CRF Blog

The New Deal We Didn’t Know

by Bill Hayes

In The New Deal We Didn’t Know for the New York Review of Books, Nicholas Lemann reviews Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson.

The New Deal, the apogee of liberal political power in American history and a story with a relatively happy ending — the Great Depression vanquished, World War II won — has usually had its history presented, except by conservatives who disapprove of the expansion of central government and taxation in the 1930s and 1940s, as an uplifting, inspiring one. That is not how Ira Katznelson presents it. There is only one very brief personal note in his long, scholarly book — a snip of memory about having to wear military-style dogtags and practice responses to a nuclear attack as a schoolchild in the early 1950s — but all of Fear Itself is suffused with the same sense of pure terror during the Roosevelt and Truman years as, say, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. It’s easy to forget not just how dangerous the situation was, at home and abroad, during the New Deal, but how palpable were outcomes far worse than what we got.

Another difference between Fear Itself and most of the familiar histories of the New Deal is that Katznelson thinks like a political scientist. That means that, although he defines the period presidentially, as the twenty years when Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were in the White House, Roosevelt and Truman themselves are spectral presences. They are not the primary determiners of the course of government, and Katznelson has no interest in their personal qualities or their methods of leadership. Instead his focus is on Congress and government agencies, and more broadly on political systems, voting, and interest groups. This gives Fear Itself the feeling of a fresh look at a familiar story; what Katznelson loses in ignoring the inherent force of the hero narrative, he gains in being able to make an argument that largely ignores the presidency.

The argument bears laying out in some detail. Katznelson begins, usefully, by placing the New Deal in a global setting: the severity of the Great Depression presented an existential threat to liberal democracy everywhere, both as an ideal and as a reality. In response to the same economic crisis that confronted the United States, Germany turned to National Socialism, Italy to Fascism, and the Soviet Union already had a form of communism that no liberals except willfully blind ones could believe in. During Roosevelt’s first term, these alternate systems were on the verge of imposing themselves by force on many other countries.

It was not at all clear that democracy would survive here. George Kennan privately came to believe that the United States should become an “authoritarian state.” Walter Lippmann, on a visit to Roosevelt a month before his inauguration as president, advised him that “you may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” Even in public, all sorts of prominent people praised the undemocratic alternative political systems that were emerging in Europe, especially Italian Fascism. One prominent New Deal official hung a portrait of Benito Mussolini in his office. Nicholas Murray Butler told the Columbia freshman class that the dictatorships were now producing a better class of leaders than the democracies. [more]

Charlie Rose Interviews Bryan Cranston

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose interviews Bryan Cranston, who after Breaking Bad is now acting on Broadway playing LBJ.

Fan Friction

by Bill Hayes

In Fan Friction for the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum reviews the third season of the British TV series Sherlock.

The men behind “Sherlock,” which airs in the U.S. on PBS, are major fans themselves: the showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (who also oversees “Doctor Who”) have done a nifty job of transplanting the detective to contemporary London, finding digital analogues for Holmes’s feats of cognition. (When Sherlock “reads” a crime scene, enormous words appear on the screen, like an online “word cloud.”) Many of their plots are twists on Conan Doyle’s, and Season 2 ended with a reference to Reichenbach Falls: Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) plummeted from a rooftop, seemingly to his death. Yet somehow he survived. In this season’s first episode, “The Empty Hearse,” Holmes returns to his old stomping grounds, and, at first, the show feels tentative, and slightly cartoonish, as if its hard drive were being defragged, the anxieties of its writers reorganized and purged. By the end of the episode, the story coheres, and the series is rebooted with a ping. [more]

When Evil Was a Social System

by Bill Hayes

In When Evil Was a Social System, the New Republic reviews two books on Communist Eastern Europe: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956 by Anne Applebaum and The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe by Marci Shore.

