Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A Potpourri To Begin Your Week

Monday, September 12th, 2022

Ukraine changing history on the move.

It is 15 December 1937. Today’s international news section of the New York Times is dripping with stories that, nineteen years after World War I, are lighting the way to the next global conflagration. In two years it will begin and happen all over again. On this day we see reports of marches, riots, assassinations, street brawls, and arson. Political warfare. An overture to the real war coming.

In Spain, political warfare has flared into civil war, and, the Times reported, the Army of the Republic has attacked General Franco’s fascist forces at the Aragonese town of Teruel. In three months, Franco will counterattack, rout the Republican forces and capture most of Catalonia and the Levante. He will succeed with troops and warplanes provided by Germany and Italy.

Turn the page and find Hitler’s Nazi Germany issuing new  restrictions on the Jews, slowly squeezing the life out of them. On the facing page, a photograph of Benito Mussolini in his personal railcar giving  the stiff-armed fascist salute. Beneath, a photo of Stalin reviewing a parade of tank columns.

Is there anything that could be done, could have been done, to avert the coming catastrophe? Of course there was, but nobody did it. Mussolini? The Italians loved him; he resurrected the former glory of Rome, and Franco showed Spaniards what nationalistic power looked like. Hitler’s hate fueled the country’s hate. The Jews? Germany, with Hitler’s face, wanted them gone—forever. And Stalin, the man who killed millions of Ukrainians by intentionally starving them with a smile on his face? The Russians never blinked. Neither did the Americans. The Times’s Walter Durante defended him and won a Pulitzer for his efforts.

And so it went. The world stumbled into six years of hell, with millions dead.

Today, in 2022, although it has taken much time, we have made progress. Inhumanity, still glowing bright in many places, is, nonetheless, dimmer than 80 years ago. Today, the Ukraine that Stalin starved is squeezing the Stalin wannabe Vladimir Putin into a box of his own making. The Ukrainian Army is moving ahead and, with tremendous help from a unified NATO, is forcing the Russian Army to retreat, although the Russians call it “regrouping.”

No one knows where this ends, or how, but it seems to me that at some point the people of Russian are going to wake up and see all the body bags coming home. What then?

The race to curb racism in the American Century: The mission of W. E. B. Du Bois.

This month’s edition of the journal Foreign Affairs contains a fascinating and illuminating essay on the charismatic and complicated life of W. E. B. Du Bois.

Written by Zachariah Mampilly, the Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, this long-form piece details Du Bois’s lifelong, uncompromising mission to eradicate racism.

A sociologist by training, he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. During the Jim Crow era, he became known for an uncompromising stance, demanding equal rights for Black Americans through his journalism and advocacy work while also making seminal contributions to various academic debates.

Du Bois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, about 20 miles from where I sit, and his lifespan overlaps almost exactly with the Jim Crow era, a period of persecution during which Black Americans faced severe restrictions on their ability to participate in political, economic, and social life.

Between the two World Wars, he focused more and more on international affairs, arguing that the colonial projects  European countries were pursuing in Asia and Africa had galvanized an envious United States to carve out its own colonies. In 1898, a year before Du Bois published his first major sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, the United States’ imperial ambitions produced the annexation of Hawaii and the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as spoils of the Spanish-American War. Du Bois thought America’s imperialistic ambitions and actions fed into and enhanced the country’s racism at home. Consequently, his writings and lectures veered increasingly to the left.

In observing anticolonial struggles in India and elsewhere, Du Bois saw clearly how occupation of foreign lands would breed resistance in the colonized people. From this he concluded that colonial domination abroad often required the sacrifice of democracy at home. In his eyes, Zampilly writes:

Imperialism inevitably led to increased racial and economic inequality at home: military adventures and opportunities for extracting natural resources empowered the capitalist class (and its favored segments of the underclass) and stoked racial prejudice that justified further interventions in foreign lands.

Thus, Du Bois saw domestic racism as the tail of the internationally racist dog.

It was natural that as time went on Du Bois’s views evolved. He became more radical in his writings. He saw international capitalism as the cause of black exploitation. In his middle years he went from believing in “democratic socialism” to embracing communism.  As a result, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI began investigating him in 1942 and, despite concluding  there was “no evidence of subversive activity,” continued to investigate him for the rest of his life. In 1952, the State Department revoked his passport. The next year, the Supreme Court declared the policy of denying passports to suspected communists unconstitutional.

His wholehearted support of Joseph Stalin, while inconsistent with his lifelong support for democracy, demonstrated his belief that democracy and Western liberalism were incompatible with racial and economic equality.

Zampilly concludes his essay about Du Bois with this insightful observation:

His work upends the liberal fantasy of the United States’ inevitable progress toward a “more perfect union” that would inspire a just global order and gives the lie to the realist fantasy that how the country behaves internationally can be separated from domestic politics.

My own conclusion is this: During his life, Du Bois made seminal contributions to academia, which, over time, cost him dearly. He was arguably black America’s leading intellectual of the 20th century. If that is at least close to being true, then here is a question for today: Why are so many people, for example governors of red states, fearful of allowing his story and teachings, as well as those of other Black intellectuals, to be taught in America’s classrooms?

The US Open Tennis Championship: In a word, Glorious.

Speaking of Race, I cannot end this Letter without a shout out to this year’s championship.

The three-week US Open is played at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center. The main events happen at the Arthur Ashe Center Court Stadium. Ashe, an inspirational Black American, and King, an inspirational Lesbian American, embody inclusive diversity and are the best kind of examples we have for sincere and devoted yearnings for equality. It is more than fitting that Friday night Frances Tiafoe, a young 24 year old Black American, played 19-year-old Spanish phenom Carlos Alcaraz in a thrilling five-set, five-hour semi-final match on the Arthur Ashe Center Court. Tiafoe is the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone and spent much of his childhood at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., where his father worked as a custodian. Sometimes he spent the night there, because his mother worked nights in a hospital. The stadium was full and loud, and, although he lost, Tiafoe had the crowd, had all of us, in the palm of his hand. He’ll be back.

Yes, we have a long way to go. But the US Open shows us how far we’ve come. Tennis now looks like America looks.

 

Once Again History Rhymes

Tuesday, September 6th, 2022

“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” – Mark Twain

In 1870, Germany ended the Franco-Prussian War by decisively defeating the French army in a Battle of Annihilation at Sedan. Germany’s overly greedy and needlessly cruel terms of surrender were excruciating for France and included the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, a move against which the prescient Bismarck had advised. It became a constant, festering wound in the heart of every French man and woman. From that point on both countries, each of whom knew they would meet again on the battlefield, prepared for the rematch that would become World War I.

Looking at the behavior of one of the two belligerents, Germany, over the next 45 years illuminates and instructs what is happening now more than a century later, as Vladimir Putin, who has been planning the conquest of Ukraine for nearly 20 years, is following the same unsuccessful, potholed road. We can learn a lot from the mistakes of the past. We can, but we don’t.

