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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Libertarian Mugged by Reality


The University of Chicago campus. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)

As a freelance political writer living in Hyde Park, the neighborhood that encompasses the University of Chicago, it has frequently been my lot to be haunted by bright-eyed twentysomethings. They seek my professional counsel. Or are just eager to talk about politics. We have lunch; I take on all comers (presuming they’ll buy me lunch). One day in the middle of 2008, the fellow who approached me was named Alex Beinstein.

Alex Beinstein was, like many other a fidgety and overconfident undergraduate who’d sought my company in this way, considerably to the right of center—a libertarian, he told me. We talked; he taped an interview with me for his political talk show on the college radio station; he annoyed me with right-wing clichés; we went our separate ways.

Later, as these kids sometimes do, he got back in touch. But something had happened in the interim. That something, in fact, seems to be happening a lot: kids I knew who were conservatives when they lived in the ivory tower were now liberals. The real world has made them that way.

That’s not how the story is supposed to go. Remember the maxim apocryphally attributed to Churchill? “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” That was then, I suppose. This is now. What changed? The other day I sat down with Alex—I was buying lunch this time—to find out. He was no longer fidgety. He was confident, not overconfident—a grownup.

I mentioned the Churchill maxim. “Yeah, I’ve heard that. I don’t think you can flip it 100 percent for me. But I think you can flip it about 80 percent.”

He recalled coming to college vaguely liberal. But the people who were declaring themselves for causes looked like hypocrites to him. “So I felt myself being drawn more and more to the libertarian philosophy. Like: ‘At the end of the day we’re all selfish.’”

Was it, I asked, exacerbated by the notoriously libertarian-friendly confines of the University of Chicago?

“Definitely. It was easy for me to make a lot of libertarian friends. We had many, many dinners, sitting around, saying, ‘This is a scam, and that is a scam,’ and, ‘If you read what Milton Friedman helped to do in Chile.’ ”

And they would talk about something else. In my first post on this blog, I spoke of the right’s “curious fallacy, a crushing intellectual failure. They’ll act like only governments have the power to deprive citizens of freedom.” Libertarian kids at the University of Chicago think so, too: “It was all about ‘People have jobs, and that’s that, and anything that gets in the way between employer and employee is unhealthy for the system.’ ”

What happened next? He got a job.

He sold books at Borders in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It “did kind of a 180 on me. Just in terms of the rigidity of a corporate structure! You know: they tell you you have to take your lunch break at 1. But at 12:58 a customer starts speaking to you. And if you speak to them until 1:02 the bosses at Borders would start yelling at you to take your break at one, and then if you got an extra minute to 1:31 it throws off the whole schedule but if you volunteer to go two minutes early they fear they might be fined!”

Call it the irrationality of the market.

He learned, too, about the nature of unaccountable power in the workplace. One day the boss promised him five shifts the following week. Then, of a sudden, the boss assigned him only three. And apologized. Said it wouldn’t happen again. Then it happened again.

“I mean, there was a lot of disingenuousness. And I was privileged enough that if I needed a little bit more money from my parents to pay the rent it was fine, but if I was the type of person where literally that was the difference between me paying rent or not, this was a huge deal. It wasn’t like they had enough time to plan in advance—or find another job, because if they think they have to work those days”: their schedule has been monopolized. Which, sort of, is the point. “All of the sudden you see how little liberty average people do have.”

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It’s like that inspiring right-wing slogan says, the one right up there with “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “Government for, by, and of the people”: “You can always quit.”

“I was working with people in their mid-30s who had kids and there was one day when somebody’s kid was really sick…but there was no paid sick leave, so they couldn’t afford to take the day off. And then you know people who have really long commutes to this job in Cambridge, and they’re not really investing in transportation systems in the Boston area…”

So he started thinking about infrastructure. He was walking to work through East Cambridge, “which was not a very nice place, and you could could see how unkept the buildings were and how shoddy the hospital was, and the general sense of hopelessness and despair, and all of the sudden I felt like a total fraud for believing the Hayek-Friedman stuff!…I didn’t really see them having any liberty.”

