Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Presidential Ordinality

Why are Americans so obsessed with ranking things that really can’t be ranked? For me, it might be an early exposure to top 40 radio, which so mesmerized me that for several years I kept a record of top pop songs of the day, charting their rising and sinking fortunes in a notebook. (What’s your excuse?) Sports is of course the area in American life where this obsession reaches its peak, with every conceivable form of ranking available to the discerning sports nut. Perhaps Americans are so interested in rankings out of a growing sense of national decline—those who shout “we’re number 1” the loudest are probably afraid that we are actually number 2, or even number 3. But rankings exist for one reason, to try to quantify what is basically unquantifiable, and to reduce the complexities of taste and subjective preference to a single numerical value, and the feeling that somehow this is a “harder” and more reliable than mere qualitative evaluation. Nowhere is this American obsession with quantitative ranking more pronounced than for our presidents. Not a year goes by without another attempt at ranking the 43 men who have held the highest country in the land. Do other countries do this? Is there a cottage industry of books ranking the British prime ministers? Do priests in Rome sit around ranking the 264 or so popes? Do members of the imperial court rank Japanese emperors? I do have a book that ranks Canadian prime ministers, from which I learned a lot about Canadian history, but I attribute this to the nearness of Canada to America’s habitual obsessions.

And the problem with the ranking of the presidents is that they almost always come out the same way, with Washington, Lincoln, and FDR at the top of the list, and Buchanan, Pierce, Nixon, and our most recent ex-president, lurking on the bottom. This has the general effect of ratifying conventional wisdom, and has the pernicious effect of letting people think they know more about American history then they actually do. But a recent book offers the most interesting take on presidential rankings that I have ever read; Ivan Eland’s Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty. Eland is basically a paleocon; skeptical of military interventions overseas, and equally skeptical of governmental intervention in the economy or personal liberty at home. He opposes ranking the presidents according to what he calls an “effectiveness bias” (judging presidents on their ability to enact their agenda), a ”charisma bias” (their media appeal), or the “service during a crisis” bias (these crises are often self-created.)

This leads to some interesting rankings. For Eland, there have only been four excellent president, and none since 1897; John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, and Rutherford B. Hayes, and six other good presidents, of whom the most recent was Jimmy Carter, and before him Eisenhower. (Clinton, is ranked average at #11; George W. Bush is ranked bad at #36.) The bottom feeders are not the usual denizens, Pierce and Buchanan, both of whom are put in the middle of the pack, but James Polk #37, William McKinley #38, Truman at #39, and the worst president of them all, Woodrow Wilson. I thoroughly agree with the ranking of Wilson, who led this country into a disastrous war, and then established a still unmatched record for suppression of civil liberties, and Polk, McKinley, and Truman were warmongers all. (He is somewhat kinder to FDR, surprisingly, ranking him #31, just below Nixon, and just ahead of LBJ, daddy Bush, and Reagn, quite rightly not seeing the latter two
as true conservatives.

Eland has the virtues of consistency, which I lack. I support big government at home, and want the US to mind its business elsewhere in the world. Without a big enough government, big business will simply run roughshod over the interests of average people, and Eland’s belief that
business is essentially self-regulating is more utopian and fanciful than any socialist could imagine. Eland ranks Lincoln #29, and his views on the Civil War are complex, and not reducible to simple neo-Confederatism, but when all is said and done, it seems to me that, as the current health care debate shows, if the southern states had stayed in the union after the election of Lincoln, using the power of filibuster and other tools to disrupt Lincoln’s agenda, there is no way that they would have ended losing all their slaves without compensation, and would have avoided a nasty war besides.