In the interval between Sedan and 1914, Germany’s Chief of the General Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, devoted his entire tenure (1891 to 1906) to creating what would become the German Plan of Attack. The plan called for a huge, lightning-like strike through Belgium, which would result in the capture of Paris in nearly six weeks, 40 days. But there was a problem: Belgium neutrality, which had been created in 1831 at an international conference in London that recognized Belgium as an independent, neutral state, its neutrality to be guaranteed by the European powers. Forty years later, shortly after the Franco-Prussian War, British Prime Minister Gladstone secured a treaty from France and Germany that if either violated Belgium neutrality England would work with the other defending Belgium, although without engaging in “the general operations of the war.”

Regardless of Belgian neutrality, Schlieffen’s plan devotedly followed the bible of Germany’s war oracle Baron Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote in the time of Waterloo. Clausewitz had ordained a quick victory by “decisive battle” as the primary object of an offensive war, the only kind Germany understood. He advocated the fast capture of the opponent’s capital above all else. Consequently, to conquer France quickly by taking Paris required ignoring Belgium neutrality.

Schlieffen edited and re-edited his plan over the course of his term, and in 1906, when he retired, the plan was complete.  It was exact in every detail, a model of precision, and it factored in every possible contingency.

The only thing it lacked was flexibility. That is, what to do if something went wrong. And many things did. As that great American philosopher Mike Tyson put it, “All your plans go out the window the first time someone punches you in the mouth.”

The Germans invaded Belgium on their way to Paris on 4 August 1914. In addition to misjudging the determination of the French to defend themselves and believing Britain would either stay out completely or join the battle late, Kaiser Wilhelm was certain the puny Belgians would simply roll over and play dead. However, Belgium’s King Albert, the Kaiser’s cousin, had other ideas and refused to follow the plan. In an act of heroic patriotism, he mobilized the Belgium army, primitive though it was, and fought. Belgium resistance disrupted Schlieffen’s precise timetable, and the Germans never did get to Paris. Instead, Germany was forced to settle for four years of trench warfare, attrition and ultimate surrender in November 1918. The terms of surrender forced on Germany were as bad as it had forced on France after Sedan and led to Hitler’s rise and World War II. We never learn.

The German defeat in the first World War can be directly linked to the arrogance and hubris of its leaders in their certainty that King Albert would not object to the invasion of his country by an army an order of magnitude larger and more accomplished than his own. They did not take into consideration the hatred taking Alsace-Lorraine had spawned in the French, or that the British would do the honorable thing and come in on the side of France following the violation of Belgian neutrality. Neither did they appreciate that Russia, a signatory to the treaty for defending Belgium, would mobilize, join the war, and engage the German army weeks before Schlieffen’s plan anticipated.  Schlieffen and the Kaiser, with their myopic tunnel vision, had never believed any of this would happen. They had refused to even contemplate that their perfect plan could be inadequate in any way.

Schlieffen died in January, 1913, and never saw any of the debacle that was to follow. On 9 November 1918, the German high command, two days before the country’s surrender, forced Kaiser Wilhelm to abdicate. He retired to  neutral Netherlands where he lived in isolation for the rest of his life.

In yet another example of history rhyming, even repeating, we are now witnessing a new instance of military and dictatorial myopia. This time in Ukraine where Vladimir Putin, who seems to fancy himself the second coming of Peter the Great, has wildly miscalculated both the tenacity and determination of Ukrainian patriotism and the commitment and unity of NATO members who, like Gladstone’s Britain, are committed to defending Ukraine, although without engaging in “the general operations of the war.”

Here in 2022, we watch King Albert come to life in the actions of President Zelenskyy.

As what happened to Schlieffen’s perfect plan, Putin’s hubris-driven quick victory was not to be. Like the Germans of August 1914, he failed to capture the Ukrainian capital in the early days of the war. Now, he is now facing a long, slow slog as victory ineluctably slips farther away. The recent Ukrainian counterattacks in the South and East are living proof of this.

Thinking about all this stupidity, I can only conclude that Schlieffen, the Kaiser, Putin and others who yearn for conquest always fail to appreciate, and seriously undervalue, the love of homeland coursing through the veins of all of us. History is full of examples that continue to be ignored. America, itself, has fallen victim to this many times, most recently in Afghanistan.

It would be less than fitting, but still desirable, if Putin’s generals would do to him what the German generals did to the Kaiser. But that, I fear, is where history will neither repeat nor rhyme.

 

 

 

A Few Weekend Thoughts On Biden’s College Loan Forgiveness Program

Saturday, August 27th, 2022

On Wednesday of this week, President Biden issued an Executive Order to forgive some of the debt owed by those who had received college loans. In doing so, Biden was attempting to fulfill a campaign promise to forgive undergraduate student debt for people earning up to $125,000 ($250,000 for a family). “I made a commitment that we would provide student debt relief, and I’m honoring that commitment today,” he said in remarks at the White House.

According to the Office of Federal Student Aid (OFSA), an office within the US Department of Education, Biden’s plan comes in three parts. The first part extends the repayment loan pause a final time (again) to the end of 2022. Part 2 is what’s getting all the attention at the moment. It says:

To smooth the transition back to repayment and help borrowers at highest risk of delinquencies or default once payments resume, the U.S. Department of Education will provide up to $20,000 in debt cancellation to Pell Grant recipients with loans held by the Department of Education and up to $10,000 in debt cancellation to non-Pell Grant recipients. Borrowers are eligible for this relief if their individual income is less than $125,000 or $250,000 for households.

Part 3 of the President’s plan is different in that it is in the form a  proposed rule “to create a new income-driven repayment plan that will substantially reduce future monthly payments for lower-and middle-income borrowers,” according to the OFSA. The proposal would:

  • Require borrowers to pay no more than 5% of their discretionary income monthly on undergraduate loans. This is down from the 10% available under the most recent income-driven repayment plan.
  • Raise the amount of income that is considered non-discretionary income and therefore is protected from repayment, guaranteeing that no borrower earning under 225% of the federal poverty level—about the annual equivalent of a $15 an hour wage for a single borrower—will have to make a monthly payment.
  • Forgive loan balances after 10 years of payments, instead of 20 years, for borrowers with loan balances of $12,000 or less.
  • Cover the borrower’s unpaid monthly interest, so that unlike other existing income-driven repayment plans, no borrower’s loan balance will grow as long as they make their monthly payments—even when that monthly payment is $0 because their income is low.

Part 3 is consequential, and the fourth bullet point of Part 3 even more so. Interest payments can easily double the size of a student loan, and anything that reduces the interest burden will reduce the size of the loan and, consequently, the time required to pay it off. But a proposed rule is not an Order and will take time before being finalized, perhaps a lot of time.

Right now we are in the knee jerk phase of this issue. Republicans categorize Biden’s move as political and unfair to those who worked hard to pay off their loans. Why should their tax dollars now subsidize the millions who haven’t? The far right, more rabid of the bunch, have been raining tweet storms condemning the very idea of forgiving the loans, all the while forgetting to mention their own Paycheck Protection Act loans, most well over $100,000, have all been forgiven.

In thinking about this, the first question one might want to ask is: Does the President have the authority to do it? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t think so. “The president can’t do it,” she said in July. “That’s not even a discussion.”

We can expect this decision to be challenged in the courts. But, at the very least, it offers President Biden a chance to say he is honoring a commitment, a promise, even if the Judiciary ultimately won’t let him do it.

How and why has going to college come to this? I think the answer can be found in the long, winding, potholed road to higher education of the last 55 years. It’s complicated, and people have devoted entire careers to studying it.