In high school he never worked. In college he always had nice desk internships. “I never felt guilty if I took a bathroom break that was longer than ninety seconds! Or that I took a thirty-one-minute break or something because it was out of my control. That just totally changed everything. And I’ll never think the same way again.”

So there you go, conservative parents, the ones afraid that if they send their darlings off to college that—well, remember how Rick Santorum put it last year? That “there are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate him. I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

Nope. The right’s problem began when the indoctrination stopped. That’s when the forbidden thoughts started:

“I could see how much good the liberal stuff had done, but how much more was needed to be done.”

Rick Perlstein last wrote about a libertarian scheme to transform a park in Detroit into a sovereign nation with a $300,000 citizenship fee.

Hell Isle


A mother and child sit on the beach on Belle Isle in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Check out what the loopy Ayn Randroids are up to now. In long-suffering Detroit, a libertarian real estate developer wants to buy a civic crown jewel, Belle Isle, the 982-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead—think the Motor City’s Central Park—and turn it into an independent nation, selling citizenships at $300,000 per. Not, mind you, out of any mercenary motives, says would-be founder Rodney Lockwood—but just “to provide an economic and social laboratory for a society which effectively addresses some of the most important problems of American, and the western world.” (Sic.)

Address how? Well, let’s say I’ve never seen a document that better reveals the extent to which, for libertarians, “liberty” means the opposite of liberty—at least since Rick Santorum held up the company town in which his grandpa was entombed as a beacon of freedom.

An aspiring Ayn Rand himself, Lockwood has set out his vision in a “novel,” poetically titled Belle Isle: Detroit’s Game Changer. Although he’s actually done the master one better, by imagining he can get his utopia built. Last week he presented the plan, alongside a retired Chrysler executive, a charter school entrepreneur (who apparently enjoys a cameo in the novel running one of the island’s two K-12 schools) and a senior economist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, to what The Detroit News called “a select group of movers and shakers at the tony Detroit Athletic Club,” who included the president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Never let it be said Rod Lockwood (perfect pornstar name? You be the judge) hasn’t thought this thing through. The plan is foolproof: “Belle Isle is sold by the City of Detroit to a group of investors for $1 billion. The island is then developed into a city-state of 35,000 people, with its own laws, customs and currency, under United States supervision as a Commonwealth.” Relations with neighboring, impoverished Detroit will be naught but copacetic, and not exploitative at all: “Plants will be built across the Detroit River…. with the engineering and management functions on Belle Isle. Companies from all over the world will locate on Belle Isle, bringing in massive amounts of capital and GDP.” (Because, you know, tax-dodging international financiers of the sort a scheme like this attracts are just desperate to open and operate factories.) Government will be limited to ten percent or less of GDP, “by constitutional dictate. The social safety net is operated charities, which are highly encouraged and supported by the government.”

Although, on Belle Isle, “the word ‘Government’ is discouraged and replaced with the word ‘Service’ in the name of buildings.” Note the verb-tense slippage between present and future throughout. Lockwood is a realist.

He says what he imagines is a “Midwest Tiger”—helpfully explaining that his self-bestowed nickname is “a play on the label given Singapore as the ‘Asian Tiger.’ Singapore, in recent decades, has transformed itself into the most dynamic economy in the world, through low regulation, low taxes and business-friendly practices.”

Singapore. You know: that libertarian paradise where chewing gum is banned; thousands of people each year are sentenced to whippings with rattan canes for such offenses as overstaying visas and spray-painting buildings; the punishment for littering can be $1,000, a term of forced labor and being required to wear a sign reading “I am a litter lout”; and where pornography, criticizing religion, connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot and (yes!) over-exuberant hugging are all banned. Freedom!

What are the Commonwealth’s other inspirations, you ask? “The country of Liechtenstein, which, although a monarchy, has a very effective government.”