It is impossible for a people to resist tyranny without a clear idea of who “we the people” is. The highest priority of the Soviet occupiers was to keep such an idea from emerging spontaneously. Applebaum credits the historian Stuart Finkel with the insight that communists have always acted more forcibly to undermine free association than to undermine free enterprise. Even when Lenin launched the New Economic Plan in the 1920s, she notes, the “systematic destruction of literary, philosophical, and spiritual societies continued unabated.” The Soviets’ worries were not misplaced: the Armageddon of Eastern European communism in the late 1980s was brought about not by plutocrats but by Czech intellectuals, Polish labor unions, and various church groups.

Rather than content herself with generalities, Applebaum chooses a few small organizations and shows in detail how they were subverted. Her book opens with the Polish Women’s League, a group of earnest volunteers set up to feed refugees in train stations, which bureaucrats infiltrated and turned into a mouthpiece for party dogma. The dingy Warsaw ymca was closed down because its large collection of jazz records (which communist youth would eventually smash with hammers) made it a hangout for young people. There was suspicion of pub owners, tobacco sellers, and barbers who “due to their regular contacts with the public were the primary disseminators of fascist propaganda.” But Soviet communism did not permit even independent “anti-fascist” groups. The Polish Boy Scouts were targeted because they had made the decision to join the armed anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. It was not enough that an individual be open to the new regime or hostile to the old. The person who did not make an outright, preemptive demonstration of his servility might cause you trouble later on.

“Every public holiday became an occasion for teaching,” Applebaum writes, “and every organization, from the Konsum food cooperative in Germany to the Chopin Society in Poland, became a vehicle for the distribution of communist propaganda.” Today it seems almost comic to read of an East German communist cultural bureaucrat saying, “If you look at Goethe’s work, you can see that he always worked toward dialectical materialism, without realizing it.” It did not seem comic then. This was a society in which everything had to yield before the state’s definition of reality. “We need support by our satirical press in the republic,” a member of the German Central Committee explained when the government shut down a mild humor magazine.

In all three countries that Applebaum surveys, destroying Catholic Church groups was a high priority, partly because the Church disposed of such talkative, energetic contacts abroad. [more]

When Years Are Celebs

by Bill Hayes

In When Years Are Celebs for Intelligent Life magazine, Simon Reid-Henry argues we currently have a Great Year theory of history.

Edinburgh University’s Tom Devine clearly thought he was criticising Britain’s education secretary, Michael Gove, when he said during a recent spat over the teaching of school history: “you cannot [just] pick out aspects of the past that may be pleasing to people”. But that is precisely what many history books do. And it is what readers do every time they walk into the history section of a bookshop.

The result is a growing tendency, implicit in the way we talk and write about history, to treat certain years as celebrities. There is more at work here than just the publishers’ need to milk an anniversary. The Victorians used to have what they called the Great Man school, the idea that history is shaped by wilful characters. Perhaps we are labouring today under the Great Year theory of history. The two are of not dissimilar vintage: 1066 and all that. The difference is, unlike the Great Man school, the Great Year theory is becoming more, not less, fashionable. [more]

Keeping the Mystery Out of China’s Meat

by Bill Hayes

In Keeping the Mystery Out of China’s Meat, Bloomberg Businessweek reports on how Western companies must inspect meat made in China.

A seemingly endless string of scandals — from melamine-tainted milk that killed six infants and sickened 300,000 others in 2008 to rat meat recently sold as mutton — has made China the Wild West of food safety. Inadequate government oversight also is forcing big Western companies, from Wal-Mart to Nestlé (NESN:VX) to French supermarket operator Carrefour (CA:FP), to put on their sheriff’s hats and take food policing into their own hands.

The reason is simple: Western companies that sell tainted products can suffer damage to their reputations and incur legal liabilities, even if they had nothing to do with the manufacturing of the goods. [more]

For a free classroom lesson on the problem of tainted meat in early 20th century America, see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: Muckraking the Meat-Packing Industry from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive.

Infographic of the Day: Where Are All The Male Teachers?

Where Are All The Male Teachers?

Explore more visuals like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.


A Quixotic History of Doomed Efforts to Fix Spelling

by Bill Hayes

In A Quixotic History of Doomed Efforts to Fix Spelling for the New Republic, John McWhorter looks at what happened to publisher Robert McCormick’s efforts to reform English spelling.

