In the two decades before his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington was far and away the most admired black man in America. He was almost unique in having many supporters in both black and white America. This was a period when black America reached its post-slavery nadir in virtually every area of life – socially, economically, politically. In the South — where 90% of black Americans lived — the successful counterrevolution against Reconstruction meant that Jim Crow was firmly and ferociously in place. In the north, blacks enjoyed more political rights but socially and economically were at the bottom of the ladder.
To this dire situation, Washington offered a path for progress for improving race relations which was designed to appeal to both blacks and whites. In his famous 1895 speech in Atlanta, Washington advocated a compromise whereby African Americans would give up the demands for equal political rights in exchange for assistance in a mutually beneficial program of education and economic improvement. In words of Washington’s most intellectually rigorous critic W.E.B. Du Bois, this program consisted of “industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights.”
David Frum and I have had an interesting twitter debate about the merits of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (you can read the dialogue here). I have a much higher regard for Trollope than Frum does and I thought it might be useful to spell out at greater than 140 character length why he’s one of my favorite novelists (and also quote some sharp critics on Trollope).
I’ve had a soft spot for Trollope ever since I started reading his novels a teenager. It’s good to start young when delving into Trollope because it takes a lifetime to survey his work. He was one of the most prolific writers of good fiction. He had 47 novels under his belt, many of them hefty tomes weighing in around the length of Bleak House, Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov. As if those novels were somehow insufficient there are also five volumes of (quite excellent) short stories and miscellaneous but still voluminous books of (solid, informative) travel writing and other non-fiction (including an excellent, rewarding memoir). All of which adds not just to an oeuvre but almost a mountain range, a formidable requiring time and perseverance to conquer.
Newt Gingrich photo by Gage Skidmore (via Creative Commons).
Today’s Globe and Mail contains a column I wrote trying to explain the popularity of Newt Gingrich among GOP voters. Despite its obvious newsworthiness, the column hasn’t been posted online. So I decided to offer a slightly expanded version of the article for Sans Everything readers:
Bewitched by the Eye of Newt by Jeet Heer
For Republican voters, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is like an ex-spouse who provokes a complex mix of longing and remorse. Even after the bitterest divorce, people often hook up with their exes, in ill-advised attempts to relive fonder days.
For many Republicans, as his last-minute surge in South Carolina shows, Mr. Gingrich is an old flame who still has that bad-boy charm. Voters remember all his faults, with the intimate knowledge of a former lover, but he has a way of melting their hearts: No other candidate is so adept at caressing GOP hot spots, such as fears of Mitt Romney being a “Massachusetts moderate” or of Barack Obama’s “socialist-secular machine.” Continue reading →
Rick Santorum was riding high in Iowa earlier this month but his presidential campaign now seems to be faltering. I wrote about Santorum as a lightning rod in the cultural wars for the Globe and Mail in an article that can be read here. Below is a slightly amended and expanded version of the same piece:
Over at Vanity Fair, James Wolcott is puzzled by the presence of Peter Worthington at the Frumforum site. Wolcott quotes a Worthington column on the World Cup which includes this observation, “And as a reflection of African ethnicity, well, maybe the vuvuzelas are the apex of cultural achievement.” Wolcott rightly describes Worthington’s column as a “moldy crumb of racial condescension” and doubts that it “will make FrumForum a lot of friends in the African community.”
As a cultural commenter Wolcott is dauntingly erudite. He can write with informed verve about everything ranging from the film noir classics of the 1940s to the novels of Norman Mailer to the peculiar humour of Benny Hill. But even Wolcott can’t be expected to understand the genealogy of Canadian conservative journalists.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the tendency of neo-conservatives such as Norman Podhoretz to celebrate Ronald Reagan as a great president is more than a little disingenuous. Back when Reagan was actually in power, the neo-cons supported the president against his liberal and leftist critics but had their own problems with the Gipper, who they regarded as a weak appeaser all too willing to negotiate with an implacable enemy, Soviet Communism. This neo-conservative critique of Reagan was especially virulent in President’s second term when he came to the conclusion that Gorbachev was a sincere reformer worth doing business with.
In his book The New American Militarism, Andrew Bacevich acutely sums up this phase of neo-conservatism:
Podhoretz found much to like in Reagan’s rhetoric, but he warned against confusing words with actions. The two differed, often drastically. To take Reagan’s famous condemnation of Moscow’s “evil empire” at face value was “to fall victim to a campaign of disinformation.” In practice, Reagan had proven himself “unwilling to take the political risks and expend the political energy” to break with the Nixon-Ford-Carter policy of détente. Like his immediate predecessors, the president seemed obsessed with making the world safe for Communism, thus implementing “a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire.” Indeed, to Podhoretz, Reagan appeared “ready to embrace the course of détente wholeheartedly as his own.”