And indeed, just like little Liechtenstein, Belle Islanders will enjoy protection from America’s security umbrella: “As a Commonwealth of the United States…Belle Isle pays its share of the U.S. defense budget, based on its population. It amounts to about $2,000 per person per year.” In fact Belle Islanders can expect nothing but fiscal gratitude from citizens of the United States. Yes, “a citizen who lives on Belle Isle who operates an investment fund with world-wide customers will pay no income taxes” to the United States. “Won’t the US lose a lot of tax revenue?” Oh, ye of little libertarian faith. “It will probably gain revenue….  Entrepreneurs from around the world will locate on Belle Isle and headquarter there, but often have their plant operations in the US because the island is so small. Businesses producing products in the U.S. will still be taxed at US corporate rates…. the influx of capital and jobs will be staggering…. Detroiters will see this vision as the answer to their prayers, and how could the federal government deny Detroit a chance to turn itself around, accelerate its re-birth, all at no cost to the taxpayer? How could they deny this long standing population of over 700,000 their first real shot at the American dream.” (Sic.)

Want in? Three requirements. First, of course, you need to come up with $300,000. “Will the citizenship fee pay for the purchase of any land for homes or businesses on Belle Isle?” “No—that will be an additional cost.” But look what that $300,000 buys you: “One of the core values” of the new nation, Lockwood writes, “is respect for all its citizens, no matter their station in life.”

Second: approval by the “citizenship board.” (Freedom!) Third step: “a command of English.” Because nothing says “respect for all its citizens” like “funny-talkers need not apply.”

And yes, it’s true, Lockwood proposes the “Rand” as the name of Belle Isle’s currency. But I’m sure he means Rand as in “Ayn Rand,” not, you know, Rand as in “South Africa,” the former home of a social system that functioned by surrounding minority enclaves of affluent whites with a reserve army of impoverished and disenfranchised blacks. Not like that at all.

What could go wrong? What’s the downside? After all, writes Lockwood in the section of his FAQ asking, ‘What is Bell Isle used for currently?”, “It is uninhabited and functions as a public park.” Just like that dead zone between 59th and 110th Streets in Manhattan.

You can sign up for updates on the project here. Although, take note, in order do so you have to give the organizers your phone number. Because, you know… freedom.

Rick Perlstein last posted about Barack Obama’s upbringing in violence-ridden Indonesia and how it may have affected his “art of denial” regarding Republican obstructionism.

Our Obama Bargain (Part 3 of 3): Obama in Indonesia


(AP Photo/Drew Angerer.)

I’m fascinated by Barack Obama’s arts of denial. Here we are in the midst of the greatest string of organized rule-bending and -breaking and norm violation by an opposition party perhaps in American history. Just this past week, consider the story from Virginia, where Republicans rammed through a redistricting plan by taking advantage of a brief respite in the State Senate’s 20-20 Democrat-Republican split—because a black state senator, a civil rights hero, was in Washington attending the inauguration. But that was just an especially egregious example of a decade-long pattern: Squeezing all the Democrats in an area into massively super-majority districts, Republican state legislators gerrymander their way past any semblance of democracy—for instance in Pennsylvania, which voted 54 percent for Barack Obama, but whose US House delegation is overwhelmed by Republicans, thirteen to five. It’s cheating, and they’re working hard to leverage that gerrymandering to fix presidential elections, as Nation colleague John Nichols notes: RNC chair Reince Priebus “is urging Republican governors and legislators to take up what was once a fringe scheme to change the rule for distribution of Electoral College votes. Under the Priebus plan, electoral votes from battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and other states that now regularly back Democrats for president would be allocated not to the statewide winner but to the winners of individual congressional districts.”

That’s how our Republican friends think about rules. Here’s how they think about norms of civility. Wayne LaPierre, to whom the president has extended the hand of fellowship with a White House invitation, responded to an anodyne line in the inaugural address—“we cannot mistake absolutism for principle”—by telling him, “I’ve got news for the president. Absolutes do exist…. It’s the basis of all civilization.” That’s right. Mellow old Barack Obama is literally pulling down civilization, by telling folks to be nicer to each other. And the other side? Well, here’s an example I stumbled upon today from 2010, in which a Tea Party candidate for State Assembly in California made his appeal to the electorate as follows (he won): “I am going there to reach across the aisle to the enemies of freedom and annihilate them and pound them into the ground and take back our power…. We don’t stop until Americans are back in power.”

