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Monday, July 31, 2017

August ALREADY? (Did I Say This Last Year?)

Chicory-chick, cha-la, cha-la

The last day of July is upon us! Back when was a kid and again when I lived downstate, periods of life when August meant vacation to me, it seemed as if it would never come, as if July were an endless month. Not so since I became an Up North business owner 24 years ago. After a few years I came to understand that the Leelanau business owner’s summer is divided into three distinct periods:

1)  4th of July will never get here!

2)  Omigod, it’s 4th of July already!

3)  4th of July is over! Summer’s almost gone!

It’s really a little different in Northport, because we also have the dog parade in August. This year it’s August 12, the theme is “Hairy Tales,” registration is $5 a dog, I’m doing registration (but so are other places—see posters around town), and for the first time in Northport’s dog parade history, an agility competition will follow the parade. Anyway, you can substitute “dog parade” for “4th of July” in the list above, and you’ll have the Northport variation.

Second cutting
My point – and I am coming to it – is that this week will be a very busy one and, consequently, the bookstore schedule will be radically different for a couple of days.

Wednesday, August 2 – Dog Ears Books CLOSED!

Thursday, August 3 – Dog Ears Books open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., closed at 3 p.m., and then open again in the evening for 7 p.m. event with Gregory Nobles, author of John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman.

The reason I’ll be closed this Wednesday is that the reception for David’s show at the Dennos Museum will finally take place that evening! Technically, it is not the “opening” of the show, since paintings have been on the walls and visitors given free admission throughout the week of the Traverse City Film Festival, but museum members are accustomed to a party for special exhibits, so Wednesday it is, at last. I have no idea if the renovations were be complete (last I heard, floor was not finished), but David Grath, Sally Rogers, Diane Carr, and the work of all three artists will be feted on August 2. I don’t have to “do anything” that evening but should be presentable and well rested, so that is my Wednesday plan.

Back when Gregory Nobles and I planned his bookstore presentation and book signing for August 3, I had no idea it would follow by 24 hours one of the most important evenings in my husband’s life (originally, the museum opening seemed it would take place in late June), but things change -- and while plans must often be revised, I didn’t want to confuse anyone who’s been watching my blog all summer and seeing Greg scheduled for August 3. August 3 it is! 7 p.m.! He is ready, and I will be, and I look forward to an enjoyable and informative evening. Greg has a whole slide show planned!

This morning at the bank my teller asked, “Are you ready for the big weekend?” “It’s only Monday!” I told her. “I have big events on Wednesday and Thursday! I can’t think as far ahead as the weekend yet!”

Summer – it’s always a blur....

Old wasp nest blown down, victim of time

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fullness and Connections

Woods, fields, meadows, gardens are lush by the last days of July, especially this year, following our long, drawn-out, cool and moist spring and early summer. Cherry boughs bend low with fruit not yet shaken off the trees. Corn displays its near-tropical growth, and small grains wave richly in the breeze.

Hotel and motel rooms and B&B accommodations are also full. (Woe betide the would-be visitor looking for a room now for August!) Restaurants are full to overflowing, and grocery store lines stretch long. I’m sure many beaches are full on sunny days, but if Petoskey stone hunting in the rain is your thing, you might have the shoreline to yourself today.

Tuesday night was the last evening in the Friends of the Library Summer Author Series, and Sarah Shoemaker had the crowd eating out of her hand and lining up afterward to buy copies of Mr. Rochester, my runaway best-selling book for 2017.  Selling out of a title and having to restock sounds like the opposite of fullness, but it's been terribly gratifying to me to see Sarah's sales numbers mount since Mr. R (as I call him familiarly) was released on May 9.

Calendars are full (and already filling up for September, believe it or not). Days and nights and hours are full. We squeeze in visits with family and old friends wherever and whenever and however we can. An old friend I hadn’t seen for 25 years came for a breakfast visit with his family one morning this week. At my suggestion, they came to our house so we wouldn’t have to stand in line at a restaurant and then worry that their little girl would get bored and fidgety, and we had a lovely time. Now it may be another five years before we see each other again. And wouldn’t you know I forgot to get my camera out at the house! Made up for that omission at bookstore and gallery.