I’m concerned, in a practical sense, with what changed from the time I and my peers affordably attended college in the late 1960s. For instance, how and in what manner have costs increased? To what degree and why is there now a far greater percentage of high school graduates attending four year, or even two-year colleges? Have wages commensurately grown with college costs to allow parents and their children to be able to afford it all? How has the for-profit boom in colleges contributed to the college loan crisis, if it has?

To begin to answer those questions, let’s first take a look at where we are now.

Adam Looney, the Nonresident Senior Fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution and the Executive Director of the Marriner S. Eccles Institute at the University of Utah, is one of our foremost experts on college loans and costs. He has argued for quite some time against across-the-board loan forgiveness, because a disproportionate amount goes to people who don’t need it, Ivy League educated doctors, lawyers, etc. He has produced the following table to demonstrate his argument. The table categorizes all colleges and graduate programs represented in the College Scorecard by their selectivity using Barron’s college rankings. The left panel of the table describes the debts owed by students at these colleges. The right panel describes their family economic background and their post-college outcomes. From top to bottom, the schools are categorized by their selectivity—how hard it is to get accepted. Note that the more selective the school, the greater the average debt (with the exception of the for-profits). The same holds true for the two far right columns. The more selective the school, the greater the after college earnings. Note also that, with the exception of the Ivy Plus graduates, the average after college earnings for every other category are less than the President’s cap of $125,000 for loan forgiveness qualification.

I’m going to ignore the harm done by for-profit colleges, except to say the largest single source of student debt in America is one of them—the University of Phoenix, the gigantic online for-profit chain. Students who graduated or dropped out in 2017-2018 owed about $2.6 billion in student loans; two years after graduation, 93 percent of borrowers had fallen behind on their loans, which caused interest owed to grow like festering weeds. These are people Looney agrees need to be helped—a lot.

I thought it might be instructive to look at this through the lens of one, typical, highly reputable, selective public university. As Looney’s table shows, graduates of selective public colleges and universities make up 33.7% of the total share of college debt. I’ve picked the University of Massachusetts. UMass is representative of all state universities, and, because I’m from Massachusetts and long ago was a Trustee at one of its foundations, I know the school better than, say, Penn State or Connecticut.

The UMass flagship campus in Amherst sits on more than 1,400 acres and has about 24,000 students. Out of more than 850 US public colleges, it is #68 in US News & World Report’s current rankings. Tuition, fees, room and board total $32,168 for in-state residents, about $50,000 for out-of-staters. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts currently contributes (subsidizes) 31% of the university’s total costs, or $14,287 per student, which means students’ tuition would be considerably more without that help, somewhere in the range of the cost of a selective private college, or an out-of-state UMass student. Every state subsidizes its selective public colleges to some degree.

Nationally, in 1967, 47% of high school graduates moved on to college. Seventeen percent would drop out, 15.4% white, 28.6% black. Today, less than 10% drop out; 10.7%% of drop outs are Black. We are approaching equality in that regard.

That’s where UMass is now. Fifty-five-years-ago, when I was young, things were different. Facts And Figures 1967, from the then UMass Office of Institutional Studies, is a 163-page, deeply detailed report of the university as it was then, all of it in one spot. I do not think you’d find a similar study today.

In 1967, annual tuition and fees were $336; room and board, $939, for a total cost of $1,275. The university employed 729 full-time faculty for 9,439 students. Today, there are about 1,400 full-time faculty. In 1967, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts picked up 67% of the university’s operating costs (as opposed to the aforementioned 31% today).

What you bought in 1967 for $1.00 would now cost $8.87, with a cumulative rate of inflation of 787%. Over that time, tuition, fees, room and board at the University of Massachusetts have increased by a factor of more than 24. If the tuition at UMass had just grown by the rate of inflation, it would now be $11,310, not $32,168.

So, extrapolating from current demographic and UMass data to the national picture, four things have been at work over the last 55 years. First, student costs have grown at nearly three-times the rate of inflation. Second, the state has reduced its share of student costs by more than 50%, which is representative of the nation. Third, the percent of high school graduates who go on to college has grown from 47% to nearly 62%. And fourth. wages have not even remotely kept up with the cost of college. According to the Congressional Research Service, real wages (wages adjusted for inflation), grew only 8.8%, at the 50th percentile level of all earners, since 1979.

President Biden’s initiative will likely remain a political football at least until the mid-terms, probably beyond. My own conclusion is that it will help a lot of people who need it and will be unnecessary largesse, at taxpayers expense, for those many who don’t. And it does nothing to solve the real problem.

Unless and until we can control the cost of college, this crisis will continue for future generations.  College cost growth at three times the rate of inflation is unsustainable.

We need to do much more than forgive a slice of college loans. That’s like trying to save a sinking ship by tossing the first mate a rope of sand.

 

On Health, History And The Fine Art Of Fudging Data

Wednesday, August 10th, 2022

The cost of insulin, or, half a loaf is better than none

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), passed this past Sunday in the Senate and now sitting for certain passage in the House this week, will cap the cost of an insulin vial at $35 for Medicare beneficiaries with diabetes. However, for those not on Medicare, insulin costs will remain unchanged.

Of the 30 million Americans who have diabetes, more than 7 million of them require daily insulin. A Kaiser Family Foundation study released in July, 2022, found 3.3 million of the 7 million are Medicare beneficiaries  and documented the rise in insulin’s cost since 2007.

Aggregate out-of-pocket spending by people with Medicare Part D for insulin products quadrupled between 2007 to 2020, increasing from $236 million to $1.03 billion. The number of Medicare Part D enrollees using insulin doubled over these years, from 1.6 million to 3.3 million beneficiaries, which indicates that the increase in aggregate out-of-pocket spending was not solely a function of more Medicare beneficiaries using insulin.

The IRA is great news for the Medicare beneficiaries who make up nearly half of the population needing daily injections of insulin to live, but a provision in the original bill that would have capped the cost at $35 for all diabetics, not just those on Medicare, never made it to the final bill. Left out in the cold are the 3.7 million diabetics requiring insulin to keep living who are privately insured or not insured at all. That was an expense bridge too far for Republicans.

Will you permit a bit of cynicism here? Needing 60 votes to pass, 57 senators voted in favor of capping insulin at $35 per vial for all diabetics, 50 Democrats, seven Republicans.  Americans overwhelmingly support this as is shown in this Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken recently:

Eighty-nine percent consider this a priority, 53% a top priority. I suggest Republican leadership, never intending to allow this to pass, permitted those seven, standing for reelection this fall, to vote for the bill to give them cover in the upcoming election. Is that too cynical?

If that’s not bad enough, a study by Yale University researchers, published in Health Affairs, also in July, concluded that “Among Americans who use insulin, 14.1 percent reached catastrophic spending over the course of one year, representing almost 1.2 million people.” The researchers defined “catastrophic spending” as spending more than 40 percent of postsubsistence family income on insulin alone. Postsubsistence income is what’s left over after the cost of housing and food.

