Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Unhurt Locker Seminar


 Lincoln overlooking an opportunity

 “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us”.   Robbie Burns’s famous line is usually interpreted in a personal sense, as it was intended, but at times it is applicable to whole nations as well as to individuals.  We left for England on October 1, which was the deadline for the “funding the government crisis” and returned on October 16, the eve of doomsday for the “debt limit crisis.”  I was acutely aware of this calendrical happenstance, as I did not much look forward to trying to defend, or for that matter even explain, what appeared to be our collective national lunacy.
            I need not have worried so much.  Quite to my surprise and eventually my disquiet, the British press had practically nothing to say about it.  The Economist, intelligent as usual, had a very substantial piece, but then I think of The Economist as only technically British.  Of the major English dailies I saw, only the Guardian, with its famously anti-American attitude, had much to say, most of it rather superficial in my opinion.
            Despite the fact that I have lived in Britain for extensive periods of time, I have only rudimentary notions about British politics.  I can hardly expect a penetrating insight into American life from people who pronounce the first syllable of Houston as though it were a domestic dwelling.  But the journalistic tone deafness goes somewhat further.  What was lacking in the analysis was any sense that there are actual and weighty issues at stake.  Everything was personalities: Obama’s resolve, Boehner’s debility, Cruz’s folly, Harry Reid’s adroitness, etc.  But then, on further reflection, how different was that really from the treatment in most of the American press?
            It was with relief—in this regard, at least--that I got home and back to the locker room in Dillon Gymnasium, where most mornings in the dawn’s early light there is a lively running seminar of locker-holders on their way to or on their return from their various athletic activities.  The seminar participants vary a bit, but the  core consists of one medievalist, one plasma physicist, one financial engineer, and one pediatrician in public health.  Every month or two some of us have an extended palaver over coffee and a baguette at Panera’s.  
            The budget expert, Steven Semenuk, who is considerably younger than the rest of us, is a great reader.  His interests appear eclectic, with perhaps a tilt toward economic and political history.  It was Steve who via The Big Short set me onto the books of Michael Lewis.  Recently he has been reading around in American history of the pre-Civil-War period, and he suggested a parallel between the current state of affairs in Washington and that in the 1850s.  This seemed to me a most illuminating analogy, remembering always what an analogy is—a comparison of terms in some ways alike and in some ways not.
            The very strange allocution “kick the can down the road,” which seems to confuse a once-popular children’s game with a mode of locomotion, denotes the peculiar form of political pusillanimity by which procrastinating politicians try to dodge unpleasant decisions.  Though they are now talked about as saints bright shining in the seventh heaven, the Founding Fathers could kick a can with the best of them, and they did so with regard to the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery.  With the Missouri Compromise of 1820 our leaders kicked it a little further.  By the 1850s, if not long before, it was pretty obvious that further kicking was not likely to work.  I believe this government cannot endure,” said Abraham Lincoln in 1858,  “permanently half slave and half free.”
            The vilification of the “Tea Party” in the “main stream media”, vigorously encouraged by the antics of some of the most prominent party-goers themselves, is now so complete that it is easy enough to assign our current crisis to the categories of mental aberration or naughty behavior.  So far as I could discern it, that seemed to be the European view of the matter.  Such a view is comforting, perhaps, in that it allows us to avoid acknowledging the conflict between two quite coherent, quite powerful, and above all quite real visions of what American government is and should be.  But not every issue can be fudged indefinitely.  Some of them need actual resolution—meaning, alas, winners and losers.  The effective failure of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (alias Simpson-Bowles) perhaps suggests that “sensible compromise” will not resolve this particular dilemma.  I expect neither the dissolution of the Union nor Civil War, but then neither did Lincoln in 1858.


  1. Dear Professor,

    I am surprised that you seem to prefer bureaucratic substitutes for a Constitutionally (de)(pre)scribed political process - e.g. the Simpson-Bowles commission. Political leaders of both parties have collaborated in the cancerous growth of an extra-Constitutional bureaucratic spend-ocracy, and they are still looking for every possible way to avoid facing reality. The "Tea Party" spokesmen are the only sane actors on the stage. Over the past 5 years we have seen the American economy substantially weakened by the picadors and banderilleros of excessive spending and thoughtless regulation, we have seen our foreign policy overturned, and we have seen the President and his administration resort to divisive vilification and the exaltation of inter-communal strife as their primary response to challenge. Apres moi le deluge, in deed.

  2. "I can hardly expect a penetrating insight into American life from people who pronounce the first syllable of Houston as though it were a domestic dwelling."

    That would include people such as New Yorkers, who pronounce "Houston Street" in exactly that way.