Summer is a time for reconnecting. Some people are reconnecting with their summer places, vacation memories, and retracing childhood souvenirs. Families and friends reconnect with reunions and shared vacations. And in the bookstore I reconnect with customers who are coming for an annual visit or coming back for the first time in ten years. One woman today had to hunt through photographs on her phone to find one she had taken of Sarah – she thought two years ago, then tried three and four, but it turned out to have been five years ago that she’d photographed our little darling. Thus today’s memorable bookstore quote: “I’ve deleted pictures of my relatives, but I couldn’t delete this picture of your dog!” Darling little Sarah!

Above was written on Wednesday. Now on Thursday I feel compelled to note that our basswood trees are full of sweet-smelling blossoms, and once the sun burns off the morning dew the bees will again come buzzing, irresistibly drawn to the nectar. Last year the blossoming branches seemed far too quiet. This year they are once more humming, afternoon and evening, with busy pollinators weaving tight, complicated, but invisible webs and trails through the air. That's more like it!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

I'll Stop After This One--Promise!

I’ve gone on for a while now (with a little break on Monday) about Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream? because I think the book is important. Updates in events of the past five years are pretty clear on everyone’s radar, I think, so almost everything in this 2012 book continues to be relevant today. Part I and Part II of my musings can be found in previous posts. Also, I would have posted something very different today but am having a problem with the interface between laptop and photo card reader.

Anyway -- the point of reading this book is not to become depressed or hopeless, however; let me make that clear, please. The point is to understand – and then to see what we can do – because if we don’t realize where we got lost, how can we hope to find the road again?

...Money in politics is an old story. 

What's new is that it now the only story. 

- Bill Moyers, "The Soul of Democracy," in Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times (2005)

It isn’t only class and income range in America that lost its middle: the middle ground has also dropped out of our politics, resulting in a nationally elected legislature terrified of bipartisanship. Consort with “the enemy,” and you may be purged from your party! Moreover, the two divides – the wealth gap and the disappearance of political moderates – have more in common than the words “missing middle.”
Political scientists have documented a link between polarized politics and rising economic inequality. The ever-increasing wealth gap and ever-sharpening partisan divisions go hand in hand. Over the past century, the two trends have moved up and down together.
Correlation does not establish causation, especially of a simple, unidirectional sort, but this particular correlation has a meaningful feel about it, from whatever side you look and however you seek to explain the link. And it got me to thinking about other changes we’ve seen in American society in the same decades. What about the disappearance of civility? Is this a metaphorical middle ground (between, say, street fights and ballroom dancing) that has gone missing? Is its disappearance merely coincidental? Or do we over-generalize about incivility, imagining it worse than it is, based on a small sample of bad actors? Are we not really as nasty to one another as it sometimes seems?

I’ve mentioned earlier (maybe more than once) that I had to keep putting this book aside because I found myself getting too upset to continue reading. “The Rise of the Radical Right” chapter was a continuation of my on-and-off reading mode. Newt Gingrich not only urged Republicans to...
“...nationalize the elections, mobilize the hatred for Congress nationally, and intensify it, and make Congress look so bad to people that they will think, ‘Anyone is better than what we’ve got now.’”
More than strategizing, he approached partisan conflict with revolutionary fervor:
In Gingrich’s mind, the conflict was literally to be a civil war. “This war has to be fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars,” Gingrich caustically declared in 1988.

Peacetime politics fought with “savagery” but not just savagery -- “a savagery that is only true of civil wars”? Strange, isn’t it? How little civility is involved in a civil war?

The partisan divide occurred no more as a natural populist evolution than was the wealth gap shaped by an impersonal, invisible hand. Both were carefully orchestrated from the beginning by individuals and groups of Americans with names. Hedrick Smith’s book is not an invented story. He has not concocted a “conspiracy theory.” Facts, statements, memoranda, bills, dates, etc. are there for historians willing to dig for them.