And how has Barack Obama responded to this historically tectonic shift in rule- and norm-breaking? With silence. As if it’s not really happened at all (except, possibly, “on both sides”). Has he ever, ever, ever specifically addressed the crisis of right-wing antinomian extremism? Of violent rhetoric, or just violence, on the American right? Show me an example and I’ll buy you a steak dinner.

It’s not that he doesn’t know it exists; he’s not stupid. I have reason to know. In August of 2011, during the first debt-ceiling imbroglio, Joe Klein reported that Obama “took a cultural wander through the recent history of US political dysfunction” by reading my book Nixonland, an account of where this Republican nihilism comes from. At first I was plenty flattered. I called Joe Klein for the fuller scoop. He told me that when Obama related to him he was reading the book, the president was more depressed than he had ever seen him, wrecked by spectacle of John Boehner not being being able to sell the deal he and Obama had reached to his caucus. It forced upon him, apparently, some sort of fresh insight that the Republican Party was crazier than he had ever realized. At that I was worried. Had the president of the United States really not noticed before that Republicans have been fantasizing about reaching across the aisle to annihilate us and pound us into the ground before… August of 2011? If that’s so, is he really qualified for his job?

This art of denial: where does it come from? Last time in this series I wrote about an example from his time working as a community organizer. The formative political experience of his career came in the midst of a virtual municipal civil war in which white Chicago alderman preferred to shut down city government rather than let a black mayor govern—and yet Obama seemed to learn no lessons from the experience of reactionary recalcitrance, or at least has acknowledged none.

With trepidation, I want to take the inquiry further back.

In 1966 an Indonesian graduate student in Hawaii lost his student visa and had to return to his native country. His wife, Ann Dunham, and his stepson, then known as Barry Soetoro, soon moved to join him. The boy was soon to be six years old. He stayed in Indonesia for more than four years. Wingnut commentary has focused on how this interval in Barack Obama’s biography helped turn him into a Muslim sleeper-cell agent, of course. But more-or-less liberal Obama chroniclers have made arguments about the influence these years had on him, too: as Chris Bray has written in an outstanding essay on the misplaced sentimentality in sympathetic Obama biographies, the Indonesia experience is said more or less to have been what turned the future president into a multiculturalist and a high-minded idealist.

Bray quotes Janny Scott, author of A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother (which I have not read): “Jakarta had a magical charm…the city felt friendly and safe.” And then Bray quotes an extended passage in which Scott spins as synecdoche for that warm, friendly magic a riff on Indonesian snacks: “They include seafood chips, peanut chips, fried chips from the mlinjo tree, chips made from ground rawhide mixed with garlic, sweet-potato snacks, mashed cassava snacks, sweet flour dumplings made with sesame seeds, sticky rice flavored with pandanus leaves, sticky black rice sprinkled with grated coconut, and rice cakes wrapped in coconut leaves or banana leaves, to name a few….”

David Remnick, in his biography The Bridge (which I also have not read) says that in Indonesia Ann Dunham “was Barry’s teacher in high-minded matters—liberal, humanist values…honesty, hard work, and fulfilling one’s duty to others.” Scott has her “work[ing] to instill ideas about public service in her son,” that “sense of obligation to give something back.”

David Maraniss, in Barack Obama: The Story (of which I’ve read a bit), for his part, takes us inside his Jakarta classroom, where the teacher “spoke idealistically of the notion of tolerance.” And he adds to the multiculti garland, “Barry in Indonesia was not just an early coming-of-age story, but also the start of his coming to grips with race,” which brought him “closer to his father in spirit than he would ever [be] again.”

But what these books talk about barely at all, Bray devastatingly claims, is what had happened in Indonesia but months before Lolo Soetoro’s return there: one of the greatest human rights catastrophes of the second half of the twentieth century. Right-wing general Suharto responded to a half-assed coup attempt by leftists that left behind a death toll of six with a massacre estimated as in excess of 500,000 corpses—of Communists, supposedly, of course; but also of ethnic Chinese, Christians, and any other unfortunate communal outliers. Here’s Wikipedia: Methods “of killing included shooting and beheading with Japanese-style samurai swords. Corpses were often thrown into rivers, and at one point officials complained to the Army that the rivers running into the city of Surabaya were clogged with bodies. In areas such as Kediri in East Java, Nahdlatul Ulama youth wing (Ansor) members lined up Communists, cut their throats and disposed of the bodies in rivers. The killings left whole sections of villages empty, and the houses of victims or the interned were looted and often handed over to the military.”