Nearly two-thirds of patients who experience catastrophic spending on insulin, about 792 thousand people, are Medicare beneficiaries. The IRA will help these people immensely. However, as it stands now it will do nothing to assist the non-Medicare diabetics who annually face catastrophic spending due to the cost of insulin. This group numbers about 408 thousand who need insulin just to go on living, and, yes, these are poor people with few resources.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but we should not forget that insulin isn’t the only medical resource diabetics use and need. There are also the syringes used to inject the stuff, not to mention the testing strips and glucose monitors that analyze the levels of blood glucose, which diabetics have to track religiously. Diabetes is an expensive disease, and insulin is only one part of the expense.

Every time I and others write about the cost and quality of health care in the US, it almost seems as if we’re all standing on the shore throwing strawberries at a battleship expecting some sort of damage. The Inflation Reduction Act contains the first significant health care move forward since the Affordable Care Act of 12 years ago. It’s progress at last, but so much more is needed.

A great historian and better American is now history himself

David McCullough has died. We have lost a giant.

McCullough had that special gift of telling stories of our past in ways that made us think we were there when they happened. He put us solidly in the shoes of the people he was writing about. For him, history is not about a was; it is about the is of the time. Like us, his subjects lived in a present, not a past. He never judged the choices made in the past; he just told the truth through stories meticulously researched and empathically written. That’s how he could win two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I first met McCullough in the 1980s through his first book, The Johnstown Flood, published in 1968. I could not put it down. Read it through in one sitting. It was the start of his brilliant career, and its success gave him  hope he could actually devote himself to history and do well at it. But he never wrote for the money. What drove him was his love for and curiosity about understanding from whence we came.

In a 2018 interview for Boston Magazine with Thomas Stackpole, he was discussing his latest, and last, historical work, The Pioneers, about a group of New Englanders in the 19th century who picked themselves up, headed west,  settled Ohio, and courageously kept it an anti-slavery state. During the interview, he said:

There are an infinite number of benefits to history. It isn’t just that we learn about what happened and it isn’t just about politics and war. History is human. It’s about people. They have their problems and the shadow sides of their lives, just as we do, and they made mistakes, as we do. But they also have a different outlook that we need to understand. One of the most important qualities that history generates is empathy—to have the capacity to put yourself in the other person’s place, to put yourself, for example, in the place of these people who accomplished what they did despite sudden setbacks, deaths, blizzards, floods, earthquakes, epidemic disease. The second important thing is gratitude. Every day, we’re all enjoying freedoms and aspects of life that we never would have had if it weren’t for those who figure importantly in history.

Today’s Americans seem to think history begins about ten years ago. It is a modern day tragedy, and we own it.  Consequently, humanity keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, never learning from those who showed us where the land mines were lying, hidden underfoot. McCullough did that for 50 years. He leaves a large hole in our American universe.

Fudging data with style

Heading back to diabetes for a moment. You may recall the old adage, “Figures lie, and liars figure.” Well, this is not about that. The fudging I’m going to show has not a lie in it. What it does have is deception on a grand scale, and it comes from our CDC, which, usually, I greatly admire. But not this time.

As we’ve all learned throughout the COVID pandemic, the CDC tracks and reports data — a lot of it.

One of the things the CDC  reports about is Diabetes Mortality By State. It’s been doing it since 2005, and it’s in the last six years that we see, if we look, deception.

Here is how the CDC reported this data in 2015:

The redder things are, the worse they are, so this looks bad, and it is.  The scale above shows the distribution of the colors for the states, starting at 13.4 in Colorado and Nevada and ending at 32.4 in West Virginia. Those are deaths per 100,000 people.

Now, here is how the CDC reported diabetic mortality six years later in 2020:

In 2015 there were three dark red states, eight almost dark red states, and 20 almost almost dark red. But now we have only two dark red, three almost dark red, and those 20 semi dark states have turned to light tan. Wow! What an improvement.

One could be forgiven for going away happy….if one did not look at the actual numbers.

In 2015, Mississippi and West Virginia were the highest mortality states, 32.4 and 31.7 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively. Their numbers in 2020 soared about 30% to 41.0 and 43.1. The states with the lowest mortality in 2015, Nevada and Colorado (13.4 and 15.9), in 2020 are 18.0 and 24.2 deaths per 100,000. Wyoming now comes in with the second lowest mortality at 20.7.

But things look so much better. The distribution scale is different, but who looks at that?

The CDC has done something shameful; it has moved the goalposts and didn’t tell anyone. In reality, diabetic mortality has gotten much worse over the last six years, but unless you dug deep, not only would you not know that, you’d think there was an actual big improvement.

This is another reason why the insulin provision in the Inflation Reduction Act is a big deal.

 

 

From Watergate To Tonight’s Public Hearing: A Stark Contrast

Thursday, June 9th, 2022

On 17 June 1972, in what White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler would later call, “a third-rate burglary,” five men, all former CIA operatives, broke into the Watergate Hotel headquarters of the Democratic National Committee to steal information relating to the upcoming presidential election.

Four months later, in a blockbuster story for the Washington Post on 10 October, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported,

“The Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House, as a basic strategy of the Nixon re-election effort.”

Five months after that, in early March, 1973, the US Senate, by a vote of 77 – 0, voted to convene the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. Four Democrats and three Republicans comprised the Committee, which was chaired by Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC) with Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) as his Vice Chair. The Committee began its public hearings on 17 May, 13 months after the break-in. They would go on every day for two weeks, and were carried live on all television networks. During his opening statement, Howard Baker said the job of the Committee was to answer the question, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”

Watergate would prove the undoing of President Richard Nixon, who just one year earlier had won re-election in a massive landslide. Forty people would be indicted. Seven individuals associated with carrying out the actual burglary and five presidential advisors were convicted of various crimes, although the conviction of one of the advisors, Robert Mardian, was overturned on appeal.

Watergate produced heroes.

  1. First, there were the 77 patriotic senators who voted unanimously to form the Select Committee, many knowing their votes would come back to hurt them in future elections.
  2. Then there were Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus who, in what later came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s venal order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Solicitor General Robert Bork, subsequently nominated to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan, did agree to carry out the order to get rid of Cox and wanted to resign immediately after, but was persuaded by Richardson and Ruckelshaus to stay for the good of the Justice Department.
  3. Senators Ervin and Baker and the other members of the Select Committee did their duty, all the while aware of the risks to their careers and the personal safety of themselves and their families.
  4. Following Watergate, investigators and journalists, layer by layer, unveiled the enormous corruption that was the Nixon presidency. Congress did what Congress should. The American people had an overwhelmingly favorable opinion of how the Senate, the House of Representatives, federal investigators and journalists did their jobs.

So, which was worse? The corruption riddled Nixon presidency with its utter disregard for the truth, the law, and basic morality, or the Trump presidency, with:

  1. Its four-year litany of lies;
  2. Its parade of misinformation about the Covid pandemic;
  3. Its asking  a state election official to “find” nearly 80,000 votes in order to “win” the state of Georgia;
  4. Its withholding of congressionally approved funding for Ukraine in an attempt to extort cooperation from its President as it sought to undermine the campaign of Joe Biden by targeting his son;
  5. Its presidential genuflection to Vladimir Putin;
  6. Its throwing log after log on the inferno that is white nationalism;
  7. And, biggest of all, its January 6th attack on the United States, which Donald Trump and his minions organized and directed and during which he stood idly by, smiling, as he watched it unfold on television while his troops tried to find Vice President Pence, screaming, “Hang Mike Pence.”