I’m going to skip Smith’s sections on U.S. military spending and the costs of what he calls “imperial overreach,” not because it isn’t important – it is, vitally – but because the topic would be overreach on my part, even with Smith having covered it so well. I do, however, want to deal further with the issue of taxes. Bill Clinton, Smith tells us, wanted a tax increase in 1993, his first year in office, to cover at least part of the Reagan-Bush budget deficit he inherited. That increase created a budget surplus, the first in years, and stimulated the economic growth of that decade. But Gingrich et al. didn’t like it. They were ideologically opposed to tax increases.

And precisely this, I want to say, is one of the things I find most maddening about today’s immoderate, purist, ideology-driven Republicans. A very influential Republican here in my own county told me once, with an impatient shake of the head and dismissive wave of the hand, that she could never get interested in economics. I was flabbergasted. How can we let politics so fundamentally affecting our national economy and the economic lives of every American be directed by people who don’t care about outcomes, who care only that their ideology reigns supreme?

Well, of course, they care about more than ideology. Revisit that Bill Moyers quote at the beginning of today’s post. Every day’s news seems to bring to light yet another revolving door between government and the private sector, the same people getting rich by laws and policies they and their cronies made. Why, for example, were those responsible for the 2008 Wall Street crash not brought to justice? What was with those little slaps on the hand and tiny fines? Read here to get one pretty convincing answer.

As for the Tea Party, Smith argues that it only looks like a populist movement.
The Tea Party looked like a populist movement, but when its profile emerged, it was not a movement of average Americans. The 18 percent who identified themselves in polls as Tea Party followers were predominantly white, male, older, more college-educated, and better off economically than typical Americans, and 63 percent chose Fox News as their primary news source. They were far to the right of average Americans, identifying themselves as “very conservative” and always or usually voting Republican. Some 92 percent wanted smaller government (vs. 50 percent of Americans overall); 73 percent said they would favor cutting domestic programs, including Social Security, Medicare, education, and defense; and while most Americans (by 50 to 42 percent) favored government spending to create jobs, Tea Party supporters were 5 to 1 against that policy. They cared far less about jobs than cutting government and the deficit.
Cutting government programs, I hardly need say, goes hand-in-glove with tax cuts. And yet, Smith says, for all the outrage over taxes, taxes from 2009 to 2012 (the year this book was published) “were already at their lowest level in sixty years—since 1950” and the U.S. “has the third lowest overall tax rates of the twenty-eight most advanced economies in the world.”

Here’s an example of the kind of propaganda used to keep wealth from trickling down, through the government, to programs that might serve the common good. The estate tax. Heard of it? What does it mean to you? Republicans re-named it the “death tax” and campaigned hard against it, giving the general impression that family-accumulated wealth would be stolen at death rather than transferred to heirs.

The truth about the “death tax”? It used to be that only estates of $1 million fell under the estate tax. Then President Bush called for phasing it out altogether and also passed tax cuts for the middle class (the non-millionaires), which President Obama wanted to continue, But in order to get Congress to agree to extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, Republicans insisted that Obama raise the exemption on the estate tax to $10 million for couples and cap that at 35 percent. Middle-class voters scared that a “death tax” would impoverish their heirs were hoodwinked.

We’ve all been hoodwinked, over and over, in so many ways. The wealth gap has been the deliberate result of partisan politics favoring predatory capitalism at the expense of ordinary Americans. The same is true of much of the job loss that has come with it and contributed to it; the privatization of so many government services that exacerbate and widen the wealth gap; and deregulation that takes away protection for consumers and workers alike. You think these people on your side? Not unless you’re a billionaire. And then it’s unlikely you’d be reading Books in Northport.

Okay, that’s it. I’ll be back next time with a lighter topic. But really. This stuff is important. In fact, I'm beginning to think that the current President is more of a distraction than anything else. It's the selling of Congressional seats, on a national market, to the biggest spender that needs to stop so that government can once again be responsible to the American people.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Let’s Take a Break, Shall We?

It’s summer, and so much is going on! That’s one reason to take a break from serious economic and political topics, but another is so I won’t lose all my readers with relentless offerings of ponderous facts and opinions. And so, fun and photographs and coming events are the menu for today.

