Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 April 2015

Assassinations and Yankee History

[For comment on the President’s nuclear deal with Congress, and the roles of all parties to the Iran talks, click here. For recent posts on John Kerry and our differing Yankee cultures, the durability of low oil prices, and one source of our national belligerence, click here.]

Wednesday was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death by assassination. PBS commemorated the tragic event with a tepid discussion of how little has changed in our South to this day.

Of course not much has changed. One of our two best leaders ever, a man with the brains, skill, insight, empathy and finesse to have fostered real change, was killed on that day.

It’s an odd thing, really. We Yanks have a blind spot for assassinations. Maybe all people do. When we think about the sweep of our own history, we tend to ignore them. It’s almost as if they were nothing more than the sudden, unexpected death of a favorite uncle.

But assassinations have changed history. One in Europe sparked the most senseless war in human history and began a century of horrors, during which our species almost extinguished itself in nuclear fire.

Unfortunately for us Yanks, assassinations have changed our own history more than any other human culture’s. Maybe that’s because we’ve had so many of them.

The most consequential, of course, was Lincoln’s. His replacement as president, Andrew Johnson, had two monstrous political and character flaws. He was a vindictive Union Democrat bent on persecuting the South for having had the temerity to secede and provoking our nation’s most terrible and costly war. He was also an overt and intransigent racist. He tried to veto the Civil War Amendments and did veto the Freedman’s Bills that might have given our freed slaves a chance to stand on their feet.

This dismal combination of flaws in policy and character set our nation back a century. Johnson’s mean spirit towards the defeated South was worlds away from Lincoln’s “malice toward none and charity for all.” It helped provoke the South’s longstanding hostility and resentment toward the rest of the nation. That feeling of separation still animates the Tea Party today, not to mention mindless opposition to our President and Ted Cruz’ ridiculous regional campaign.

At the same time, Johnson’s adamant opposition to the freed slaves’ economic independence and development (and to the South generally) helped turn the South’s resentment inward, against its own oppressed people and its own debilitated state. The resulting despair and self-disgust helped entrench wretched theories of racial superiority. It’s no exaggeration to say that the subsequent near-century of Jim Crow and lynchings would have been much less likely, maybe impossible, had Lincoln lived.

Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth was no random nutcase. He was a diehard rebel and racist whose acts were carefully planned and explicitly political. As he lay dying of his mortal wounds, he is reported to have looked at his own hands and condemned them as “useless . . . useless.”

But if some dark power were to resurrect him today, Booth would make a starkly diffferent assessment. He would be proud, indeed boastful, for having set back the progress of the North, democracy, equality and justice for over a century. He would be overjoyed that his murderous act had helped define the South to this day. He would cackle with pride and triumph like Satan himself.

The three assassinations of our 1960s were no less consequential. First JFK, then Dr. King, and finally JFK’s brother Robert fell. All in a single decade, two in a single year, 1968.

The effect of those three assassinations, coming in such quick succession, was devastating. As a nation, we have not yet even begun to analyze it, let alone recover from it.

PBS is our premier video news service. On the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s murder, the best it could muster was a program analyzing how well our television news services performed on the day JFK fell. Insofar as analyzing the social and political consequences of those three assassinations, we are still in collective cultural shock, half a century later.

Dr. King’s murder did not kill civil rights. The movement that he and so many other brave souls had begun had gained unstoppable momentum. Ultimately, it swept Barack Obama into the White House. But the three assassinations had long-term effects just as horrible as Lincoln’s.

When cut down, Dr. King was just beginning to connect the dots of poverty, racism, bossism, oppression of workers and our tragically unnecessary violence in Vietnam. He had observed that our own Yankee culture had become the world’s biggest purveyor of violence.

For that daring observation, he had lost political support, especially among moderates and whites. But Dr. King had a way of making hard points penetrate the consciousness of indolent minds.

Like Jesus, he was a political genius in the guise of a religious leader. His non-violent protest and his “I have a dream” speech changed our nation forever, peacefully and much for the better. Who knows where and what we Yanks might now be had he lived longer? We might still have a middle class.

Kennedy’s murder also made big waves in the river of history. Together with two thoughtful Russians, he had staved off Nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He had stepped back from a catastrophic doubling down on our failed Bay of Pigs invasion, which he had reluctantly approved as a new and green Commander in Chief. He reportedly had been contemplating de-escalating our involvement in Vietnam when shot.

JFK’s assassination stopped the slow and tentative drift toward peace dead in its tracks. With little experience in foreign policy, but lots of Texas and Southern machismo, LBJ escalated our war in Vietnam into the tragic, unnecessary loss it eventually became. And Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, who had made the deal with JFK to avoid Armageddon, reportedly wept.

Although less well understood, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination was equally consequential. Unbeknownst to most today, Bobby was far more committed to civil and workers’ rights than his brother. Ordinary people loved him. As he traveled the South and (during the riots that followed Dr. King’s murder) the North, he made common cause with the downtrodden and oppressed, but without alienating better-off workers. He reminded black protesters in Chicago that he, too, had had a brother killed.