Other people — Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt, for instance — had previously advocated for similar spelling programs and been thwarted. That helps explain why McCormick took it slow, introducing a small collection of newly spelled words about every month. Among the first up were agast, burocracy, crum, jocky, and missil. Soon came rime, jaz, and harth. By the following year, there were more than a hundred. [more]

Telling a U.N. Envoy to Stay Home

by Bill Hayes

The New York Times’ Room for Debate lets various knowledgeable contributors discuss news events and other timely issues. One recent debate covered: Telling a U.N. Envoy to Stay Home.

In a rare unanimous vote, the Senate called on the administration to deny a visa for Iran’s choice as United Nations ambassador because of his involvement with the 1979 seizure of the American embassy. On Tuesday, the White House said the selection of the envoy, Hamid Aboutalebi, was “not viable.”

Should the United States bar Aboutalebi or try to move on, to better relations with Iran? [more]

Poll of the Day: More Now See Failure than Success in Iraq, Afghanistan

Iraq Afby Bill Hayes

According to a Pew Research Center study, More Now See Failure than Success in Iraq, Afghanistan.

After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public does not think the United States has achieved its goals in either country. About half of Americans (52%) say the U.S. has mostly failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan while 38% say it has mostly succeeded. Opinions about the U.S. war in Iraq are virtually the same: 52% say the United States has mostly failed in reaching its goals there, while 37% say it has mostly succeeded.

In both cases, evaluations of the wars have turned more negative in recent years. In November 2011, as the U.S. was completing its military withdrawal from Iraq, a majority (56%) thought the U.S. had achieved its goals there. [more]

The Prisoner of Stress

by Bill Hayes

In The Prisoner of Stress for the New Yorker, Louis Menand (always worth reading) reviews My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel, and in the process, Menand traces the history of how anxiety has been attempted to be treated in the United States.

People don’t ordinarily self-medicate by writing a book, but “My Age of Anxiety” (Knopf) is an attempt at recovery by a man whom modern psychiatry has failed. The man is Scott Stossel, a successful journalist (he is currently the editor of The Atlantic), now in his forties, who has suffered all his life from an acute anxiety disorder. When he was a child, he had terrible separation anxiety; as he grew up, he acquired phobias about public speaking, flying, fainting, heights, closed spaces, germs, vomiting, and cheese. Many people have an aversion to those things (cheese excepted), and, given the option, go out of their way to avoid them. But, faced with the prospect of a plane trip or a speaking engagement or sometimes even a squash match or a meeting at the office, Stossel experiences full-blown panic: insomnia, sweating, vertigo, stomach pains, and loss of control of his bowels. The sight of an unfamiliar pimple can send him down a bottomless chute of dread. He nearly passed out at his own wedding.

Stossel has been in therapy since he was ten, and he has consumed a whole medicine cabinet of psychopharmaceuticals — Thorazine, Nardil, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Valium, Librium, Xanax, Klonopin, and a dozen more — not to mention alcohol. A few drugs and drug cocktails have tempered his symptoms, but the respite never lasted long. His current therapist encouraged him to write this book, and he says he has taken the advice in the hope that “by tunneling into my anxiety … I can also tunnel out the other side.”

“My Age of Anxiety” is not a memoir. Stossel tells us things about his parents, his marriage, and his children, but only things that are relevant to what he calls, after a famous remark of Freud’s, “the ‘riddle’ of anxiety.” The same is true of what he tells us about himself. He appears simply as a sufferer. Most of his book is a scholarly exploration of the history of anxiety and a journalistic account of the present state of medical knowledge. It’s intelligent, interesting, and well written, but the subject of anxiety is a mess, and the book, intentionally or not, is an accurate representation of its subject.