Following the Insurrection, we discovered there are some heroes, but very few, on the Republican side of the aisle.

First, the ten Representatives who voted in favor of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack, most of whom have announced they will not run for re-election; they’ve been driven from office by the Cult of Trump.

Second, Representatives Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, and Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois, the only two Republicans who defied party leadership to serve on the Select Committee. Kinzinger will not run for re-election, and Cheney has been stripped of her leadership role in the Party.

That’s it, folks. There aren’t any others. No Elliot Richardsons here

Tonight, eight days away from the third-rate burglary’s 50th anniversary, public hearings conducted by the Select Committee will begin. They bear about as much similarity to the Watergate Hearings as my tennis game does to that of Raphael Nadal’s. But they will be tremendously important. Those Americans who care to watch will witness the evil Genie emerge from his bottle. Even though, unlike the Watergate investigation, many officials have refused Committee subpoenas to testify, much will be revealed. What will happen afterwards is anybody’s guess. The Republicans seem to be playing a waiting game until after the midterm elections. If, as expected, they take control of the House, they will then be able to disband the Select Committee and act like the Insurrection never happened.

But who will tune in tonight? All the major networks, cable and otherwise, will broadcast the Hearing live, as they happen. All except one. That would be Fox, which will have its usual “all star lineup” of Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham commenting contemporaneously as tonight’s Hearing progresses. Wonderful.

One cannot help wondering if tonight’s Hearing will be a mostly preaching-to-the-choir exercise. If it’s true that nearly 70% of Republicans continue to believe the Biden presidency illegitimate and the 2020 election “stolen” from Donald Trump (apparently, some people really will believe anything), tonight’s event might well be nothing more than a lonely voice crying out in an empty desert.

There is one other thing that separates Watergate from the present Committee’s work. No one refused to testify, defying a subpoena, in the Watergate investigation. Chairman Ervin said loud and clear if anyone did that he would have them arrested. They all came to the Committee like lambs to the slaughter. In the present investigation, people, important witnesses, have blithely considered their subpoenas mere recommendations they can justifiably ignore.

What I have been forced to conclude is that January 6th, and what has happened since, are not the main event. They are symptoms of a disease that is cracking our democracy at its core. Unless the present Committee examines the disease, as well as its symptoms, they’ll miss their one chance to show America the deepening fissure.

Looking back, it almost seems as if Watergate happened on a different planet. How far we have fallen.

 

As Thin As The Skin On A Grape – End Of Week Thoughts On The Teaching Of Slavery In America

Friday, April 29th, 2022

A few years ago, before the horror of the pandemic sent us all scurrying to our respective bolt holes, I toured Boston’s historic Trinity Church that sits smack in the middle of high-brow Copley Square. Massachusetts born and bred, and I’d never visited this historic church that in 1885 the American Architectural Association judged the most important building in America. It still ranks among the AIA’s current top ten list.

In late 18th and 19th century Boston, Trinity was the church of the Brahmin elite. Its pews are all labeled with the names and descriptions of the historic families who occupied them. Some very famous names.

About halfway down the center aisle is the pew that once belonged to the family of Isaac Royall, Jr. (1719–1781). Royall was one of the founders of Harvard Law School, and Harvard adopted his family’s a slave owner and slave trader, and in 2016, 200 years after the founding of the law school, Harvard disassociated the crest from the school, because of the family’s business in the slave trade. Better late than never.


The Isaac Royall House and slave quarters in Medford, Massachusetts.

In 2014, Trinity’s History Committee (Yes, there is one) published the remarkable Trinity Church Boston: Facing the Reality of our Past, which lays out in excruciating detail the sordid history of its membership’s past connection with slavery.

Most of the wealthy people who built Boston owned slaves. Slavery entered the Massachusetts Bay Colony as early as 1638 when a ship the Puritan Governor John Winthrop had sent to the West Indies with Indian captives returned with Africans. In 1645, Winthrop’s brother-in-law, Emanuel Downing, told him “I don’t see how we can thrive until we get a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business.” Thinking about that, Winthrop realized an opportunity—in Barbados, which had become so focused on producing sugar that it needed to import all other products. At the same time, New England farms were producing a surplus of food. Winthrop saw a fortuitous “fit” for his colony. Massachusetts trade with the British West Indies grew quickly.

Massachusetts got into the slave business in two ways: First, as Winthrop continued to do, by trading captured Native Americans for kidnapped Africans who were considered more desirable; and, second, by participating in the broader Atlantic slave trade.

And thus it began. Molasses to rum to slaves. Boston in the Triangle Trade.

On Tuesday, Harvard University announced it would commit $100 million to study and redress its ties to slavery, which, in addition to Isaac Royall, Jr., are considerable. The money will create an endowed “Legacy of Slavery Fund,” which will continue researching and memorializing its slavery history, working with descendants of Black and Native American people enslaved at Harvard, as well as their broader communities.

In announcing the initiative, Harvard published an unflinching report detailing what Harvard president Lawrence Bacow described as its “profoundly immoral” behavior. In a letter to the university community about the report, Bacow wrote, “I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”

Harvard now joins other universities—notably, Brown, Georgetown* and Princeton Theological Seminary—not only wrestling with their participation in the “peculiar institution” of slavery, but also trying to work out how to commit to making amends, both socially and financially.

Why bring up all this disgusting history?

Two reasons. First, people generally associate slavery in America with the South; many are not aware of the North’s disgraceful history of slave trading and ownership.** Most everyone knows George Washington and other southern Founding Fathers were slave owners. But Boston? That’s been swept under history’s rug. Time for that to stop.

This is not to say there were not Bostonians who were aggressively anti-slavery. There were, John Adams and John Hancock for example, but they were outgunned, and greed won out, as it so often does. Massachusetts did not outlaw slavery until 1781, and at its height, there were nearly 5,000 slaves in the Commonwealth.

Second, studying slavery, even just reading about it, is uncomfortable. It is a repugnant and distressful topic. The question is: Does that mean young people should not study it in school?

As far back as 1998, elementary, high school and college educators were having serious discussions online about how to teach this necessary history with sensitivity. In that year, Professor Patrick Manning of Northeastern University wrote, “I expect everyone to be uncomfortable when we talk about slavery and slave trade, but it is essential to experience the various sorts of discomfort brought by slavery and to learn from them.”

High school teacher Karen Needles wrote, “In my classroom, I actually made students lie on the floor in close proximity to the space allotted slaves on the slave ships.” Many teachers on this 1998 List Serve did that.

Educators from this period worked hard to instill in their students an understanding of and respect for the tragedy of slavery and the Middle Passage. Chris Lowe, a professor at Boston University wrote to his colleagues, “From our outreach director here at the African Studies Center at Boston University, Barbara Brown, who works primarily with K-12 teachers, I know that teaching the slave trade appears as a big problem to the teachers she works with. My strong impression is that the main issue may not be Eurocentrism so much as the emotional minefield involved, as the history in question has the potential to provoke feelings of anxiety and shame for students (and teachers) of all racial backgrounds that are hard to cope with, and consequent defensive reactions.”

These profound conversations happened 24 years ago and are not unique. Educators at all levels cared, and cared deeply. Today’s teachers care just as much.