And here’s Bray after quoting Janny Scott’s roll call of snacks: “This is more detail than Scott has managed for the political events of 1965…. In a story about Indonesia in the late 1960s, you can learn about cookies and chips.”

Again, I don’t know how fair Bray’s critiques of the books are; he does note that Janny Scott “has them living in a place where people are unable to eat the fish because of decaying corpses in the water”; and that Maraniss (before claiming that Obama’s classroom was “a place removed”) reflects on the idea that Lolo Soetoro, a former Army officer and present-day civilian Army employee, was likely agonized to have been called back to Indonesia by this murderous government, at the complicity he was apparently being forced into, and that the development must have “stunned and demoralized” Ann Dunham. But what these biographers do all seem to miss is what habits of mind about conflict and trauma such a death-haunted place might have been inculcated in an exceptionally sensitive and precocious American kid growing up there.

I wonder what Ann Dunham told, or didn’t tell, her son about all their Indonesian friends’ missing cousins, sons, fathers—the missing men: military genocides are like that. Wikipedia observes Indonesians don’t even talk about it now—“The killings are skipped over in most Indonesian history books and have received little introspection by Indonesians and comparatively little international attention. Satisfactory explanations for the scale and frenzy of the violence have challenged scholars from all ideological perspectives”—and surely didn’t talk about it then.

Ann Dunham worked in the American embassy. That embassy more or less signed off on the massacres, informing Indonesian diplomats they were “generally sympathetic and admiring” of the military’s course of action, even helping with supplies such as radios. I wonder what ghosts stalked the corridors of that building? So think of this kid, surrounded by humanists and intellectuals, encouraged in his inquisitiveness on any and all subjects—except, perhaps, for one subject, in a country that was still fundamentally authoritarian long after the killing stopped. (That’s the point of mass political murder, after all: to enforce obedience through terror.)

And finally: What conclusions can one fairly draw, what questions can one legitimately ask, about the murky corners of a 6-year-old’s, even a 10-year-old’s, past? According to Bray, Obama biographers haven’t had trouble with that question; none doubt that the experience of living in exotic Indonesia shaped him. But what about genocidal Indonesia? I myself come up short trying even to frame, let alone answer, what such a discussion would look like.

So let’s talk about it. Let’s discuss it. What’s the research like about kids growing up in the shadow of national trauma? In the midst of the national repression of trauma? Is there some sort of fatalism that ensues—a shrinking from conflict? A glibness about the reality of conflict—a denial? Is there a line that can be drawn between the operations of Obama’s mind when he acts as if irreconcilables can be reconciled through the force of charisma, and the blunt evidence of his upbringing that sometimes people slaughter those they believe are irreconcilable in cold blood?

Is it fair to draw any line between the repression of the trauma of genocide, and a repression of the trauma gerrymandering?

When Obama hears words—and he has to hear them—like, “I am going there to reach across the aisle to the enemies of freedom and annihilate them and pound them into the ground and take back our power,” how to do they fit into his conception of the world? What does it have to do with Obama’s consistent discomfort with seizing opportunities to push forward his agenda through executive fiat when those (perfectly legally, perfectly precedented) opportunities present themselves? Is it learned helplessness? Or studied strategy, a belief that acting unilaterally on controversial issues in a nation like this cannot but create hatreds too blind to control? Is that what he fears?

Have people even started asking these questions? Have you?

I’m fascinated that when I introduced some of these themes in my post about Obama’s historic silence regarding the far, far more portentous breakdown of decency that he witnessed when living in Chicago, I got very little interest or response. (Contrast that to the intense interest, fascination and concurrence when I rooted Richard Nixon’s adult character formation in experiences that went back hardly earlier in Nixon’s life).

Maybe I’m just wrong? Maybe I’m out of line? Let’s discuss.