We had a visit from David’s youngest, which was only disappointing--everything else about it great!--in that his one-man exhibition at the Dennos Museum Center was not yet on the walls for her to see. But the paintings are now placed (after burly friends helped load vehicles, we delivered them yesterday, although the new floor in the gallery is not quite finished), and the show, because it’s opening later than anticipated, will be up through the first full week of September, and you can probably get in the door today. Wowser! We are excited!!! You will be, too, but you have to go to Traverse City to see it. I only had a chance to take photos below while staying out of the men's way.

(If you live in the Traverse City area and are not yet a member of the Dennos Museum Center, now would be a good time to join. A fabulous--only word for it--new addition will also be opening in late fall.)

My first bookstore visitors this Tuesday morning were a mother and son from south Florida, on the last day of their vacation, looking for something the boy could read on the plane ride home. He chose two Magic Treehouse books, one about sharks, the other about ninjas, and then explained to me the general idea of the series. I told him it sounded kind of like the magic I often experience through reading. This morning, for example, I was in England, riding in a pony cart on a dusty country road – and then when I put a bookmark in place and closed the book, I was back on my own front porch in Michigan.

And speaking of Michigan and the magic of books, we have an author event at the bookstore, this very Thursday! Aaron Stander, author of nine popular Up North murder mysteries, will be at the bookstore on Thursday at 7 p.m. to talk about his creative process, self-publishing experiences, and anything else our audience wants to ask him about. The evening will be casual and friendly, and we’ll all have a good time, so please come!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Where Did the Good Times Go?

Who Stole the American Dream? Part II

[Find Part I of my book review here.]

From virtuous circle to vicious, our road did not reverse direction overnight in a180-degree hairpin turn. The direction change for the American public was gradual, a long, slow curve, easy to miss at its beginning. But a beginning there surely had to be, and Hedrick Smith locates the opening salvo in 1971.
History often has hidden beginnings. There is no blinding flash of light in the sky to mark a turning point, no distinctive mushroom cloud signifying an atomic explosion that will forever alter human destiny. Often a watershed is crossed in some gradual and obscure way so that most people do not realize that an unseen shift has moved them into a new era, reshaping their lives, the lives of their generation, and the lives of their children, too. Only decades later do historians, like detectives, sift through the confusing strands of the past and discover a hitherto unknown pregnant beginning.  
One such hidden beginning, with powerful impact on our lives today, occurred in 1971, with “the Powell Memorandum.” 
What were you doing in 1971 when Lewis Powell issued his corporate manifesto? I was the mother of a toddler, living quietly—without television, by choice--in a modest middle-class neighborhood on the west side of Traverse City, Michigan. I tended my first vegetable garden (my toddler son planted beans at random) and a grape arbor, we had neighbors with lots of kids, and I walked two blocks to a little neighborhood grocery store, pulling my son in a wagon or sled or holding his hand as we walked together. I guarantee you, Lewis Powell’s memorandum was not on my radar; potty-training and Scrabble were high bidders for my attention that year.

In Lewis Powell’s view of 1971 America, the business community, albeit thriving, was the victim of government regulation, trade unions, and consumer activism, and he was fed up. Hedrick Smith writes:
Political mutiny [on the part of business] had been brewing for some time. By the early 1970s, the free market fundamentalism of economist Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate from the University of Chicago, was giving new legitimacy to pro-business laissez-faire economics in academic circles.
But the academic world is one thing, the business world another, and it was Lewis Powell’s rallying cry that energized business leaders, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to pool resources, raise additional funds, and organize to change the climate for business in Washington, DC. And that was the beginning of the end of bipartisanship in Congress. What we have now began then.

Is it only coincidence that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was first published in 1957? For a time Milton Friedman, I happen to recall from my days as a subscriber to Rand’s newsletter, was one of her darlings (bitter breakups were a feature of her life, it seems: she did not tolerate disagreement), and Rand’s fiction and philosophy continue to attract adherents in the 21st century. Her philosophy is consistent and simple: Selfishness is good. Among online sources, I see in one place her characters described as “larger-than-life heroes and villains.” As a former fan and a lifelong reader of fiction, I would say a more accurate reading would be that hers are larger-than-life heroes and smaller-than-life villains.