Now we will never know, of course. But those who lived through that terrible decade of political murders could easily see Bobby as the greatest champion of workers’ rights ever. He might have eclipsed all but FDR—even Obama and Elizabeth Warren, with her still-unrealized promise. He might have brought real economic justice to America for at least a century. He might have saved our middle class.

Of course none of this actually happened. What did happen was obliteration of three of the most promising Yankee leaders ever. Their deaths left us with the lesser Teddy (flawed but still worthy), rudderless and with an aching heart. Nixon, his domestic “Enemies List” and Watergate followed as night the day.

We Yanks seldom note these horrible assassinations, except during brief commemorations like Wednesday’s. But we should at least recognize and acknowledge one thing: No culture in world history, let alone modern history, has had as many leaders cut down by assassins as ours.

In the past century and a half alone, we’ve killed four sitting presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy. Would-be assassins have injured two more: Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan. If you add Dr. King (our only national saint and greatest national martyr) and Bobby Kennedy (who might well have been president had he lived), the tally rises to six high-level political assassinations and two attempts in 150 years.

On the average, that’s more than one every generation. And this tally leaves out murders of lesser pols, such as Louisiana’s demagogic governor Huey Long, and attempted murders like the attack that paralyzed Alabama’s racist Governor Wallace.

No other human society even comes close to that dismal record.

Thus does our Yankee love affair with guns not only kill innocent children. It also validates Dr. King’s late-life judgment of our culture, sadly posthumously.

We Yanks may have the most violent culture in human history, surpassing even ancient Rome’s, in which citizens watched gladiators kill each other, and lions kill Christians, for sport. There great pols died on the battlefield, but not often while in office in peacetime. Caesar was the exception.

What does this all mean? Can we change? Aren’t these important questions? In the half century since they shot Kennedy (and his killer, before he could talk), we haven’t even begun to ask them seriously.

One thing at least is obvious. We must shake out, purge and reform our Secret Service as quickly, radically and effectively as possible. Our fragile culture cannot stand another assassination at this critical time. It would tear this country apart and virtually assure our devolution into a banana republic.

The night he was murdered, President Lincoln had a bill to create the Secret Service on his desk. We don’t want anything like that to happen, ever again.

With assailants penetrating the White House grounds and its inner sanctuary, and helicopters landing on its lawn, this is our most urgent domestic task. Nothing demands higher priority. Nothing else is more vital to our “homeland security.”

Longer term, we Yanks must begin the painful process of self-analysis. Why is it that we lose so many of our best, and just when they are closing in on our national dreams of justice and equality? What part of our Yankee culture is responsible, and how can we change it? What future do we have, as a nation and as a culture, if we can’t? Ancient Rome is long gone, and for much the same reasons of corruption, selfishness and violence that now plague us.

The President’s Nuclear “Deal” with Congress

The punditocracy is doing a lot of hand-wringing about the President’s agreement to let Congress have a say in any deal with Iran. Some seem to think that he’s gone Republican, or at least become an appeaser. But no. As usual, the President is just being smart.

How so? In at least five ways.

First and most simply, he’s trying to make peace with his domestic opposition, just as he’s trying to make peace with Iran. Intransigence won’t cut it in either case. Ted Cruz wouldn’t ever compromise, which is why he’ll never be president.

Second, there’s a little thing called buy-in. Now that Congress has a say, its most responsible members will want to make a deal work, not kill it. Whether a veto-proof majority of members actually commands some sense of responsibility may be doubtful, but probably 51% do. All the deal requires is 51%.

Remember LBJ? He was a master of Congress. He had a memorable motto for buy-in: “It’s better to have ‛em inside the tent pissin’ out than outside the tent pissin’ in.”

The third reason why the deal with Congress is smart is Congress’, shall we say, indisposition. I won’t say that collectively it has lost all touch with reality. But what most members do most of the time has little or nothing to do with reality.

They are actors in a political theater. They grandstand. They posture. They make pronouncements. They pander to every extremist group in their bases, as far as they can without losing general elections. They beg for money. Getting members to vote for or against a deal designed to keep Iran from going nuclear may help them remember their responsibilities and why they ran for office in the first place.

The fourth reason why the deal is smart is the Ayatollah. He’s the Iranian “bad cop,” to President Rouhani’s “good cop.” Secretary Kerry and the President both self-evidently want a deal more than war, so we Yanks need a “bad cop,” too.

Congress serves that function. Iranians really can’t complain if we engage in the same sort of classic hard bargaining that they do. Our doing so might even increase their respect for us Yanks. Hard bargaining is part of their culture.

The fifth and final reason why the deal with Congress is smart is something that few pols worry about much: substance. The words on paper are not nearly as important as the process of bargaining, the personal relationships established, and the measure that both sides take of each other.