Our Obama Bargain (Part 2 of 3)

Happy Re-inauguration Day. In a post last week, I wrote of the strangeness of our Obama, in his passion for bargaining with people who despise him, and his passion for envisioning deals that, even if struck, deliver nothing particularly good either in policy or political terms. The “bargain” becomes the end in itself, the holy grail. It certainly doesn’t establish trust with his bargaining partners. For instance, his unilateral pay freeze for federal workers announced after the 2010 “Tea Party” elections. That, of course, was meant to build his bona fides among Republicans as a fiscal conservative. How did that work out for you, BHO?

Not just policy bargains, but other kinds of bargains, too. Here’s another example. For the second time in a row, Obama has invited a homophobic right-wing pastor to give his inaugural invocation. Though you won’t hear the Reverence Louie Giglio from the West Front of the Capitol today. The pastor, under fire for his anti-gay views, withdrew his acceptance of the president’ invitation with a plaintive whine, accusing “those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration” of persecution. Let the healing begin.

Why is Barack Obama like this? Where does this anything-but-reality-based faith that lions can lay down with lambs come from? The curious thing is that you might have expected experiences of his formative years to have taught him the opposite lesson.

Start with his adulthood, and his first real job, community organizing. He wrote, in Dreams of My Father, of a hard-won lesson of his experience living in New York City just prior to his move to Chicago—of how,

whether because of New York’s intensity or because of its scale, it was only now that I began to grasp the almost mathematical precision with which America’s race and class joined; the depth, the ferocity of resulting tribal wars; the bile that flowed freely not just on the streets but in the stalls of Columbia’s bathrooms as well, where no matter how many times the administration tried to paint them over, the walls remained scratched with blunt correspondence between niggers and kikes. It was as if the middle ground had collapsed, utterly.

As an inveterate consumer of national media, he had to have also been aware of the tribal wars then shaping up a half a continent away, in Chicago. He was surely aware of what happened in March of 1983 when the presidential hopeful Walter Mondale and a certain mayor candidate traveled together to an event at a Catholic church in a white working-class neighborhood on Palm Sunday. It was even covered in People magazine, in an article called “Hatred Walks the Streets”:

As Congressman Harold Washington, the black Democrat who would be mayor, arrived, he was met with jeers and epithets: “Blacks go home. Get out of our neighborhood.” Many of the people clinging to lampposts and standing on cars claimed to be lifelong Democrats, but they taunted Washington with placards proclaiming their new allegiance to his Republican opponent, Bernard Epton, 61.

The Rev. Francis Ciezadlo, who had invited both Epton (he declined) and Washington, led former Vice-President Walter Mondale and the candidate past a door defaced overnight with the spray-painted message “Nigger die.” The mood of the pastor’s flock was far from welcoming. In the church vestibule Washington and Mondale sized up the situation and left abruptly. A lawyer on Washington’s staff, a veteran of the civil rights marches of the 1960s, was stunned by the demonstration’s virulence. “It’s like Alabama was,” he said. Later Washington related the incident to the congregation of his own all-black Progressive Community Church. “We went waving the good hand, the healing hand,” he proclaimed, “so you can understand the shock and chagrin when we were confronted by an angry mob.

In Dreams of My Father he refers to his awareness of Washington’s election obliquely, ironically (it’s an oblique and ironic book). But not much of what happened when Harold Washington took office in Chicago was oblique or ironic. Things were pretty straightforward. “What do you know about Chicago anyway?” he depicts himself being asked in his job interview.

“I thought for a moment. ‘Hog butcher to the world,’ I said finally. Marty shook his head. ‘The butcheries closed a while ago.’ ‘The Cubs never win.’ ‘True.’ ‘America’s most segregated city,’ I said. ‘A black man, Harold Washington, was just elected mayor, and white people don’t like it.’ ”

Obama got the job, of course, and moved to Hyde Park in 1985. He describes how, from the setting of his barber shop, “black people talked about Chicago’s mayor, with a familiarity and affection. His picture was everywhere: on the walls of shoe repair shops and beauty parlors, still glued to lampposts from the last campaign, even in the windows of the Korean dry cleaners and Arab grocery stores… ‘Had to be here before Harold to understand what he means to this city,’ Smitty said. ‘Before Harold, seemed like we’d always be second-class citizens.’…. Clumps of hair fell into my lap as I listened to the men recall Harold’s rise.”