Yet now, 24 years later, Republican Governors in red states have loudly proclaimed their sanctimonious intentions to protect young minds from being infected by such things as the 1619 Project, or Critical Race Theory. These Governors have been signing laws that make it difficult, even illegal, for teachers to probe deeply into matters of race and sex. Their laws specifically prohibit teachers from introducing any concept by which:

(vii)  an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex;***

Versions of these restrictive laws have been passed in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Mississippi.

On page one of South Dakota’s summary of its new law it says the law aims to “protect students and employees at institutions of higher education from divisive concepts.” Keeping in mind that our nation’s history is rife with “divisive concepts,” there might not be much history taught in  South Dakota.

Slavery, the Triangle Trade and the Middle Passage might be the ultimate in “divisive concepts.” Nonetheless, once the kidnapped Africans arrived here, what happened to them? Assuming you agree that how they got here and what happened to them is historically important, how should this uncomfortable, but historically important, history be taught?

Consider Louisiana for a moment.

In 1712, there were only 10 Africans in all of Louisiana (there were a lot more in Boston). In this early period, European indentured servants, submitting to 36-month contracts, did most of the work clearing land and laboring on small-scale plantations. This would change dramatically after the first two ships carrying kidnapped Africans arrived in Louisiana in 1719 and in 1794 with Eli Whitney’s invention of the Cotton Gin.

By 1795, there were 19,926 enslaved Africans and 16,304 free people of color in Louisiana. The German Coast, where Whitney Plantation is located, was home to 2,797 enslaved workers. The United States outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, but that did not stop the domestic slave trade. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the population of enslaved Africans skyrocketed. Someone had to pick all the cotton, which made the south rich. Just before the Civil War in 1860, there were 331,726 enslaved people and 18,647 free people of color in Louisiana.

Should the children of Louisiana not be taught this? Should they not be taught the political and economic underpinnings by which slavery grew in their state? Should they not discuss and argue it in class, led by teachers, like the ones quoted above, who have the objectivity, training, honesty and dedication to open their minds to what lies beyond?

Studying this stuff is going to make them, and their parents, uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, we have a bigger problem than ignorance. But teachers, staring at the penalties written into these vague, new laws, are now thinking twice about what and how they teach. This is a tragic development in education, and undervalues the curiosity and capacity for learning in today’s youth.

I wonder what those educators writing each other back in 1998 would think of all this? In a moment of prescience, Professor Lowe wrote, “There are probably political dimensions to this a la “culture wars” stupidities as well.”

If we Americans are too fearful to let our children learn our history, both the good and the horrific, then the moral and intellectual foundation of our future leaders will be as thin as the skin on a grape.

 

*In 2021, the Jesuit conference of priests announced their own $100 million commitment to be used for racial reconciliation and to benefit the descendants of 272 enslaved people sold in 1838 to pay off the debts of Georgetown University. And Brown University is examining its role, because Rhode Island’s involvement in slavery was ever greater than that of Massachusetts.

**In 2005, the New York Historical Society opened its fascinating “Slavery In New York” exhibit detailing New York’s deep involvement with slavery, just like Boston’s. I toured the exhibit and was positively stunned.

***All the new laws have a version of this sub-paragraph. It’s almost as if they were all written by the same person.

How To Rebuild Ukraine And Who Pays For It?

Monday, April 25th, 2022

What’s past is prologue.
William Shakespeare – The Tempest

In 1870, Germany defeated France in a Battle of Annihilation at Sedan, which led to its ultimate victory in the Franco Prussian War and the creation of the German Empire. In a stick-in-the-eye insult, Kaiser Wilhelm 1 was crowned the first Emperor in the  Hall of Mirrors of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. As part of the terms of the subsequent Treaty of Frankfurt am Main, the Germans took Alsace Lorraine and levied massive reparation payments of five billion francs the victors thought would take France at least 20 years to pay. As long as they remained unpaid, German troops would remain in France. The Treaty’s final insult was a German battle parade straight through the Arc de Triomphe, then down the 1.9 kilometer long, 70 meter wide Champs-Élysées, and ending in the  Place de la Concorde, where Parisians had draped all of the statues in black. German troops marching to rhythmic fife and drum. It was humiliation the French never forgot.

With a Herculean effort that amazed Germany, France paid the reparations in three years, and the Germans had to leave. However, the taking of Alsace Lorraine, which sat on the western French border, right next to Germany, just as Ukraine’s Donbas region sits next to Russia, was the debasement that gnawed at France the most.

 

 

 

 

The Germans, with their colossal arrogance of the time, ignored Bismarck’s recommendation to treat the French in Alsace Lorraine lightly and allow them some autonomy. So, hatred grew. And kept growing all the way up to World War 1. It was palpable on both sides, so much so that from 1895 until 1914 each devoted themselves to planning and preparing for that war, which they knew, absolutely knew, would come, the Germans with their Schlieffen Plan, which required the violation of Belgium neutrality and predicted the capture of Paris on Day 39 of the war*, and the French with their Plan 17, which depended** on the Germans violating Belgium neutrality, but had no prediction for the capture of Berlin. Fifteen years planning for the the worst war in history. Not planning to prevent it, but planning to win it, because they both knew it was inevitable. It was the tragic, but natural, gravitational course of things at the turn of the 20th century.

Alsace Lorraine did not cause World War 1, but the hatred it involved was fuel for the massive fire to come.

Ukraine and Russia have also been preparing for war for some time, since 2014 when Ukrainians threw out Putin’s presidential puppet Viktor Yanukovych in the Revolution of Dignity. Following that, an enraged Putin annexed Crimea and sent Russian soldiers in olive drab uniforms without insignia into the Donbas to help Ukrainian separatists “liberate” the area. That was the beginning of the inexorable march to today.

Today, if you can possibly put aside the more than 2,300 Ukrainian civilians that have been mercilessly killed and the 12 million that have been displaced, five million out of the country, you are faced with the physical infrastructure damage the Russians have wrought. There are now cities in Ukraine that look like the worst of those bombed to ruin in World War II.

Last week, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal called on members of the International Monetary Fund for financial assistance, suggesting it will cost at least $600 billion dollars to rebuild the war-torn country following Russia’s invasion.

The prime minister made the appeal Thursday during a ministerial meeting held by the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, D.C., as Russia’s war neared its third month.

Who will pay? And how? And if Russia captures the Donbas, what will happen? History suggests Ukrainians will react just as the French did, preparing with all their might to take it back. Maybe not now, maybe not in the near term, but the French waited 44 years.

Realizing the enormity of the rebuilding task, there are now suggestions being floated. Chief among them is: Taking all the Russian and Oligarch frozen assets in the hands of the west, and using them to pay for reconstruction. This would net a few hundred billions of dollars and would be a nice start.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen seemed open and receptive, but also cautious, to that idea last week. When asked during a press briefing about the potential of using frozen Russian Central Bank funds to support Ukraine, Yellen said, “I wouldn’t want to do so lightly,” adding that it would have to be done in consensus with US allies and partners and might need Congressional approval. That would be an interesting vote, indeed.

