Of Historical Statues and Monuments

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To counterbalance the perceived grimness of Maya Lin’s Vietnam wall memorial, more traditional statues depicting soldiers were added near it.

W.J. Astore

Historical statues and monuments are in the news, but sadly not because Americans have taken a new interest in understanding their history. Statues of men who supported the Confederacy, prominent generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, for example, have been appropriated by White supremacists (this is nothing new, actually). Such statues have been defended as “beautiful” by a man, Donald Trump, with little sense of history, even as other Americans have called for these and similar statues to be removed.

Statues, of course, are just that. Inanimate objects. Places for pigeons to poop. It’s we who invest them with meaning. Most people, I think, take little notice of statues and monuments until they become controversial, after which everyone has an opinion.

For me, statues and monuments are a stimulus for reflection as well as education. Who was that guy on a horse? Why is he being honored? And what does that decision tell us about who we were and are as a people?

As a people, we choose certain historical figures as worthy of being sculpted in stone or cast in bronze. We choose our heroes, so to speak, our paragons, our worthies. And our choices are just that — choices. They reflect certain values, priorities, motives, feelings. And since our values, our motives, our sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong, change over time, so too can our statues and memorials change, if that is the will of the people in a democracy that enshrines freedom of choice.

If the peoples of various states choose to remove certain statues, so be it. Other statues might take their place; other worthies might be selected as more in keeping with the times and our values as we conceive them today as a people.

What we choose to memorialize as a people says much about ourselves. Many statues and memorials fall under the category of “man on horseback.” Certainly, military figures like Lee and Jackson were considered great men of their times, at least in a Confederate context. They also, sadly, became potent symbols of racism in the Jim Crow South, physical symbols of the myth of the Lost Cause, intimidating and demoralizing figures to Black communities struggling against violence and prejudice.

Americans are an intemperate lot, driven by extremes, constantly fighting to reconfigure ourselves through our interpretation and re-interpretation of history. All this is proof to William Faulkner’s famous saying that, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

As a historian, I find it deeply sad as well as ironic that, at a time when education in history is withering in the United States, the importance of history has arguably never been greater. We should use statues as a stimulus for learning, but instead they’re more often appropriated as a driver for divisiveness.

If nothing else, today’s debates about statues should remind us yet again of the importance of history and a proper understanding of it. History is inherently disputatious. Controversial. Challenging. Exciting. If we can tap the heat generated by the latest controversies and warm students to a study of history in all its richness, perhaps some good can come from the ongoing controversy.

What kind of statues and memorials are the “right” ones for America? It’s a vexing question, is it not? It’s also a question with powerful implications. I come back to George Orwell’s comment (slightly paraphrased): He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

Our understanding of the past — our selective celebration of it — helps to define what is possible in the future. If you celebrate generals on horseback — military men of the Confederacy — you make a choice that helps to shape what is seen as right and proper in the present moment, and what will be right and proper in the future.

For a better future, I’d like to see fewer statues to military men and sports heroes and the like, and more to visionaries who sought a better way for us as a people. I recall a small monument I saw to Elihu Burritt in Massachusetts. No one is talking about him or his legacy today. He’s an obscure figure compared to his contemporaries, Lee and Jackson. Known as the “Learned Blacksmith,” he was a committed pacifist and abolitionist who worked to educate the less fortunate in society.

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Monument to Elihu Burritt in New Marlboro, Mass. (author’s photo)

If we are to build prominent statues and monuments, would it not be better to build them to people like Elihu Burritt, people who worked for justice and equality, people who fought against war and slavery and for peace and freedom?

That Google Diversity Memo

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W.J. Astore

What does “diversity” mean in the workplace as well as American society?  Are women at a disadvantage in technical fields and, if so, is this due primarily to biology or gender or sociological/cultural factors?  These questions have grabbed headlines lately due to a memo written by James Damore, a young software specialist at Google.  Damore’s memo, which you can read here, accused Google of creating and sustaining an ideological echo chamber that favored liberal/left-leaning ideas to the detriment of conservative viewpoints.  He further suggested that biological differences are a key reason for the under-representation of women in technical career fields, and that diversity efforts are too focused on surface differences like sex and skin color.  The memo led to his firing, after which Damore became a martyr of sorts within conservative circles.