It doesn’t solve the riddle, either, but that’s not Stossel’s fault. It’s because anxiety of the kind he is afflicted with is not a riddle. It’s an illness. There is therefore nothing, except in the medical sense, to solve. That’s not what Stossel wants to believe, though. He has an idea that more is at stake. He thinks that there is a metaphysics of anxiety. “To grapple with and understand anxiety,” he says, “is, in some sense, to grapple with and understand the human condition.” [more]

Climate change report

by David De La Torre

In In the balance, The Economist looks at the latest report on climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Every six or so years, the IPCC produces a three-part encyclopedia of the climate. This report is the second tranche of its latest effort. The first, on the science of climate change, came out last September. It argued that the process is accelerating even though the world’s surface temperatures are currently flatlining (a phenomenon most climate scientists regard as merely a pause in an upward trend). This, second, volume asks how the climate is affecting ecosystems, the economy and people’s livelihoods.

Profoundly, is the headline answer. It argues that climate change is having an impact on every ecosystem from the equator to the poles. It suggests that although there are some benefits to a warmer climate, most effects are negative and will get worse. [more]

Bitcoin: If You Can’t Ban It, Should You Regulate It?

by Bill Hayes

In Bitcoin: If You Can’t Ban It, Should You Regulate It? for Justia, law professor Anita Ramasastry examines the merits of legalizing the digital currency.

Bitcoin, a so-called virtual peer-to-peer currency, is in the headlines around the globe. Russia is attempting to ban its use. China claims it has banned Bitcoin. Germany has declared that Bitcoin is not legal tender. Even Apple has removed the Bitcoin wallet app Blockchain from its App Store and done so without warning. Blockchain was the last remaining Bitcoin wallet available for iOS devices, causing some disgruntled iPhone users to smash their iPhones on video.

In the U.S., the federal and state governments have not tried to ban Bitcoin. The U.S. Treasury Department has, however, informed parties that issue or exchange Bitcoins that they are subject to federal laws dealing with money laundering, and may need to register as money transmitters and comply with reporting requirements regarding suspicious financial transactions.

Why is there so much fuss about Bitcoin? For two reasons. The first reason is that it is a substitute for official government currency. People are willing to trade in their government-issued money to obtain Bitcoins — hence posing some challenges to the global banking system. The second reason is perhaps the major one: Bitcoins, because they are not widely regulated or under government scrutiny, are used for illegal purposes. In January 2014, U.S. government agents arrested Charlie Shrem, the CEO of Bitcoin exchange BitInstant, charging him with laundering money for customers of the online drug bazaar Silk Road, which has been shut down. Law enforcement is trying to stop the use of Bitcoin on such sites — where people can buy drugs, guns, and illegal pornography.

In this column, I will look at recent attempts to extend legal recognition to Bitcoin, and explain why I believe this is a good thing. [more]

Shrinking Majority of Americans Support Death Penalty

Pew DPby Bill Hayes

Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project reports that a Shrinking Majority of Americans Support Death Penalty.

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 55% of U.S. adults say they favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder. A significant minority (37%) oppose the practice. [more]

Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project has pages of resources devoted to the Death Penalty and Criminal Justice.

Don’t You Dare Say ‘Disruptive’

by Bill Hayes

In Don’t You Dare Say ‘Disruptive’ for the New Republic, Judith Shulevitz looks at the word “disruptive,” a new buzzword in business.

[W]hen [businessman and philanthropist Eli] Broad’s “change agents” move into the institutions they’ve been taught to shake up, as dozens have now done, we can see how disruption, well, disrupts — not just “the status quo,” but peoples’ lives. Teachers quit en masse or are fired. Nearby schools close, forcing students to travel to distant ones. School boards divide and bicker. Parents picket. Broad-affiliated superintendents all over the country — Atlanta; Philadelphia; Rochester, New York; Sumter, South Carolina — have resigned or been forced out after no-confidence votes, corruption or cheating scandals, or, in one case, the discovery of alleged irregularities with a doctorate degree. (That last superintendent then went to the Gates Foundation and is now in charge of Los Angeles’s school system.) “The disruption was expected to produce innovation,” writes school-reform critic Diane Ravitch in a book, Reign of Error …. “More typically, it produced turmoil and demoralization.” [more]