On Thursday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a virtual address to IMF and World Bank leaders that “a special tax on war is needed.” He called for the proceeds of sanctioned property and Russian Central Bank reserves to be used to compensate Ukraine for its losses. He added that frozen Russian assets “have to be used to rebuild Ukraine after the war as well as to pay for the losses caused to other nations.” He said it would take $5 billion per month over the next three months just to keep the Ukrainian economy alive, an economy which the IMF predicts will shrink by 45% this year. It’s easy to see why.

Of course, Russia will strenuously object to this, and, regardless of what happens in the Donbas, Putin, losing all his now frozen assets forever, might be driven to do something even more terrible than he already has. And that, my friends, could drop us right back into 1914 all over again.

I hope at least some of our leaders have studied history.

*The Germans made it to 70 miles from Paris before they had to retreat and dig in. Thus began more than five years of trench warfare with nearly 10 million soldiers and even more civilians killed.

**France had an agreement with England, whereby if Germany violated Belgian neutrality in an attack on France and if France never set foot on Belgian soil, then England would enter the conflict on the side of France, which is exactly what happened. Belgium had been guaranteed perpetual neutrality in the 1839 Treaty of London, signed by the German Confederation, England, France, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, and Russia.

To Recapture Its Greatness, America Must Look To Its Past

Wednesday, April 6th, 2022

At the close of World War II, the United States had become by far the dominant world power. How could it not be? Europe had been beaten to a pulp, the same for Russia. Japan had been bombed nearly back to the stone age. China was a nonentity, and India was still a British colony. There was no one else. The U.S. was the last man standing. In addition to the tragically killed and wounded, the worst thing the country had faced was rationing for the war effort. The mainland continental United States was nearly untouched by enemy action during the entire war.

But the physical devastation was so severe in Europe that in May 1947, nearly two years after Victory in Europe Day, Winston Churchill described the continent as “a rubble-heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.”

As the only country with the resources to lead the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after the war, the United States realized its post-war prominence came with colossal responsibility—and opportunity. In perhaps this nation’s greatest contributions to humanity, it poured money, personnel, and other resources into the most massive rebuilding effort in history. This was one of those rare instances where beneficence exquisitely blended with national self-interest. During the years following the war, America devoted itself to European and Japanese recovery in ways that  should still inspire us today.

  • The U.S. developed the four-year European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan) under the leadership of Army General and Secretary of State George C. Marshall* to rebuild the infrastructure and rehabilitate the economies of 16 western and southern European countries to allow stable conditions to develop and democratic institutions to survive.  This included Germany, and stands in sharp contrast to the humiliating and draconian measures taken by the victors at the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Stalin wanted similar measures after World War II, but was overruled by the allies who, despite the atrocities committed by Germany, knew it would be folly to repeat the mistakes of Versailles. The Marshall Plan years (1947 – 1951) were the fastest period of growth in European history and led to the Schumann Plan, the Common Market and now the European Union. The Marshall Plan also led directly to the creation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). During the Marshall Plan, the U.S. contributed $17 billion over the four-year period (more than $200 billion in today’s dollars). The Soviet Union and its allies refused to accept any of the aid from the Marshall Plan, because doing so would allow the U.S. to have a degree of  control over the Soviet economies, and the paranoid Joseph Stalin could never allow that;
  • Similarly, in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur took charge of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers (SCAP) and began the work of reconstruction. SCAP dismantled the Japanese Army and banned former military officers from taking roles of political leadership in the new government. To rebuild the Japanese infrastructure and economy, the U.S. invested nearly $3 billion ($20 billion in today’s dollars) in materials, manpower and humanitarian aid between 1947 and 1952. Today, having abandoned its early 20th century bellicosity, Japan is the third largest economy in the world.
  • After the war, although reconstruction was critical for the future, establishing justice for war criminals was central to that time’s present. As in Nürnberg, Germany, where more than 3,000 Nazis were prosecuted for war crimes during the two years following the war, the Allies brought to trial Japanese wartime leaders by convening war crimes trials in Tokyo and at various tribunals sitting outside Japan. Some 5,000 Japanese were found guilty of war crimes.
  • In 1948, Russia initiated the cold war by inhumanely blockading the three western sectors of Berlin, cutting off 2.5 million people from access to electricity, food, coal and other crucial supplies. Beginning 26 June 1948, two days after the blockade was announced, U.S. and British planes carried out the largest air relief operation in history, transporting some 2.3 million tons of supplies into West Berlin on more than 270,000 flights over 11 months. The awesome magnanimity of the Airlift, which cost America $224 million ($2.6 billion in today’s dollars) saved the lives of an untold number of Berliners.

  • In April, 1945, even before the war ended and 12 days following the death of President Roosevelt, the U.S. hosted more than 500 delegates from 51 countries who conferenced for two months in San Francisco to create the framework for what would become the United Nations. In the middle of the conference the delegates gathered in Cathedral Grove of Muir Wood to pay tribute to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A unified America did all that, and more. It demonstrated the greatness of “the American century,” and was a significant and proud moment in our history.

And now, in 2022, 77 years following the end of World War II, what have we become? There have been majestic moments in our history, notably the 5th decade of the 20th century, when national self-interest trumped political self-interest. Is anything resembling that intelligent altruism possible today in our deeply divided country where partisanship is egged on by grandstanding politicians whose only consideration is their own ambition?

Eventually, please God, soon, the war in Ukraine will end. Unlike in Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, it is highly doubtful we will ever be able to bring to justice Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Russians responsible for the obvious war crimes unveiled in Bucha this week. They will never again be able to visit a western country, but they’ll be safe among what passes for friends.

However, a massive rebuilding will face the world. Ukraine was a beautiful country, the largest in Europe, with magnificent architecture. It will require an enormous investment in time, money, and skilled workers to restore it to its former beauty. Do we here in America have any of the George Marshall-like fortitude to commit ourselves to that effort? We won’t have to stand alone; all of Europe will be there to help. But we will need to lead, as we did in the past. Will our profound national partisanship allow that?

The tragedy in Ukraine offers us a moment for unity. Republicans, who have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to even the idea of supporting the administration’s efforts to help, will have an opportunity to put partisanship aside to show America what they can be capable of.

It is noteworthy that thus far they are being shown up by a Ukrainian President who is demonstrating what love of country and leadership really are.

 

*Marshall may be the most accomplished statesman and wartime leader in American history. He was armed forces Chief of Staff during World War II, a five-star general (one of only five in history), Secretary of State following the war, where he organized the Marshall Plan, Secretary of Defense during the Korean conflict, Time’s Man of the Year—twice, and, in 1953, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Long Recent History Of Russian Brutality

Monday, April 4th, 2022

Hungarian-born Imre Nagy had been a committed communist since shortly after the Russian revolution of 1917. From 1933 to 1941, he served the Soviet NKVD secret police as an informer. During that period, he denounced more than 200 colleagues, who were then purged and arrested.  Fifteen of them were executed. Nagy was no Mother Teresa.

The Soviets installed Nagy as Chairman of Hungary’s Council of Ministers in 1953, and over the next two years, beginning to recognize the repression of which he had long been a part, he tried to reduce the harsher elements of communist rule. The Russians could not tolerate this, and they ousted him in 1955.