But let’s move along for now and come back to later to Ayn Rand.

Aside from the national business community and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the road for the rest of us takes only a slight bend in 1971, and along the way the scenery doesn’t seem to change much. Americans continue to fly flags, pay taxes, vote, purchase cars and homes, and, when they can, send their kids to college. Throughout the 1970s we are all, that is to say, “going forward,” as today’s ubiquitous phrase has it, which means no more than moving into the future, which means no more than that, as human beings, we cannot escape time. The question isn’t whether or not we will “go forward” but into what kind of country are we going? What future are we preparing, we free people, what kind of society are we choosing (if only by default), for our grandchildren?

In Hedrick Smith’s book, Part II, “Dismantling the Dream,” examines in depth and great detail how America’s labor force was cut off from its natural home in America’s companies. Union-busting, layoffs, and plant closings did not put companies out of business or hurt their bottom lines: plants and jobs simply moved offshore (initially to Mexico, later to Asia), where a much cheaper labor force translated to bigger profits and higher investor returns. Nothing else counted. Nothing else mattered. And that entailed another shift in thinking on the part of American business.

The legal ‘personhood’ of a corporation is one of the great moral questions of our age. My generation was taught that with rights come responsibilities. Cliché, right? Well, within the word ‘responsibility’ is a small, vital core: ‘response’. We are instructed to respond to others. Response is part of the meaning of responsibility.

Read now a statement from Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom (1962), quoted in Hedrick Smith’s book:
“Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”
Responsibility to loyal workers? To customers of their products? To a community that provided infrastructure and, very often, tax breaks? Responsibility to the future? “Subversive,” says Friedman, as Ayn Rand applauds. A corporation’s only responsibility is “to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

Obviously, no single person bears sole responsibility for dismantling the American dream, but Ayn Rand and her acolytes and followers, Milton Friedman among them, certainly did their part, and Rand’s providing a justifying philosophy, within American literature, cannot be underestimated. It is a seductive message for adolescents to hear--You don’t owe anything to anyone; there is no such thing as ‘duty’--and I fell under its spell myself in my late teens and early twenties, as “Who is John Galt?” appeared on university blackboards between classes. What a siren song!

As a writer of novels, Ayn Rand had no interest in literary realism; romanticism served her philosophical purposes much better. I find it interesting, however, that her handsome, iconoclastic, willful and gifted protagonists share an important trait with homo economicus, the abstract individual of classical economics, a rational actor pursuing always his own interests.

In classic economic theory, from Adam Smith onward, individual pursuit of self-interest, if unhampered by government interference, somehow results in everyone being better off. Rand made classic economic theory the bedrock of her moral philosophy. Selfishness, she argued, is the primary human virtue. And so her protagonists are of heroic stature, their enemies little, scurrying vermin who preach altruism only to cover their own incompetence.

How does the Smith/Rand model work out in practice in a global economy? What kind of world do we create when we grant legal protections of ‘personhood’ to corporations and then hold them to only a single responsibility, that of making as much money as possible for stockholders? Poor Ms. Rand! She envisioned men and women driven by inner standards of excellence. She did not anticipate a CEO culture funding its own golden parachutes with a flood of ever-cheaper goods manufactured overseas.

Not all Americans lost their jobs, of course, and some who lost jobs found new ones. But not all jobs are equal. Companies began dropping health insurance for employees, and employers found huge savings in shifting the remaining American workforce from company pensions to 401K plans, a shift that is a story in itself. Businesses claimed pensions were costing them too much.
But digging into the records, Wall Street Journal reporter Ellen Schultz found that wasn’t really true. In fact, pension plans were moneymakers [my emphasis] for many a big company. In the bull market of the 1990s, America’s blue ribbon companies did so well investing their employee pension funds that many built up huge surpluses, above their obligations to employees, without contributing a cent of company cash for a decade or more [again, my emphasis added]. ... 
What’s more, some of America’s largest corporations were able to shift pension fund gains indirectly to their profit lines and, Schultz reported, a few legally took advantage of loose and poorly enforced accounting rules to siphon off money from their employee pension funds to finance portions of their corporate downsizing, restructuring, and mergers and acquisitions [my emphasis again].

