Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

June 1, 2012

Droppin’ Hamiltons like Aaron Burr

Before I say anything, I want to make sure I’m not stepping on Jeff’s post about university presses and state and local history. I hesitate to even click “post” before everyone in this profession reads what he has to say.

And following that, I should say hello again. I haven’t posted since 2010, about a week after my wife and I learned we were expecting a child. What followed was a rush to “finish” a manuscript, a bathroom renovation, a semester of teaching, and a bunch of the usual things. Blogging fell by the wayside in this fanatical effort to manage time and maximize productivity before the bambino arrived, and the last 10 months have been an exercise in seeing what I still care about now that I feel like an adult. Suddenly, the ‘blog it’ bar got harder to clear, and the ‘do I have time to read this?’ question became far more urgent.

But here I am, thanks to David Brooks.

I know it’s a bit of a parlor game to bash Brooks, the New York Times in-house conservative columnist. In general, Brooks strikes me as a guy trying to do a good job in a tough situation: the cheese slid off the cracker in the conservative movement, to the point where we’ve got a birther-curious GOP nominee who will say anything and a House Republican caucus that looks like a circus (did you ever watch special orders speeches at night on CSPAN? Oh my.) The kinds of Republicans Brooks really wants to respect are dead, retired, or Democrats. And yet he has this grating habit of embracing false equivalency, following in the vapid tradition of David Broder of proposing superior ‘centrist’ policies that equate and dismiss the ideological commitments and organized constituencies of both major political parties.

If you read his May 28 column, “The Role of Uncle Sam,” you know exactly what I mean.

But what interested – and irked – me was that the centrism Brooks proposes for the country he’s rebranded as “Hamiltonian.” As in Alexander Hamilton. Yes, the bank guy.

Brooks thinks the U.S. government has gotten way too big. He doesn’t specify what that means exactly, but his opening line is that “Government promoted industrial development in the 18th century, transportation in the 19th, communications in the 20th and biotechnology today.” Within that frame, “the federal role has historically been sharply limited” and our guy Hamilton was “the man who initiated that role” He was “a nationalist” whose  “primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal.”

You should read the column yourself and not take my word for it, but in short, Brooks posits that:

  • *The Hamiltonian tradition has been followed by “Whigs, early Republicans, and early progressives”
  • *People in the Hamiltonian tradition “reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots”
  • *“generations of leaders [in this tradtion] assume that there is a rough harmony of interests between capital and labor”
  • *Everything was going great until progressives, the New Deal, and LBJ came along
  • *The so-called Tea Party was a culminating outcome of a decades-long festering revulsion among conservatives who were becoming anti-government

And finally Brooks’ conclusion asks:

 Does government encourage long-term innovation or leave behind long-term debt for short-term expenditure? Does government nurture an enterprising citizenry, or a secure but less energetic one?

Never mind the shoddy history of political parties in the 20th century, or the false choices and false equivalencies posed in those last two sentences.

(By the way, can someone explain why secure people aren’t enterprising? Would we all be more productive if we were being chased by lions or sleep better if we took the batteries out of smoke detectors?)

I’ve been reading Hamilton in a serious this-is-my-career way for the last 10 years, and what’s striking about the Brooksian verision of the “Hamiltonian tradition” is how utterly ahistorical these claims are. That’s not surprising from a pundit, but David Brooks is no ordinary pundit. He’s a Very Serious Person – a public intellectual. Yet he seems to be profoundly unfamiliar with the contours of Hamilton’s career in government and politics – one that was, need I remind you, very short and very learnable.

Look, I’m intrigued by Hamilton. I hope to make a career and sell literally dozens of books by writing about Hamilton and some of the institutions he guided. But once you know anything about Hamilton’s politics, you know that’s why he should not be looked to as a guide to anything you want to describe as centrist or moderating. Hamilton was not representative of majority opinions at the Convention in 1787, and by the time he was through Washington and Adams, he was – with complete sincerity – regarded as a monarchist by many of the Republicans of 1800.

I could spend 2000 words rebutting David Brooks’ claims one-by-one, but I find it utterly perplexing that in an age when you can find many of Hamilton’s papers on Google Books for free, that you would say that Hamilton’s goal wasn’t to make people “rich or equal, that he rejected a politics of “haves” vs. “have-nots,” and that Hamiltonians think of capital and labor as equally-weighted forces in political life.