But of course the real reason to provide any subjective ranking is to start arguments, and I should probably end this post here, rather than going on and on. But I applaud his rethinking of the ossified rankings of the presidents, and could not agree more that the usual ranking of presidents seems to privilege war-making and war-waging over almost all other qualities, and the ability to keep America out of war should be seen as at least as valuable as the talent for getting America embroiled in them.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Memory of Alicia de Larrocha and Richard Milhous Nixon

The great Spanish pianist Alica de Larrocha passed away the other day, full of years and honors. She was one of the greatest pianists of our time, and one of the greatest pianists I ever saw live. She was peerless in Spanish repertoire, with no equal in the great Spanish masters of the early 20th century, Albeniz, Granados, and Mompou, and was no slouch when it came to the classical composers either, and was the epitome of pelllucidity, precise and profoundly coherent, in the music of Haydn, Beethoven, and, above all, Mozart. It was at a Mostly Mozart concert in Avery Fisher Fall that I saw her, and I will never forget the concert, or its date, August 8th, 1974.

For most readers of this blog, the date will require no further annotation, it was one of those days before the days when everyone remembers where they were, like December 6, 1941 or September 10, 2001. But unlike those two days, there was nothing surprising (though it was still very shocking) about what was going to happen; Richard Nixon was about to resign the presidency, and the week’s news was all about the drumbeat of Republican defections, all telling Nixon that the jig was up, the game was over.
Now, I had followed the two years of Watergate like no story I have followed before or since, watched countless hours of televised hearings, read all the articles and books, and knew all the players, major or minor, and watching the demise of the political career of Richard M. Nixon reach its denouement was deeply gratifying. By the time I left for de Larrocha recital, I knew that Nixon had a speech from the Oval Office scheduled that evening for 8 pm, and though I wanted to stay home and hear it, I wasn’t about to eat the ticket I had purchased for the recital, though I brought a transistor radio with me to catch whatever gleanings I could once the concert was over.
So I went, and the crowd was electric, and however much people wanted to hear one of the world’s great pianists, the only thing that everyone wanted to talk about, except no doubt for a handful of sullen Republicans, was the resignation speech that evening. It was the sort of night when strangers started animated conversations with strangers, and it felt more like a political rally than a classical concert.
I was wondering what Madame de Larrocha was thinking about all of this. She was, as far as I knew (and know) completely apolitical, but I also knew that her revered teacher, Frank Marshall, had been a fervent supporter of Franco (who of course was still alive—though his slow shuffling off the mortal coil was already the butt of jokes), and I assumed her politics were rather conservative and Francoist. Let’s just say I wasn’t expecting hear a piano transcription of “Los Quatros Generales” as an encore. And I wondered what the great pianist, who had lived for forty years under a near-fascist dictatorship, was thinking about the amazing eruption of democracy that America was then experiencing.
Well, before the recital began, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker system, to the effect that because of the tremendous interest in Nixon’s address that evening, Madame de Larrocha has consented to let the address be broadcast live. Everyone clapped. (I forget if the speech was before the recital, or during intermission, though my memory is that it was during intermission.) And as loud as we applauded her peerless performances of the K.330 sonata and the last movement of that never-fail crowd pleaser, the rondo alla turca of K.331, the loudest shouts of the evening occurred when Nixon got to the part of the speech where he said, “therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.” I was a thrill to hear that speech in a public venue, with some 2,000 persons, most of whom shared my great excitement at the news.
Anyway, I don’t ever remember enjoying a concert, or being a New Yorker, as much as I did on that evening, walking to the subway with the special glow you can get from great music and the special sort of glee you get from seeing your enemies humbled and vanquished. And if it was the final fall from grace of tumbledown Dick that made the evening so special, we never would have gathered together were it not for the consummate artistry of Alicia deLarrocha, whose artistry will survive as long as people remain interested in the beauty of the piano.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Glenn Beck and Anarchism

