers…and connect them with employment opportunities in the tech sector.

[In joining, most of our students] are completely unaware of their potential…thinking that it’s going to be really hard to break this vicious cycle of low-skill employment, underpaid employment, or just domestic work.  But they soon start learning to code, and it’s just such a powerful skill set. A few weeks into the program, they start building their first websites, their first apps, their games, and showing them to the world.  And it’s so empowering. And six months after joining, they’re ready to go out and join the workforce.  So we have students who get three job offers from the coolest companies in town. …They triple their income…start supporting their families. And…they start realizing that anything is possible if they work hard enough for it, no? And we have students that have gone from working at a corner shop in a slum to working at the IDB in Washington as developers, a few blocks from the White House. So really, they are an example that anything is possible, no?”

Yes, anything is possible if we start aggressively addressing the neglected consequences of progress that we have come to take for granted.  The stories told by Mariana Costa Checa and her counterparts reflect the aspirations I hear from startup entrepreneurs with whom I work In North Carolina. Their businesses focus largely on unmet needs, solutions that can touch and change many lives.  But the program initiated in Peru, one of reorienting and training to meet the needs of today not yesterday speaks to both what can be done.  Sadly, it also points to our deficiencies.  Some people decry globalization and immigration, but the reason her South American students are now working in Washington is that we haven’t trained enough people here to fill the coding savvy jobs that already exist and will continue to grow.  If young kids from impoverished families can learn so too can middle age former factory workers or vastly underemployed fast food workers.  The cliché, “where there is a will, there is a way” rings true.  Those young Peruvian girls are an “example that anything is possible, no?”

We hear a lot of anger and finger pointing in this campaign season, perhaps more than in recent memory.  Much of that anger, though not defined as such, comes from the unaddressed consequences of a modern world that is on the move and can’t be turned back.  It would be nice to hear more concrete talk of what we can do to get those left behind or falling behind back on a success track.  And what we can do is no mystery, but it requires urgent action and a meaningful investment in human capital.   No president can restore manufacturing in America, nor can any of us stop the clock, much less turn it back.  But doing something to mitigate the unaddressed consequences of the technological age, enabling opportunity, is a goal that can be achieved.  Whether our elected officials at all levels have the willingness to do so isn’t so evident.  But, “anything is possible”, no?