In his memo, Damore is careful to say he respects diversity, that he recognizes gender and racial discrimination, and that he’s committed to fostering discussion.  Rather than summarize his memo, I’d like to make a few comments on it and the general subject, drawn from my experience as an engineer in the U.S. Air Force and my time as a professor teaching lessons on gender and technology.

But first I’d like to recall my time in engineering school in the early 1980s. It was a mostly male environment. “Woman” was a term thrown about as a tepid form of insult. (I recall one male student telling another who lagged, “Hurry up, woman.”) Female students, I sensed, had to “prove” themselves more, or at least to explain why they wanted to be engineers (male students had nothing to explain, since engineering was supposedly “natural” to them).  To be a female engineering student was to be in the minority, and since almost all of the professors were male, role models for younger women were scarce.

In my experience in the military, I worked with female coders, engineers, and managers. All were well qualified, and indeed as an officer managing a project, I couldn’t have cared less about gender. I recall an effort at the MITRE Corporation to recruit and mentor female engineers by female managers, which made perfect sense to me.

Based on my experience, it was easier for men to be promoted in technical jobs simply because there were more male mentors around. I also think women in tech had and have it tougher (in part) because their roles were and are more constrained/restricted by society’s expectations. Put simply, in American society it’s easier for a man to be almost anything than for a woman to be almost anything. Society “tells” women what is appropriate for their gender far more than it dictates to men.

That said, let’s tackle “diversity,” a term that in American discourse is overloaded with baggage.  For some on the right, it’s equated with “reverse discrimination” against (mainly White) men.  For some on the left, it’s equated with gender, skin color, and similar biological as well as ethnic/physical differences.  For me, diversity ideally should focus on abilities, points of view, talent, creativity, and the like.  As an engineer or manager, I’d like a diverse team, with a range of talents and skills and viewpoints, able to work creatively to solve problems.  That should be the goal.

James Damore, in writing his memo, didn’t help himself by suggesting women are more neurotic and anxious than men (which echoes the old “hysteria” argument that women are biologically less stable and flightier than men).  If you start citing studies on neuroses and anxiety that are allegedly prevalent more in women than men, you must be aware of prior uses of hysteria and similar ideas to mark women as unstable and unreliable when compared to allegedly unhysterical men.

(An aside: I suppose I could construct an argument suggesting that men are too violent to be hired because statistics show they’re much more likely than women to commit a mass shooting in the workplace. Sorry, guys. It’s not discrimination — it’s “biology.” You have too much testosterone-driven anger to be reliable.)

Damore’s memo, I think, suffers from his own sense of outrage: the writer is fed up with Google diversity policies, which perhaps make him (and many others) feel like he needs to apologize for being male. This has led him to focus on alleged biological differences as the driver for his memo.

I do agree, however, with his point that too often diversity efforts are simplistic.  So many differences interact and combine to make us who we are as humans.  What about class differences, for example?  If a tech team consists entirely of college-educated members of the upper-middle class, and all American, and all in their twenties and thirties, is it diverse even if it’s 50-50 male/female?  Which qualities do we privilege in a push for diversity?  Gender?  Race?  Class?  Nationality?  Age?  (As an aside, it’s not easy for older engineers to get jobs; they’re often assumed to be both overqualified and out-of-touch.)

Damore could also pay more attention to history.  He suggests, for example, that women as women seek promotions and higher pay less often than men.  They don’t “lean in” as much as they should.  But it’s hardly that simple.  It used to be (and still is?) that men were promoted and paid more not necessarily because they “leaned in,” i.e. were more macho and demanding, but because it was assumed a man was the breadwinner for a family. Whereas if a woman worked at the same job, it was often assumed she wasn’t the primary breadwinner.

That is, it wasn’t that women were simply too “weak” (biology/psychology) to demand a raise; they didn’t ask because they knew they wouldn’t get it. Or, if they did ask, they weren’t too surprised when a man got it instead. It wasn’t always due to a conspiratorial old boys’ club (though those existed), but rather the societal/cultural bias that a man, as head of a family, needed the extra money more. Also, bosses tend to promote underlings like themselves. Men in charge tend to promote younger men who are mirror images, especially if the latter play their cards right (are properly deferential, let their boss win at golf, and so on).