So all the talk this week is on the burning question, “just who the heck is Glenn Beck?” I dunno. I’ve never seen a minute of his talk show, so I am not really in a position to offer an educated opinion. Frank Rich thinks he is a descendent of conspiratorial populists like Father Coughlin in the 1930s, though of course the populist critics of FDR, like Coughlin and Huey Long, wanted more government, not less. (If Coughlin was around today, he would be denouncing Obama’s efforts to reform the banking industry as "half measures that coddle Jewish financiers.”) Conservatives seem to think that Beck is not a true conservative, which amounts to that he is consistent enough to sometimes attack American military adventures overseas as a symptom of “big government.” (The great worry of the conservative movement is that their followers would get the consistency to read paleocon websites like “antiwar”—which I heartily recommend—with regularity.) And it is certainly interesting to learn that Beck is a Mormon who follows some conservative Mormon thinker whom even the John Birch society thought was sort of kooky. ( I have nothing against Mormons or Mormonism, but it is a religion that has conspiratorial thinking woven into the warp of its theology.)

But enough about Glenn Beck. I want to speak instead of the left-wing alternative to conservative agrarian populism, anarchism. It is an ideology that has become increasingly fashionable on the left as of late, and I have often found myself with the stray anarchist urge. It is nowhere near as tainted as communism, is less wonky than socialism, and is a way to stand utterly outside the system while not necessarily calling for its immediate overthrow. And anarchism has the immense advantage that every generation, since, 1890, has reinvented in its own image.

These anarchist thoughts are inspired by a recent volume of essays by a young historian which I heartily recommend, John H. Summer’s Every Fury on Earth. He finds anarchism everywhere, in the work of C. Wright Mills, on whom he is completing a much needed biography, in the works of James Agee, in Noam Chomsky. Summer is trenchant is his excoriation of the “need to be connected” through information technology, which is creating a world that is ever more interconnected to nothing, and equally devastating in his account of Marxist orthodoxies. His skewering of British acolytes of C. Wright Mills in the late 1960s—notably the sesquipedalian Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn—who transformed Mills’s free-style radicalism into a jargonish anti-bourgeois hash is hilarious. There is a lot of interesting media criticism in the volume, especially an essay that my colleague Rob would like on the interesting question of why, after a century of sex scandals in the popular press, journalists from the time of Wilson through Kennedy eschewed through-the-keyhole reportage. “High standards,” and a disinclination to stimulate the masses seem to be the reason. And like all good anarchists, he brings his theories down to the personal and practical level, and provides withering accounts of his efforts to make it as a university teacher, and concludes that being a true historian is somehow incompatible with being part of the higher education knowledge machine. I’m not sure that I agree, but it provides an aura of principle to what has been my own inadvertent path to being an independent, untethered historian.

For me the biggest difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives believe that human nature is basically malign and evil, and needs to be constrained in various ways to prevent it from destroying us. (This was emphasized in the obits over the last week for the Neoconservative poobah, Irving Kristol. ) Liberals believe that human nature is basically good, that we were born without sin, and that whatever Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden stayed in the Garden of Eden. Anarchism merely takes the belief in human goodness to its logical conclusion, that the ends of human life should be, in the words of Summers, “voluntary associations vitalized by spontaneous effusions and organized around the latent potentialities of cooperation.” Now, I love the state, and its often over-ardent embrace, and I love paying taxes, and I think “bureaucrat” is one of the loveliest words in the English language, like violet or amethyst. So I am not an anarchist, but I often wish I was one.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Museum of Chinese in America

The Museum of Chinese in America, like the history it relates, stands at a crossroads between Chinatown and Soho, New York City and the USA, and the past and the present. The wonder of MOCA is that it navigates all these intersections with depth and humanity, succeeding in its effort to explore "the Chinese American experience within the broader context of American history and culture."

The result is not a narrow museum of "identity," as a Times reviewer put it, but an exploration of many pasts that illuminates how life in America remade the Chinese and how the Chinese remade America.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must state that I am a friend of the museum's founders, Jack Tchen and Charlie Lai, and I did some bits of work for the museum in the past. (Including helping to salvage some artifacts from a Chinese opera company.) More important, I have been taking friends and students to earlier incarnations of MOCA since the 1980s, when its predecessor was located in an old public school building. We found there aspects of American history and New York history that were too long ignored.