It’s self-evident that Iran will resume its so-called “research” if it feels threatened, or if it doesn’t get real relief from sanctions. It’s self-evident that the West will cause sanctions to “snap back” if it has any evidence that Iran is doing so. These things will happen without regard to what any agreement says.

So the success of any deal depends not so much on dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s as on both parties believing that the deal—and honoring it later—continues to advance their national interests.

A non-nuclear Iran welcomed back into the global economy and contributing to it is in everyone’s best interest. It’s in Congress’ interest to let our President correct our grievous sins in foreign policy, including the 62-year-old senseless Little Cold War with Iran and our near-half-century old failed embargo of Cuba. It’s in the Ayatollah’s interest to let Iran continue to restore the thriving democracy that our and British spooks subverted in 1953.

Neither the Ayatollah nor Congress is actually negotiating the deal. Either can insult fellow leaders and damage his or its respective nation by being a spoiler, not a builder. Only time will tell whether both will exercise their responsibilities accordingly. Each side, one hopes, is smart enough not to let peculiarities in the other’s procedures of government kill a good deal.

Note on the term “both sides.” On rereading the post on the Iran talks above, I noticed something that might lead readers to think it culturally arrogant or negligent. The post refers to “both sides” of the Iran talks, as if there were only two.

While I might have changed that phrasing, I have a policy of not correcting anything important on this blog. If I make a mistake, I acknowledge it in an update or later post and move on.

Of course there are five other parties to the talks. In alphabetical order, they are Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia. But none of them has had a half-century pathological state of enmity with Iran, at least not one sufficient to motivate Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Only a single party to the talks (the US) has initiated and mounted an invasion and occupation of Iran’s neighbor, Iraq, and is still engaged in military operations there. Britain helped a bit but has pulled its troops out.

The only other nation maintaining a state of enmity with Iran similar to ours is Israel. But Israel is not a party to the talks. The US might be viewed as Israel’s proxy, but the obvious and growing split between the US and Israel under Netanyahu make that notion problematic. In any event, as I’ve analyzed elsewhere, Iran’s enmity toward Israel may be derivative of its hatred for us Yanks.

Britain, France and Germany have an interest in the talks because Iran’s nuclear missiles, if developed, could reach them. Iran’s attempt to block the Straits of Hormuz in any war would affect these nations’ energy interests directly.

Iran may have a hard spot in its heart for Britain, whose spooks helped ours to subvert Iran’s democracy and install the Shah in 1953, and which participated in our occupation of Iraq. But Iran has never expressed that enmity in quite the same terms as its enmity toward the US. More to the point, Iran has never threatened Britain, France or Germany, or vice versa.

Russia is there because it wants to be Iran’s best friend, has supplied much of Iran’s nuclear technology, and could be part of any technical means of assuring or verifying Iran’s abandonment of nuclear weapons. China has no direct interest at all: it has only indirect interests in peace, international order (especially in the Mideast, the source of much of China’s oil) and nuclear nonproliferation. China is there mostly because it is a major power and can provide a neutral sounding board.

By no means does this analysis indicate that the other parties’ participation is empty. All parties represent the weight of global concern and their individual anxieties. All parties can serve as “reality checks” and provide vital global perspective in heated negotiations. Russia is particularly important because it has assumed the role of Iran’s friend and protector.

But the parties who must make a deal are Iran and the United States. It is inconceivable that any other party to the talks would refuse to accept a deal to which both the US and Iran agree. It’s in this sense that I referred to “both sides” above, meaning no disrespect to any other party, and not intending to belittle the important role that every party plays.

Iran has no reason to fear an attack from Britain, China, France, Germany or Russia. Given our dismal 62-year history with Iran, Dubya’s name calling (remember “axis of evil”?), our invasion and occupation of Iraq, and our nation’s strength, Iran would not be irrational to fear an attack from the United States. Therefore the parties to the talks besides the United States and Iran find themselves in the positions of a friend (Russia) and bystanders who pull two parties to an incipient bar brawl apart before the fighting begins. Whether the fight commences depends on the United States and Iran.

Update on Oil Prices and Electric Cars. A very recent post analyzed the reasons why oil prices are likely to stay low for the foreseeable future. One of those reasons is the likelihood of electric cars stealing some of the demand for oil (which generates electricity virtually nowhere).

As if in corroboration, Bloomberg.com just published a news video of a new foreign electric car offering 1341 horsepower, which reportedly beats a Bugatti. The designers apparently are looking for money to finance production next year.

Such a car is bound for the luxury market. It will hardly be the affordable people’s car that helps phase out oil. But its existence does suggest the kind of engineering talent and sustained effort now going into electric vehicles worldwide.

Designing and producing a cheap car for the masses is a greater and perhaps less interesting challenge for engineers. But it’s also the problem that offers solvers real wealth and a permanent place in industrial history. Another unaffordable luxury car doesn’t. Henry Ford is the man to follow here.



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