When we look at why women are under-represented in technical fields, biology is arguably the least important factor to consider.  Historical, cultural, sociological, and gender factors all weigh heavily on efforts to increase women’s participation.  In short, Damore’s memo is perhaps most valuable not at pointing a way forward, but in revealing the persistence of certain attitudes and biases that still need to be addressed in the drive for a fair and equitable society.

Military Control of the Civilian: It’s Opposite Day in America

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General Mattis: Celebrated as a moderating influence on Trump

W.J. Astore

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to recall that civilian leaders are supposed to command and control the military, not vice-versa.  Consider an article posted yesterday at Newsweek with the title, TRUMP’S GENERALS CAN SAVE THE WORLD FROM WAR—AND STOP THE CRAZY.  The article extols the virtues of “Trump’s generals”: James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff, and H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser.  The article presents them as the adults in the room, the voices of calm and reason, a moderating force on a bombastic and bellicose president.

I’ve written about Trump’s generals already at TomDispatch.com and elsewhere.  The latest gushing tribute to America’s generals at Newsweek illustrates a couple of points that bear repeating.  First, you don’t hire generals to rein in a civilian leader, or at least you shouldn’t if you care to keep a semblance of democracy in America.  Second, lifelong military officers favor military solutions to problems.  That’s precisely why you want civilians to control them, and to counterbalance their military advice.  Only in a democracy that is already crippled by creeping militarism can the rise of generals to positions of power be celebrated as a positive force for good.

Speaking of creeping militarism in the USA, I caught another headline the other day that referenced General Kelly’s appointment as Chief of Staff.  This headline came from the “liberal” New York Times:

John Kelly Quickly Moves to Impose Military Discipline on White House

 

Note that headline.  Not that Kelly was to impose discipline, but rather military discipline. What, exactly, is military discipline?  Well, having made my first career in the military, I can describe its features. Obedience.  Deference to authority.  Respect for the chain of command.  A climate that sometimes degenerates to “a put up and shut up” mentality. Such a climate may be needed in certain military settings, but do we want it to rule the White House?

Here is what I wrote back in December about Trump and “his” generals:

In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process.  His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism. At the same time, the future of U.S. foreign policy seems increasingly clear: more violent interventionism against what these men see as the existential threat of radical Islam. 

Of course, now the threat of nuclear war looms with North Korea.  For a moderating influence, America places its faith in military generals controlling the civilian commander-in-chief, and that’s something to draw comfort from, at least according to Newsweek.

When military control of the civilian is celebrated, you know it’s truly opposite day in America.

Trump: Much “Fire and Fury,” Signifying Something Vital

 

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Fat Man, the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki on August 9, 1945

W.J. Astore

The big story today is Trump’s threat to North Korea about “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response to any aggression against the U.S. and its allies.  The world witnessed American “fire and fury” in August of 1945 when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs (indeed, today is the 72nd anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing).  Roughly 250,000 people were killed in those two bombings, and Trump is apparently promising a worst form of fury against North Korea (“like the world has never seen”).

Back in October 2016, I wrote a piece at this site with the title: “On nuclear weapons, Trump is nightmarishly scary,” and that nightmare is beginning to take shape.  As I wrote back then, Trump’s worst attribute is his “sweeping ignorance to the point of recklessness when it comes to matters of national defense, and specifically America’s nuclear arsenal.”  I further wrote that:

Back in March … Trump boasted at a debate that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  In this latest debate, he yet again revealed that he has no real knowledge of America’s nuclear capability and how modern and powerful (and scary) it truly is.

Sure, Trump is crude, lewd, and sexist, but those qualities won’t destroy the world as we know it.  Ignorance about nuclear weapons, combined with impetuosity and an avowed affection for he-man wild-card generals like George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, is a recipe for utter disaster.

A man of Trump’s vanity and impetuosity — a man of raging grievances who lives in his own reality of alternative facts — is hardly a reassuring figure to have at the top of America’s “fire and fury” nuclear arsenal.  Is it all just bluster?  It’s impossible to know, and that’s truly the scary part.

All this fire and fury, even if it remains only bluster, should teach the world a critical lesson: the necessity of nuclear disarmament. Holding millions of people hostage to nuclear terror (as we’ve been doing since the Cold War) has long been immoral, inhumane, and unconscionable.

Instead of making nightmarish threats, a sober and mature U.S. president might actually lead the world in serious efforts to reduce and ultimately to eliminate nuclear weapons. That would be real moral leadership,  That would be real guts.