The story of the Chinese in America is much more than the rise to success of a "model minority." It illuminates the exploited labor of Chinese immigrants that built much of the West, reveals the deep strain of racism that once denied citizenship to the Chinese in America, and brings to life the combination of fascination, exoticism and alienation that colored so many American reactions to the Chinese. One look at this kind of history and your sense of the past and present is never quite the same.

The latest incarnation of MOCA, at 215 Centre Street, embodies the best of the old museum and orients it to the future. Like the old MOCA, which had its roots in a community history project, the new version is deeply democratic and egalitarian, honoring the voices of both famous achievers and unsung survivors. Yet the new museum, elegantly designed by Maya Lin, is welcoming and capable of accommodating many more visitors. It also makes great use of digital technology to explore the past and present in exciting ways that can evolve with the museum in the future.

I visited MOCA tonight to celebrate its opening. With all the crowds and my own hectic schedule, I left before I got a full chance to take in everything the museum has to offer--including films and an art exhibit. I'll be back with friends and students in the future.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Secondary Primaries

Tuesday was primary day here in New York State. Less than 10% of the registered voters turned out in Monroe County here . (I am proud to say that I was in the thinning ranks of those who exercised the franchise.) And I gather the turnout in NYC was at about the same level, even for the important race to succeed Robert Morgenthau as Manhattan DA. Perhaps it is time to say goodbye to the primary, a political device invented during the progressive era to wrest government from the hands of the bosses, but has now become a tool of the permanent oligopoly, an apparent way to give people an apparent choice in who they will governed by, while counting on boredom and disinterest to ensure that very few people choose to vote.

Part of the problem are party-specific primaries. Perhaps they work for state wide voting (we will get to that) , but in local elections, where one party often doesn’t run any candidates, or mere tokens, party primaries effectively disenfranchise a large percentage of the electorate. And far from loosening the grip of parties, primaries provide a justification for their continued existence.
The alternative to primaries are run-off elections. On election day you have as many candidates run as you want, then the top two or three get to run off against each other, in an election, because it is mano-a-mano will attract more attention then a ten person race ever could.
And there is no reason the same couldn’t be tried in state wide elections, or for that matter, presidential elections. Let’s take last year. Rather than the series of silly state by state primaries, let the 20 or so candidates campaign and debate for a few months. Then, say in July there is an election, and all but the top two candidates are eliminated, who then run against each other. (Or perhaps a somewhat more complicated system where there a preliminary election that winnows down the field to perhaps five candidates, who then run against each other in a race for the final two. ) If this was done last year, who knows, the final race might have been Obama vs. Hillary, which certainly was the most compelling fight of the year.
In any event, rather then helping to create an interested electorate, primaries only serve as a demonstration of our apathy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Music With a Past and a Future

Over the years Andy Irvine, a stalwart on the Irish folk scene, has written great songs about historical figures ranging from James Connolly to Emiliano Zapata to Raoul Wallenberg. At the same time, as a recent concert at the Irish Arts Center reminded us, he's become a part of the history of Irish music.

It was the great idea of the folklorist and musician Mick Moloney to present Irvine in concert with the younger guitarist and singer John Doyle in a series that pairs older and younger players in the Irish tradition. The concert, last Friday at the Irish Arts Center, came off splendidly.

Irvine sang and performed some of his best songs on a variety of stringed instruments and reminisced about his years on the Dublin folk scene in the Sixties. As ever, his instrumental work incorporates the complex time signatures that he picked up from the Balkans.

Doyle sang with a mellow voice and played guitar with the tremendous chord changes and rhythms that have become the hallmark of more recent Irish guitar styles. Together, they were a tuneful reminder that Irish music has a great past and an exciting future.

For me, the most moving moment of the show came when Irvine and Doyle performed "Never Tire of the Road," Irvine's tribute to Woodie Guthrie. (Irvine also does a superb, driving version of Guthrie's "Tom Joad," the ballad version of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath.")