Debt, bankruptcy, “easy” credit—the 1990s were rife with bright red danger flags, but in the excitement of the “dotcom bubble,” who wanted to be a naysayer? Wasn’t the reinvention of self within the reach of every American? Couldn’t anyone with brains get rich? Wasn’t poverty simply a result of failure to work hard and/or take risks?

Well, that’s enough for today. Our brains, like that frog in the pot of water on the stove, are beginning to simmer dangerously, aren’t they? We need to cool down and come back to this story another day.

Thanks to everyone who managed to read my entire post today! Comments, questions, corrections, and objections are all welcome.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

And Then I Turned to Total Froth!

Pages bristling!

Who Stole the American Dream? Part I

I was a long time over my reading of Hedrick Smith. Who Stole the American Dream? was hardly (as you might guess from the title) either cheerful or relaxing or dreamy story to get lost in. Instead, in an effort to resist underlining a clean hardcover (albeit used) book, I kept adding Post-It notes to the edges of the pages, until the fore-edges bristled like a hedgehog’s back.

Smith locates the beginning of the current mess we’re in—mess, as in Congressional gridlock; general incivility; job loss and declining real incomes; widespread financial insecurity; increasing social and economic inequality; a widening gap between super-wealthy and poor; and eroding civic trust—in 1978, which he calls “the pivotal year.” It was in 1978 that, as he puts it,
...the corporate political machine went on the offensive and achieved a legislative agenda that would have profound and far-reaching impact. ... Virtually every economic bill that passed in 1978 had a political tilt in favor of business and the wealthy, often at the expense of the middle class... [my emphasis added].
Jimmy Carter, one of my personal heroes, was president in 1978, but even liberal Democrats jumped on the deregulation bandwagon, and there was no way Congress was going to pass Carter’s tax bill, closing corporate loopholes, ending tax breaks for the rich, and giving breaks to families with low incomes. Smith calls the reception to Carter’s bill a “successful mutiny” and a clear signal to business that they could get whatever they wanted.

The corner had been turned.

We’ve all heard, far too many times, the phrase vicious circle. In Smith’s fourth chapter, “Middle-Class Prosperity,” he discusses the concept of a virtuous circle:
Good, steady pay, and job security, they say, are the drivers of strong consumer demand, and strong demand stimulates economic growth. Business is moved to expand production and invest in new plants. Each expansion generates a new round of consumer demand. The virtuous circle keeps on generating growth, unless someone breaks the chain reaction.
Think of trust between people, how trust is built, and what happens when trust is broken. We anticipate future events in light of our experience. Put simply, a vicious circle is a negative feedback loop, a downward spiral, while a virtuous circle, the positive movement, spirals upward.

As Smith sees it, postwar prosperity in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s went hand in hand with power shared between American companies and the labor force. What those horrible, very, very unfair taxes on the wealthy? Weren’t they a counter-force holding everything back?
Contrary to claims of anti-tax conservatives today that high taxes are a drag on the economy, the long postwar period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s was an era of strong, steady economic growth—much better growth that the past decade with its low tax rates. However plausible it sounds that high taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals cause them to invest less and take fewer risks, several decades of solid growth in the postwar period offer incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.
Not everyone was prosperous in the postwar decades, but the bottom and top of the income scale were closer together than they had ever been before or have been since.

Why did we turn the corner and go in the direction of increased inequality? Why did Congress decide to give tax breaks to the wealthy and deregulate banking and other key businesses? What is the source of today’s relentless push to “privatization” of essential services—education, prisons, even the military? Can business “do it better” and save money for all of us? Is this all for our own good? If so, why does it feel so bad?

*  *  *

No Post-It notes!
After finishing this book (which took me quite a while, as adrenaline surges mandated frequent breaks), I turned to a very modern novel, The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. It was like a little vacation, reading light fiction on the porch for a couple of evenings, but I have not done telling you about the Hedrick Smith book. Be forewarned: There will be more coming about that!