Let’s be clear.

Banking politics was contentious precisely because it was about winners and losers, the exclusivity of membership in networks of credit, and the privileging of capital over labor. The aggregation of political power within banks was what Hamilton’s opponents understood to be their most powerful argument against the multiplication of banks in general and the existence of the Bank of the United States in particular.

Yes, “nationalists” cared about roads, bridges, and schools. But so did Hamilton’s opponents, who we also have to call “nationalists,” too. And contrary to Brooks’ claim, Hamilton and his successors cared a great deal about jobs, employment, and security – it was why the U.S. had a tariff. In fact, the early American tariff is often cited in modern macroeconomic textbooks as a case where a tariff is justified – you’re protecting infant industries in your domestic economy that would wither under the pressure of competitive disadvantages if left unprotected.

And those long-term infrastructure projects that the “Hamiltonians” loved? At some point, they had to have been the near-term projects that Brooks detests. Glaciers and laser cannons didn’t carve out the Erie Canal – it was a debt-financed state project that paid workers for their hard labor over many years. Wizards didn’t lay train tracks or build bridges and maintain roads. You only get to do long-term projects by engaging in near-term planning, execution, and financing. At some point, the question is called, votes are cast, and the nasty business of politicking begins to become public policy.

I guess what’s surprising about Brooks’ columns – this one and others preceding it – is that the man seems so insistent on dismissing 21st century liberalism as little more than a basket of blind demands for spending and regulation that he has to carve out this absurd definition of Hamilton’s politics. It’s why he can write a column about Hamilton without mentioning the word “bank” (yes, really).

I’m not sure how useful Hamilton is to 21st century political thought. He was only in power for 12 years (unofficially) and killed in 1804. He never saw the Erie Canal. Never saw the steamboat Clermont, or the telegraph, or the steam locomotive, or had time to contemplate the effects of the cotton gin, or Louisiana land, California gold, and the industrial revolution. He never even got to savor Aaron Burr’s downfall, let alone think about the needs of modern powers.

My guess, though, is that Brooks might not be so keen on Hamilton if he knew that he hated speculators, was in favor of highly-regulated banks, state-supported industry, a tariff, and a sweeping definition of the Commerce Clause. The real Hamilton would have laughed someone out of the room who claimed a corporation was entitled to free speech rights as a “person.”

And the real Hamilton, I suspect, would find David Brooks’ “Hamiltonian” politics utterly unrecognizable.

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February 26, 2009

Oh the Humanities!!

Filed under: Economy,Education,Historians,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:17 am

So the NYT says the Humanities are in trouble in these troubled times.  “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth,” the headline reads. Possibly, but not as much trouble as the media.

I am never sure whether history is included in media/political discussions of the Humanities, but I will bite here on one bit of justification: If most of the people running our financial and government institutions had even the slightest factual knowledge of history, especially historical trends, they would never have wrecked the economy by placing so much faith in the idea that property values would only go in one direction, up, forever. They would also have known that far from needing to get out of the way, law and government created modern private property markets in the first place and strong periodic restructuring and regulation has always been necessary to maintain them. That did not sound very humanistic, I know, but it is the kind of thing you and learn from humanities education. I will be discoursing on the Panic of 1819 later today myself, a case in point if ever there was one.

But I should perhaps let the Times speak for itself.

But in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency. Previous economic downturns have often led to decreased enrollment in the disciplines loosely grouped under the term “humanities” — which generally include languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion. Many in the field worry that in this current crisis those areas will be hit hardest.

Already scholars point to troubling signs. A December survey of 200 higher education institutions by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Moody’s Investors Services found that 5 percent have imposed a total hiring freeze, and an additional 43 percent have imposed a partial freeze.

In the last three months at least two dozen colleges have canceled or postponed faculty searches in religion and philosophy, according to a job postings page on Wikihost.org. The Modern Language Association’s end-of-the-year job listings in English, literature and foreign languages dropped 21 percent for 2008-09 from the previous year, the biggest decline in 34 years.

“Although people in humanities have always lamented the state of the field, they have never felt quite as much of a panic that their field is becoming irrelevant,” said Andrew Delbanco, the director of American studies at Columbia University.