Trump’s easy boasts of “fire and fury” do signify something vital — the need for global nuclear disarmament, no matter how long it takes.

Update (8/10/17): There’s been a lot of talk, more or less sensible, that Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric is just that: rhetoric.  That it will not become reality because North Korean leaders are sensible and rational actors, and that U.S. leaders like Tillerson and Mattis provide a counterbalance to Trump.  Well, maybe.  But escalatory rhetoric can become reality, i.e. it serves to exacerbate tensions that can lead to miscalculation and war.

Think of North Korea’s latest threat to shoot missiles in the direction of Guam.  If that threat is carried out, a U.S. attack on North Korean missile sites is quite likely, and where that would lead is impossible to say.

Reckless rhetoric is not harmless; words can and do box nations as well as people in, often leading to unexpected actions.  Just think of hateful words flung by people in domestic disputes that escalate into something far worse.  Rationality does not always win out.

Update 2 (8/10/17): Trump recently boasted that, during his short presidency, his actions have led to a U.S. nuclear arsenal that is “now far stronger and more powerful” than it was under President Obama.  The truth is that this arsenal hasn’t measurably changed at all.  The Washington Post gives Trump “four Pinocchios” for his latest lie, but surely big lies about nuclear weapons deserve a different rating system.  Should we call it a four megaton lie?  Lie-mageddon?

The Blinding Power of Nationalism

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W.J. Astore

One of the challenges of my teaching career was to encourage students to think critically about American history and actions.  Since I taught at conservative institutions (the Air Force Academy; a technical college in rural Pennsylvania), many of my students had a strong “America: love it or leave it” mentality.  They associated criticism with lack of patriotism.  Fortunately, I had the advantage of wearing a military uniform (at the Air Force Academy) and later the status of a retired military officer (in Pennsylvania), so few students could readily dismiss my critiques as the work of a “libtard” leftist academic.

Patriotism, I would tell my students, meant an informed love of country, meaning that a patriot was open to seeing the faults in his or her country, and willing to work hard to change things for the better.  The “love it or leave it” mentality, I explained, was a form of false patriotism; an unthinking form, a type of blind infatuation.  Nationalism, in a word.

George Orwell, as usual, beat me to the punch, writing with great clarity in 1945 on the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

By ‘nationalism’ I mean … the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism… By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people…

Orwell further explained the dangers of nationalism.  The way a nationalist “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.”  The way a nationalist’s “thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.”  Nationalism, Orwell explained, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right …”

Flagrant dishonesty combined with unshakable certainty is a combustible mix.  To explain why, it is worth quoting Orwell at length:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind…

The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function…

The nationalist succeeds in constructing his own “reality,” a twisted version of alternative facts, an unthinking construct, a remorseless world without pity and compassion for others.

Contrast the nationalist to the patriot.  A patriot thrives on thought.  She is unafraid to face reality as it is; she does not suppress emotions like pity and compassion.  True patriotism is critical, open-minded, and defensive, as Orwell explained in his Notes on Nationalism:

“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

It’s easy, in the “might makes right” reality of nationalism, for murder to become sanctioned as a positive good, or at the very least for nationalists to become oblivious to murder.  As Orwell said, a nationalist can justify anything in the cause of “protecting” his construct of the state.  Again, nationalism is a form of infatuation, a willed blindness, that can be used or manipulated to actuate, support, and justify the most inhumane actions.

The world today faces a rising tide of nationalism.  Its dangers are well documented in history and well explained by Orwell.  “Love it or leave it,” in short, is a murderous path, not a patriotic one.  Let’s not go down it.

(My thanks to Mike Murry and Monotonous Languor for their stimulating comments on Orwell and nationalism at this site.)

On Afghanistan, Trump is Right to be Skeptical

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Not seeing eye-to-eye: Trump and Mattis (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

W.J. Astore

NBC news reports that President Trump is skeptical about the U.S. military’s prospects in Afghanistan.  The military is losing, not winning, Trump said, and he further suggested the U.S. commander on the scene should be fired.  Meanwhile, China is cleaning up with mineral rights (such as copper mining), even as America’s generals continue with a “stay the course” policy, a policy that’s led to sixteen years of “stalemate” (the U.S. military’s word) at a cost of roughly a trillion dollars.