For all of his high-sounding talk, the fortieth president of the UnitedStates, Podhoretz reluctantly concluded, lacked backbone. Although he “seems to have a few strong convictions,” wrote Podhoretz in 1985, Reagan “invariably backed away from acting on them” if they threatened to “cost him more political approval than he might gain by tacking and trimming.” As late as 1986—three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall—Podhoretz was still insisting that “‘the present danger’ of 1980 is still present today, and the question of whether ‘we have the will to reverse the decline of American power’ still hangs ominously as it did then in the troubled American air.” As the end of the 1980s approached, the threat posed by Communism was becoming, if anything, greater than ever. That Reagan was apparently falling victim to Mikhail Gorbachev’s charm offensive was almost unbearable. In Podhoretz’s eyes, to parley with the enemy was to appease him.
Jeet has twice written thoughtfully herein on David Frum’s recent firing by the American Enterprise Institute (see both here and here), so I’ll limit myself to pointing out a couple of related items. The first is an essay on the topic by the estimable Scott Horton, who argues that the intellectual death of the Republican Party bodes very ill for American democracy, even if it bodes well for Democratic party fortunes in the short term. The second (again via Scott Horton) is a remarkable observation that Frum made to ABC Nightline’s Terry Moran in an interview only a couple of days before his firing (it’s also viewable on YouTube here), on the GOP’s anger-driven strategy for defeating the health care bill:
Moran: “It sounds like you’re saying that the Glenn Becks, the Rush Limbaughs, hijacked the Republican party and drove it to a defeat?”
Frum: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.”
It has long been a rule of thumb in the partisan media that circulation goes up when the party one aligns with is out of power, and goes down when it is in power — it is more fun, more pulse-racing, to fiercely oppose the actions of a government than to debate the banal details and necessary compromises of real policy-making. So if Fox News and right-wing talk radio will always benefit more when the Republicans are in opposition than when they’re in government, it does seem short-sighted of the GOP to rely on these deeply conflicted institutions to help bring them victory.
What does Fox care about political power? They want ad dollars, and this means viewers — and the angrier and more engaged, the better. A lost cause can be such a sweet thing.
In Yiddish, “frum” is a word denoting someone who is religiously observant and pious. David Frum is not, as far as I can tell, a frum in the literal sense but he has been a leading frum of the American conservative movement. Like the theologies of most religions, modern conservative thought is a farrago of inconsistent, ad hoc positions: “national security” (i.e., a foreign policy of militaristic nationalism), “traditional values” (i.e. 1950s-style patriarchy and heteronormativity) and “free enterprise” (i.e., the hegemony of corporate capitalism in the economy and society). Like a prize yeshiva student, Frum has faithfully adhered to even the most esoteric of the 613 commandments of conservatism and at times has been a more hardline frum than the chief rabbis themselves (i.e., he criticized Reagan for being a foreign policy squish when the Gipper decided, quite wisely as it happens, to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev).
Because of his long history of ultra-orthodoxy, Frum’s firing from his cushy sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute has provoked a tremendous amont of chatter. To switch religious metaphors, it’s as if a cardinal who had long been groomed to assume the papacy had been excommunicated. What’s shocking is that Frum was fired not over a major issue of doctrine but rather a relatively trivial question of tactics. He thought that the Republicans shouldn’t have opposed Obama’s health care reform effort outright but that they should have tried to water it down by co-operation. The American conservative really has become a fanatical sect that won’t tolerate even the smallest dissent from orthodoxy, not just in thinking but even in the minutiae of behaviour.
In my previous posting, I noted that Irving Kristol had a utilitarian attitude towards religion, viewing it as a necessary instrument of social control. For readers who might want more detail, I recommend this review of Kristol’s book Neoconservatism by Steve Vieux in New Politics.
Here are words that I rarely get to utter: David Frum is making a lot of sense.
Of course, the context has to be kept in mind. Frum’s magazine, National Review, has gone a little bit batty on the subject of Barack Obama. One writer has described Obama as “a terrorist sympathizer” who emerged out of a political tradition that is “more Maoist than Stalinist.”
Now, Frum is himself is very right-wing but even he realizes that this sort of crazy-talk is both politically counterproductive and even, quite possibly, dangerous. So to his credit, Frum has posted a very deft little essay which tells his National Review buddies to chill out and tone down the whacko talk a little.