I’m sorry Andrew Delbanco feels irrelevant, but me not so much. We are not hiring right now to be sure and cutbacks are on the way, but as the Times figures indicate, the humanities seem to be falling apart at about the same rate as everything else in the world economy. At the same time, in my Midwestern public university, at any rate, our history enrollments and graduate applications are up and undergraduates seem to be looking for historical perspective more than ever, wondering how the hell we got here from there, and where else we might be going.

In short, this Times article seems to be premature, chasing after a trend that might develop but has not quite happened yet. Frankly, I put it down to the schadenfreude toward humanities academia that has long fairly pulsated through the cultural coverage of our tottering elite media institutions.

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December 14, 2008

A Culture Threatening to Dog

Filed under: Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:11 am

Straining to keep the Rod Blagojevich story bubbling until such time as something else actually happens, and to imbue it with presidential significance (the only sort of significance the national political media seems to recognize), the New York Times yesterday resorted to a trope I call the “disappearing subject.” This is where the media’s desperate efforts to flog a story get elided by personifying (or in this case, animalizing) the story so that it can appear to be harassing the target all on its own: classically, questions the media obsessively raise are said to “dog” the candidate or official. This was the strategy the Times and many other outlets used to keep non-events like Whitewater and Travelgate going as scandals during the Clinton years. So here we are again, with Kate Zernike introducing her little piece on Illinois’s history of corruption with a truly stellar bit of chin-stroking non-analysis of a vague strictly mental and perceptual event that has not yet occurred, even on that meta level :

In Illinois, a Virtual Expectation of Corruption – NYTimes.com
. . . Now the culture of his adopted home state threatens to dog President-elect Barack Obama, whose vacated seat in the Senate Mr. Blagojevich is accused of putting up for auction, much as swampy Arkansas politics dogged the last young Democratic politician elected on a platform of change, Bill Clinton.

Prosecutors say Mr. Obama is not a subject of the investigation. And he has been a champion of ethics reform in the Illinois Legislature and in the Senate. But some Republicans have seized the opportunity to try to tie him to the worst side of Illinois politics.

Get that? The dogging, though only threatened, has been perpetrated not even by the story, but the thin pretext for writing it in a way that might touch president-elect Barack Obama (“the culture of his adopted home state”). I hate it when adopted home state cultures do that. Oh yes, and the very fact that the media used the same rhetorical tactics against Clinton, actually links Obama to the Clinton scandals, in the sense that NYT can bring up the two in the same sentence.

Who can take “ideas” like these seriously without being professionally invested in keeping American politics stupid?

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December 12, 2008

Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, Annette Gordon-Reed, and the “New York Times”

Filed under: Black history,Historians,Media,scandals,Women's History — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:41 pm

Belatedly, from over Thanksgiving, let me blog congratulations to my SHEAR colleague Annette Gordon-Reed on her recent National Book Award, for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.  It is always good to see these mainstream history book awards going to academic historian rather than journalists or popularizers, but in this case the award is particularly well-deserved.

I do feel obliged to comment on Gordon-Reed’s recent mentions in the New York Times, which have shown a strange discomfort with the basic approach of this book and her earlier one, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University of Virginia Press, 1997). I would define that approach as treating Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and their relatives as a really complicated family rather than as a political scandal or national shame. Accordingly, Gordon-Reed is more inclined to see Tom and Sally as a real relationship rather than a simple matter of exploitation or victimization.

Though perfectly consistent with the dominant post-1960s strain of historical research and writing on American slavery, which has emphasized slaves’ ability to carve out spaces out of independence and resistance even within such an oppressive, coercive institution, Gordon-Reed’s approach to Jefferson and Hemings seems not to sit terribly well with some white liberals, possibly of a certain age. In early October, there was a rather back-handed (though officially positive) review by Eric Foner, then this odd interview from a few days ago:

Questions for Annette Gordon-Reed – History Lesson – Interview – NYTimes.com
Your book reminds us that black and white is not as clear-cut as separatists like to pretend. Sally Hemings was the daughter of a white father and a slave mother, and three of her children grew up to live as whites.
People talk about Obama as if he were some new thing.

Right, the first interracial man!
It’s astonishing. Sex between the races was more common in the 18th century than it is now.

How do you know?
Based on the children. Slave owners had children with enslaved women.

But the women were mostly raped, weren’t they?
Undoubtedly, the vast majority of enslaved women who had children by slave masters were raped. But there were also situations where men and women of different races genuinely liked one another. Where do people think the rainbow of colors of black people comes from? Most black people in America have some white ancestry.