I highly recommend reading the NBC article for at least two reasons. First, Trump is right to question his advisers’ stale advice.  He’s right to question the generals.  Indeed, that’s his job as president and commander-in-chief.  If sixteen years of effort and a trillion dollars has produced “stalemate” (at best) in Afghanistan, can one blame the president for seeking a new strategy?  Perhaps even a withdrawal?

Second, and most interesting, is the push-back from NBC News and its hired guns: the retired generals and admirals who work for NBC as “consultants.”  Let’s look closely at their comments.

Retired Admiral James Stavridis, a former head of NATO and an NBC News analyst, basically blames the Trump administration, not the military, for the Afghan stalemate.  In his words:

“The situation in Afghanistan is not improving, but I think it’s hardly irretrievable at this point, and what the president needs to be doing is deciding on the strategy.” 

“What is hurting the process at the moment is this back and forth about do we stay or do we go, how many troops,” he added. “Any commander is going to be incredibly handicapped in an environment like that. So I think the fundamental problem here is lack of decisiveness in Washington, specifically in the White House.”

Now, let’s turn to retired General Barry McCaffrey.  President Trump had the audacity to ask experienced combat veterans in Afghanistan (i.e., not only the generals) for advice on the war. and McCaffrey is having none of that:

“One of the last things you necessarily want to do is form policy advice based on what the current combatants think about something in a war zone,” said Gen. McCaffrey, an MSNBC military analyst. “They’re qualified totally to talk about tactics and things like that and what they’re seeing, but the president’s job is to formulate strategy and policy not to do tactical decisions.”

In short, a retired admiral and general at NBC News are taking the President to task for (1) Not being quick enough to rubber-stamp the military’s latest call for more troops in Afghanistan; (2) Daring to listen to the advice of lower-level U.S. combat veterans of the Afghan war, veterans who are rightly critical of the war.

Tell me again: Where’s that “liberal” media bias we’re always hearing about?

Trump is right to question his generals, and he’s right to seek advice from those who don’t wear stars on their shoulders.  And he’s certainly right in not making a hasty decision.

Finally, to NBC News: Can’t you find military experts who aren’t retired generals and admirals?  And with critical perspectives?  Your article essentially supports the generals and their strategy (if that’s the right word) for endless war in Afghanistan.  Is that really the best and only course for America and Afghanistan?  Where’s the talk of negotiation? Withdrawal? An end to America’s seemingly endless commitment to Afghanistan?

Trump is more skeptical of the Afghan war than NBC News and its team of “starry” experts.  Advantage, Trump.

Who needs a military coup?

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W.J. Astore

With the swearing in of John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff, a retired four-star Marine general now controls the White House. Another retired four-star Marine general, James Mattis, controls the Department of Defense (DoD) and much of the National Security State. Meanwhile, a serving three-star Army general, H.R. McMaster, controls the National Security Council.

Who needs a military coup?  Remember when the U.S. was founded on civilian control of a citizen-soldier military?  Those were the days.  The point is not that Kelly-Mattis-McMaster constitute a military cabal; it’s that there’s no rival civilian authority at the upper regions of Trump’s government.  Is Steve Bannon going to rein in the generals?  He fancies himself a military strategist in his own right.  Should we place our faith in Congress?  How about Jared and Ivanka?  Prospects for less bellicose policies are indeed looking grim.

Our clueless president, after all, professes love for “his” generals while acclaiming the WWII generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, two soldiers who were not known for their deference to civilian authority.

Again, who needs a military coup?  As the real U.S. military budget soars above a trillion dollars a year and as the U.S. State Department is sidelined and gutted, the future of U.S. foreign policy seems clear: More and more “kinetic” operations, together with more and more brinksmanship with Iran, North Korea, and possibly Russia and China as well.

With generals in the White House and the DoD running the show, advised by another general on the National Security Council, enabling a president whose patience and knowledge base are as thin as his skin, the prospects for catastrophic miscalculation and war loom ever larger.

Update (8/2/17): Speaking of Congress, here’s Senator Lindsey Graham on the appointment of retired Marine General John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff: “The Marines can do almost anything,” Senator Graham said. “The Marines have landed at the White House. They have a beachhead.”

And that’s a good thing, Senator?  In a military dictatorship, perhaps …