P.S. 7/14 Next installment up now here


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Understanding Takes Careful Study

Considering it is such a little book (180 pages, paperback), I spent a lot of time with The Ambiguity of the American Revolution, edited by Jack P. Green. I’ve written a bit about it already but have now finished the entire book and want to say more.

The book more than repaid the attention I gave it. An anthology published in 1968 by Harper & Row, Ambiguity was one of a series called “Interpretations of American History,” put together by series editors John Higham and Bradford Perkins. If all are as good as The Ambiguity of the American Revolution, the books as a group would constitute a very well-rounded course in American history.

Jack Greene’s volume presents changing views of the American Revolution, from contemporary accounts to 1966, through representative excerpts of evolving historical thought. In histories from the late 1700s, views divide naturally into loyalist and patriot perspectives, with patriot histories emphasizing both the conservative nature of the American Revolution and its heroic figures. By the time of the late 1800s, a group of historians known as the imperial school sought a more objective reading of the past – as Greene says, “less parochial and less nationalistic.”

Herbert Levi Osgood’s essay, “The Case for the British” (actually a review of Moses Coit Taylor’s The Literary History of the American Revolution), argues that if King George III had been “tyrannical,” Parliament was equally to blame but that it did not suit the colonists’ cause to state a case against Parliament, since there were no effective guarantees against legislative action from the home country in their colony charters. “From a legal and historical standpoint...”
The colonists stood face to face with a power, possessed of authority over them that was without legal limit, which had now resolved, if possible, to procure from them a revenue.
“The language of the early charters implied the right of the home government to tax the colonists,” so that right was nothing new, and thus when new taxes were imposed the Americans had to cite the king, not Parliament, as despotic. (The king may also have had some hopes of reversing the political trend to recapture monarchical power, but Parliament was not about to let that happen.)

During the early 20th century, a new historical perspective emerged, as scholars sought to fit the American Revolution into the tradition of European revolutions in general, with “the same patterns of internal violence, class conflict, and political and social upheaval.” This Marxist-influenced school stressed economic interests. Arthur Meier Schlesinger writes that the American moderates, “to their dismay,” realized they were outnumbered by radicals at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. “Events had reached a stage where the extremists in both countries [emphasis added],” Schlesinger writes, “were in control.” Only war could settle the question now.

Over and over among historians the same questions arise: Was the American Revolution peaceful or violent? Radical or conservative? Inevitable or orchestrated? How important was “equality” to the Founding Fathers? Was ours really a “revolution” or something else?

The 1950s saw a movement, at least in the United States, back to an emphasis on differences between the American Revolution and revolutions elsewhere in the world. An excerpt by Louis Hartz, from his The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), takes the position that Americans in truth rebelled against very little in their (primarily English) legal and political tradition. The Americans did not throw over religion, for example, or the idea of “natural law,” and they had little or no class consciousness in the European sense. The Americans, he writes, were largely content with their lot in life, here in “the most bourgeois country in the world.” Elsewhere, revolutions were violent, bloody affairs. Not so in America.

Here’s a fascinating little thought from Hartz that stopped me in my tracks:
American political thought ... is a veritable maze of polar contradictions, winding in and out of each other hopelessly: pragmatism and absolutism, historicism and rationalism, optimism and pessimism, materialism and idealism, individualism and conformism. But, after all, the human mind works by polar contradictions [emphasis added]; and when we have evolved an interpretation of it which leads cleanly in a single direction, we may be sure we have missed a lot.

I have not discussed each author whose work is included in Greene’s anthology, although each is worth reading, and the effect of going through the different perspectives chronologically is an education in itself.

Along with stressing the uniqueness of the American Revolution, historians of the mid-20th century also came around full circle to a recognition of the importance of ideas, seeing our country’s founding again, as did the early patriot historians, in its most rational interpretation. Gordon Wood, of the University of Michigan, appreciated the renewed insistence on ideas but was also convinced there was more to the story and allows that ours was not a “typical” revolution: Americans were not living under “tyranny” at home, and their arguments, noteworthy for rationality and moderation, seem “peculiarly an affair of the mind.” They revolted “not to create but to maintain their freedom.” And yet.... And yet....