Irvine inserted to last Friday's performance of "Never Tire of the Road" a verse about the time when Guthrie led a below-decks singalong on a troop ship during World War II to keep up morale during a torpedo attack. To complement the verse, Irvine injected a chorus that went something like, "Bound to lose, bound to lose, all you fascists bound to lose." I was one of a few voices on the chorus the first time it came around, but by the end of the song he had us all roaring along.

From the Guthrie song to the great musical pubs of Dublin in the Sixties to guitar playing that connects the past and the future, it was a very fine night of music.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Great museum exhibits make you think about the past in an entirely new way, and that's what Mannahatta/Manhattan does at the Museum of the City of New York. The show, presented as a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is a stunning evocation of Manhattan's landscape and how it has changed since the arrival of Europeans. It conveys a profound lesson: the same principles that make for a healthy ecosystem--diverse species, an accommodation of interdependence--are also important to a healthy city.

Mannahatta/Manhattan blends historical research, ecological analysis, artifacts and multi-media. The show is well-designed and instructive without being heavily didactic. I marveled at the range of wetlands once found on the east side of Manhattan and the variety streams and ponds throughout the island. And it was a treat to use a special computer program that displays the show's ideas on what contemporary blocks of Manhattan might have looked like 400 years ago. (My block on East 81st Street was a woodland.)

For all its attention to nature, the show persuasively argues that Manhattan was never utterly pristine. The indigenous peoples here had their own impact on the land--from the building of villages to the burning of lands in what is today Harlem to create open fields for hunting.

The genius of the show is to show how ecological thinking leads us a conclusion that nothing--from plants to people--lives in isolation. Eventually, the factors that help or hurt one species have an impact on another.

The show is a product of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Mannahatta Project, whose Web site deserves a visit of its own. Among its many features is the program that lets you look up what any block in Manhattan might have looked like in 1609.

Mannahatta/Manhattan is up through October 12. Don't miss it.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Commodore

You’ve been hearing about capitalism’s bad breaks recently, but it is, to continue the paraphrase of Lou Gehrig’s famous speech, the luckiest economic system alive, and, unfortunately, to switch clich├ęs, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. But even if capitalism never dies, it still had to be born, and debates on where and when capitalism emerged is one of the oldest of historical chestnuts. And if he wasn’t the first capitalist, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, as the title of an excellent book by T.J. Stiles has it, was the first tycoon, the first multi-multi-millionaire whose wealth simply existed on a totally different level of magnitude from ordinary wealthy people. Worth about $100 million at his death in 1877, when the total value of the US money supply was bout $900 million, he was very likely, in comparative terms, the richest man who ever lived.

Most of the great fortunes made in NYC were made by people like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould , Andrew Carnegie, Michael Bloomberg, were made by people who moved to the city from elsewhere to make the fortunes. Of the great tycoons, perhaps only Cornelius Vanderbilt was native to the city (or to pre-Consolidation Staten Island, at least.) And Vanderbilt career was made in what the first great NYC industry, transportation, first in steamboats and then in railroads. Before NYC was anything else, it was a transportation hub and nexus. And as Stiles shows, Vanderbilt understood capitalism, and the emerging abstract world of stocks and bonds and how to buy and trade them better than almost anyone else. He was his own investment bank (they really didn’t exist in his time), and really, he was his own corporation, at a time when the corporate form of organization was only first gaining traction.
Well, having read Stiles book, I conclude there is nothing particularly admirable about Vanderbilt. He was a hard driving son of a bitch (though, as Stiles shows, generally honorable in his business dealings.) He left no great public benefactions, no museum, no library, no concert hall honors him in his city, and if he is remembered, he is not particularly commemorated in the city, that he as much as any single individual, transformed into a center of world commerce. This is, I suppose, okay with me. But if he doesn’t deserve a monument, he definitely needed a good biography, which he lacked until now. And Stiles book, which goes from his involvement in the landmark case Gibbons v. Ogden to his role in the Erie War of the late 1860s, fills the bill.