On 23 October 1956, the people of Hungary declared independence from the Soviet Union and threw out Russia’s puppet government. They then named the sixty-year-old Nagy Prime Minister. In something akin to a Road to Damascus conversion, the now reformist Nagy took full control of the government, admitted non-communist politicians, dissolved the ÁVH secret police, promised democratic reforms, and unilaterally withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact on 1 November. On 4 November, the Soviets launched a massive invasion, swiftly regained control, and deposed Nagy, who took refuge in the Yugoslavian embassy. Two weeks later, after giving assurances for his safety, the Russians lured Nagy out of the embassy and immediately arrested and deported him to Romania. Two years later, he was tried for treason, found guilty (there’s a surprise), and immediately executed.

In the 66 years since Russia obliterated the freedom dreams of the Hungarian people, the Kremlin has repeatedly demonstrated that its approach to putting down dissent in Hungary was not an anomaly; it was the rule. Since then, it has been swift and brutal in crushing any action it interprets as a threat to its hegemony. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 offers another example.

In early 1968, the Russian puppet leader Antonin Novotny was deposed as the head of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and was replaced by Alexander Dubcek. The Dubcek government ended censorship in early 1968, and this new freedom resulted in a public expression of broad-based support for reform in which government and  Communist Party policies could be debated openly. In April, the Czech Government issued a formal plan for further reforms.

Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union’s General Secretary, could not allow this, and on 20 August Warsaw Pact forces invaded and occupied Prague. Over the two days it took to destroy the Prague Spring, the Russians killed 137 Czechoslovakian civilians and seriously wounded 500. The Kremlin justified the use of force in Prague under what would become known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that Moscow had the right to intervene in any country where a communist government had been threatened. This doctrine also became the primary justification for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the nine-year war it eventually lost after seeing 15,000 of its troops killed and 35,000 wounded. Two million Afghans died during the the war.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing, the people of Chechnya, which the USSR had controlled since 1921, broke away. Russia invaded and began the brutalization of the Chechen people and the destruction of the capital city, Grozny. In 2003, the United Nations called Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth.” The Russians killed between 5,000 and 8,000 civilians in a little over a month.

After the fall of communism in 1989, and with the exception of the Chechnya invasion, the evil Genie was crammed back into its bottle for the next 11 years, during which capitalism and democracy emerged and the oligarchs were born. This ended when Russians elected Stalin doppelganger Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 2000.

As I have written previously, over time it has become more and more easy to mistake Putin for a modern-day Ivan the Terrible. On his watch and at his direction, Russia invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 2008, tore off a part of the country, and invented the “states” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in the process destroying towns and murdering civilians before withdrawing most of its troops. Next came the Syrian city of Aleppo, which Russia reduced to dust in 2016. There, Russian troops destroyed hospitals and schools, choked off basic supplies, and killed aid workers and hundreds of civilians in just a few days.

Does any of this sound familiar?

And now we have Ukraine, where the world seems amazingly surprised to see Putin’s Russia trying to eliminate an entire country using the same barbaric methods it has employed so often since 1956.

It appears Vladimir Putin sees his mission in life is to recreate Imperial Russia with himself as Tsar. His tactics are not new. As Ukrainian President Zelenskyy says, Putin will throw soldiers at Ukraine “like logs into a train’s furnace.”

The world did nothing to punish the Soviet Union for Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Afghanistan. It did nothing, absolutely nothing, to punish Putin for Grozny, Georgia or Aleppo.

The Ukrainians are fighting with patriotism, bravery, and incredible determination. Ten million have been displaced. Russian forces have blown to oblivion cities, hospitals (at least five of them), schools and theatres. Just as in Grozny, when Russian troops withdraw they leave the bodies of dead civilians lying in the streets for the world to see. Yesterday we learned about the atrocities in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, where, after the Russians withdrew, Ukrainians found more than 400 innocent civilians who had been killed, some with their hands tied behind their backs. These are war crimes, and after World War II, we executed German commanders for doing that sort of thing.

Neither the U.S. nor NATO will put a single soldier on the ground or a single plane in the air to overwhelm what appears to be an inferior Russian army. Instead, we send weapons and supplies. I’m of two minds about that, but I understand the argument that joining the fight might make a terrible situation worse, if that’s possible. Moreover, public support for that just isn’t there. Seventy-five percent of Americans are against it.

So, we are reduced to fighting with sanctions as our weapons. To me, that seems like throwing a strawberry at a battleship expecting to sink it. But right now, what do we have except the strawberries?

 

 

 

 

How Much Does Truth Matter In America Today?

Friday, March 18th, 2022

In 399 BCE, the Greek philosopher Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety, in that he “failed to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges.” He was tried, found guilty on both charges by a jury of male Athenians chosen by lot, and condemned to death.

Socrates real crime was in challenging his students to think critically. He asked political and philosophical questions and did not accept trite answers. Athenian leaders and other intellectuals resented his elenctic method of questioning, because it threatened their own credibility.

The trial of Socrates is an early example of a state restricting the knowledge its citizens can access and debate, and ever since then autocrats have done exactly that to get and maintain power.

In the 20th century, Adolph Hitler rose to power by building his own falsity factory and feeding the German people only a single version of “the truth.” And today, Vladimir Putin, a modern-day a devil disguised in a bespoke suit of skin, has imposed a crude and draconian crackdown on anyone who doesn’t toe the company line. I find it interesting that yesterday Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, defending Putin from nearly worldwide condemnation, called him a, “very wise, prescient, and cultured international figure.” That’s rich.

Here in America, we daily face similar attempts, some subtle, some not, to package lies and sell them as gospel truth. They pummel us from all sides. The tragedy is that so many of us open wide and swallow.

A case in point can be found in many states that are now restricting what teachers can teach and what books their students can read. Right now, in eleven states, teachers and librarians can be prosecuted for violating restrictions recently enshrined in law by their legislators and governors.

Reading these laws (I did), one gets the impression they were mostly written by the same person. Their focus is race and sex. They all contain the the following language taken from Texas that prohibits teachers from introducing a concept by which:

(vii)  an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex;

Right on page one, in South Dakota’s summary of its new law it says it aims to “protect students and employees at institutions of higher education from divisive concepts.” Whatever they are.

Similar versions of these restrictive laws have been passed in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, North Dakota, Oklahoma,. South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Mississippi.

FutureEd has done a good job of cataloguing both the enacted legislation and the bills currently under consideration devoted to racism and sex. You might want to visit. There are 96 of them, nearly all of them in red states.

Imagine yourself a history teacher in any of these states. How do you cover The Mud Sill speech of South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, delivered in the U.S. Senate on 4 March 1858, without causing some “discomfort”? That’s the speech in which Hammond said:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.

Or, how do you discuss the Cornerstone speech of Alexander Stevens, Vice President of the Confederacy, former U.S. Representative from Georgia, and future Governor of Georgia in 1882? In the Cornerstone speech, he said:

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 race is his natural and normal condition.

It seems to me a violation of all that’s sacred to sugar-coat this stuff. In discussing it with intellectual honesty, a teacher is probably going to offend somebody somewhere, be it a student, a parent or a politician. The truth requires honest discussion of all of America’s history, both the good and the awful. An open discussion in the safety of a classroom where students are free to think critically, and are led by a teacher drawing out the best their brains have to give in the manner of Socrates is good for the students and for the future of America.

Painful though it may be, truth matters.