And yet there was all that flaming rhetoric, “so grandiose, so overdrawn.” Was it mere propaganda on the part of the revolutionaries? Wood proposes to take the ideas of the American Revolution seriously but, instead of speculating on hidden motivations, to take inflammatory rhetoric as a sign that there was something “unsettled” in the apparently peaceful, orderly American colonies.
[T]here is simply too much fanatical and millennial thinking even by the best minds that must be explained before we can characterize the Americans’ ideas as peculiarly rational and legalistic and thus view the Revolution as merely a conservative defense of constitutional liberties.
As a whole, he writes, the ideas expressed by the Americans of the 1770s form what he calls a “revolutionary syndrome,” similar to ideas in 17th-century England and 18th-century France:
... the same general disgust with a chaotic and corrupt world, the same anxious and angry bombast, the same excited fears of conspiracies by depraved men....
The social situations were vastly different, the modes of expression surprisingly similar, indicating
... a people caught up in a revolutionary situation, deeply alienated from the existing sources of authority and vehemently involved in a basic reconstruction of their political and social order.
But why would two such different social situations (American as contrasted with French, with Puritans in 17th-century England, with Russia, with China) give rise to a “revolutionary situation”? Social stresses, Wood speculates, may have been much more subtle in the colonies but must certainly have been present.  From there he looks at the case of Virginia and a crisis within the ruling plantation elites, their decline “already felt if not readily apparent.” Rising anxiety over their role coincided with “mounting costs of elections and growing corruption in the soliciting of votes.”

When Americans spoke or wrote, then, of “tyranny” and “corruption” and fears for their “liberty,” their sense of oppression and injury was strong, even if misplaced. Something was going on, changes were afoot, and they feared what might come next.

Here are some lines that can perhaps shed light on our own time:
For the ideas, the rhetoric, of the Americans was never obscuring but remarkably revealing of their deepest interests and passions. What they expressed may not have been for the most part factually true, but it was always psychologically true. In this sense their rhetoric was never detached from the social and political reality....
Was there a design to “reduce them under absolute despotism”? They felt it so and feared it. They lived under liberty but were afraid of losing it. Their anxiety was real.

In each period of historical writing, across the different points of view, there are important insights to be found. It was the editor’s hope that a careful survey might lead to a new perspective that would
...identify and describe the dominant thrust of the Revolution and to understand the relationship between that thrust and the many peripheral and seemingly incongruous tendencies that existed simultaneously with it.

Perhaps if we can evaluate our nation’s beginnings without entirely dismissing any point of view, if we can allow for all the “polar contradictions” with which our minds – all our minds -- work, we can begin to return to a civil national discourse with our fellow Americans. I do not mean, however, to underestimate the difficulties. One that stands out is the increasing gap between rich and poor as the “middle” migrates ever downward.

Here are some of the things that some Americans fear -- and my (incomplete) list is intentionally jumbled rather than divided into an overly simplified “two sides,” rank-ordered table:

Some of what Americans fear:

·      falling into poverty
·      social violence
·      declining support for education
·      loss of religious freedom
·      police violence
·      religious or racial discrimination
·      foreigners
·      job loss
·      losing jobs to foreigners
·      financial collapse
·      bankruptcy
·      loss of privacy
·      losing jobs to technology
·      terrorism
·      erosion of civility
·      erosion of respect for truth
·      confiscation of guns
·      loss of health
·      degraded environment
·      loss of community
·      neighborhood conflict
·      loss of American prestige
·      loss of basic freedoms
·      government surveillance
·      corporate takeover of government
·      natural disasters
·      civil war
·      civil chaos

Unsettled times? Widespread anxiety? Even those now supposedly “in power” exhibit resentment nourished by insecurity. I think again of those “polar contradictions” that Louis Hartz found in American thought:
...pragmatism and absolutism, historicism and rationalism, optimism and pessimism, materialism and idealism, individualism and conformism...
Where are we now, I wonder? Anyone certain of being absolutely right and having all the answers is doubtless guaranteed to be missing a lot of what’s going on, to paraphrase Hartz. 

But then, there’s no way we can take a “long view” of the time in which we live. That will be the future’s task. So what is our job now, as Americans? How do you see it?