In that regard, Jefferson and Hemings were pioneers of our increasingly mixed-race society.
I don’t think we are increasingly mixed-race. We’ve always been a mixed-race society.

Both the NYT interview and Foner’s review were a bit fixated on the idea of defining all interracial sex within slavery as violently coerced. While that view is probably accurate in the largest sense, and certainly consistent with the moral precepts most modern Americans believe and practice, it might not always be so helpful in understanding the messiness of human relations in a time before the equality and autonomy of all individuals had been legally and socially accepted. Foner’s recommendation in the review seemed to be, when faced with a situation as messy and ambiguous as the one between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, “punt”:

(more…)

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December 1, 2008

Historicizing the new “Black Friday”

Filed under: Economy,Media,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:57 pm

Two cheers for the one of the news media’s occasional flashes of self-awareness, David Carr’s New York Times article explaining the media’s role in creating the detestable retail-cultural phenomenon known as “Black Friday,” the shopping day after Thanksgiving:

This weekend, news reports were full of finger-wagging over the death by trampling of a temporary worker, Jdimytai Damour, at a Wal-Mart store in Long Island on Friday. His death, the coverage suggested, was a symbol of a broken culture of consumerism in which people would do anything for a bargain.

The willingness of people to walk over another human being to get at the right price tag raises the question of how they got that way in the first place. But in the search for the usual suspects and parceling of blame, the news media should include themselves.

Just a few days ago, the same newspaper writers and television anchors who are now wearily shaking their heads at the collective bankruptcy of our mass consumer culture were cheering all of it on.

It is always bracing to have someone in the daily news business actually look back at what the media was saying on an earlier day, without The Daily Show or an historian having to do it for them. Carr confirms a thought that has crossed my mind the last several Thanksgivings: far from a grand holiday tradition, this “Black Friday” pandemonium is a relatively recent development. More specifically, it is part of the 1990s-and-after bubble economy that has hyper-inflated and over-institutionalized every minor cultural practice and leisure activity from Halloween haunted houses to children’s sports and contests to card-playing to the keeping of friggin’ scrapbooks. It has all been part of the process by which we have created an economy that produces little and sustains itself largely (and uncertainly) on consumer spending, or ”the casualties and caprice of customers” as a certain sage once wrote. And the media has been there encouraging the phenomenon every step of the way, especially in its “lighter” content and advertising. The NYT has been no better than most of the others on this score, supplying a steady diet of lifestyle porn in its technology and real estate coverage, especially.

Carr helps make Damour’s death and the new “Black Friday” into historically locateable and intelligible cultural events. His supposition that the current BF phenomenon only goes back about a decade seems to be right on target. In the Proquest Historical Newspapers database, the NYT‘s first mention of Black Friday in a non-stock market crash context appears to have occurred on November 25, 1995. Headlined “Stores Full, But Shoppers Seem Wary,” Jennifer Steinhauer’s piece introduced readers to the term as a bit of arcane, somewhat outdated retail lore:

Retailers call the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” because they hope it starts a season that turns their books the same color. But the critical importance of the day has faded a bit over the years. Once the biggest shopping day of the year, it is now exceeded by several other days closer to Christmas, as shoppers now hit the stores later and later in the season in search of last-minute price cuts. Many retailers still see the day, however, as a gauge for the rest of the season.

Significantly, Steinhauer’s article was a postmortem report on the beginning of the shopping season. As the Internet-bubble ‘n’ consumer-bauble economy took hold in the mid-Clinton years, the media would increasingly anticipate and set expectations for the day, previewing the best deals and gathering breathless comments from retailers, shoppers, and those omnipresent “analysts” about just how important and exciting and all-consuming Black Friday would be. Naturally, all that anticipation and those helpful shopping tips come surrounded with paid advertising for those self-same post-Thanksgiving sales. Carr refrains from making the obviously accurate accusation that whether or not Black Friday actually helps retailers profit from the holiday season — given the associated extra costs of mounting the massive sales and the depth of the discounts offered, one would have to guess not — the industry for which the Thanksgiving holiday really does make the difference is the media itself.  Is it an accident, I wonder, that the media’s frenetic promotion of Black Friday in its news coverage has coincided with a wave of consolidation and downsizing and general financial decline, especially in the print media?

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