What is fascinating, and telling, is how the rest of the story simply disappears from the book. Obama gets busy organizing in the decrepit far South Side community of Rolseland, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous poverty, until his frustrations send him to law school to learn “things that would help me ring about real change.” The black mayor has a tiny, awkward walk-on role in a ceremony celebrating a small victory in a fight concerning asbestos; the broader context of the politics in the city Washington was trying to govern while Obama was there are nowhere to be found.

And what was that context? Municipal civil war. Washington came out of the box waving the good hand, the healing hand: “No one in this city will be safe from my fairness,” he said, with easy, witty aplomb. His people wore buttons bearing the word “FAIRNESS.” The twenty-nine organization alderman led by machine hacks Ed Vrydolyak and Ed Burke, turned a deaf ear. Domination was their game. Just like Republicans today.

Voting as a block but not with enough votes to override Washington’s vetoes, the Vrdolyak 29 destroyed the mayor’s ability to govern. The Wall Street Journal proposed Chicago’s informal motto, “The City That Works,” be replaced by “Beirut by the Lake.” City government practically ceased to function—though government also did manage to function, in some places, in the most perverse of ways. Here in Chicago, people tell stories about council wars. About how, if you lived in one of the “Vrdolyak 29” neighborhoods, somehow your garbage managed to get picked up. The councilmen and their ward bosses simply commandeered city garbage trucks—which they also deployed in creative ways, for instance dumping a heap of garbage in a parking lot, staged for a press conference in which Vrdolyak pointed to his fetid prop to demonstrate how Washington was failing as mayor.

Alderman would retreat into back rooms to negotiate peace. Writes Gary Rivlin in his definitive history, Fire on the Prairie, “A battery of reporters would camp outside their meeting room, waiting for word of any compromise. There never was any news to report…. If anything, they had only dug in deeper.” “You asshole,” one alderman would say to another. Or “you little pipsqueak.” Vrdolyak insinuated that Washignton was gay. (“To someone of your gender I should say ‘pretty please.’ ”) Whites and blacks attacked one another. Concluded the publication Chicago Reporter, “Firebombings throughout the Chicagoland area and a six-hour stoning attack on the home of a black family in ‘The Island,’ an all-white enclave…highlighted a year of racial violence.”

Barack Obama saw had front row seats for this. Though he’s never really said anything about it.

In retrospect, if the gods of political biography meant to devise a workshop to teach a budding politician about the blunt limits of a conciliatory attitude in making political change, they would have plunked that politician down in Chicago in the mid-1980s.

And this was where Barack Obama was plunked, in 1985.

Just as significantly, he saw how the council wars ended.

For if the gods of political biography meant to devise a workshop to teach a budding politician about how the way to end irreconcilable conflict between political tribes was not jawboning conciliation but blunt, mean shortcuts, administrative work-arounds to change the rules of the game, even if they might not look pretty in paper—think trillion-dollar platinum coins and filibuster reform—they would have made sure he lived in Chicago in 1986. Which was when Washington’s allies sued the city to invalidate the ward maps drawn up in the 1980 census (in a city 40 percent white, 40 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic there were thirty-three white alderman out of fifty and only one Hispanic). They won, got a 25-25 pro- and anti-Washington split, and, with the mayor casting the tie-breaking votes, suddenly majority ruled.

Obama said in the speech announcing his presidential run that in those years Chicago, he “received the best education I ever had.”

But what was that education?

It’s a question with two equally interesting possible answers. The first is that all this made not much of an impression at all—that perhaps he was so wrapped up in his ground-level antipoverty work that the big picture of City Hall politics didn’t much feel relevant to him, a distraction up at 30,000 feet; or maybe that he was in denial about the whole thing, cosseting himself in a political version of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change…” Or maybe that he was just choosing his battles.

The second possibility is that it made an enormous impression on him—in fact redoubling his budding inclination to retreat into fantasies of conciliation: that maybe Washington was doing it wrong; that maybe if he had just been more rhetorically persuasive, more fair, he could have made lions lay down with lambs. Or something. That certainly seemed to be the the attitude he took to Harvard Law School—where he believed it to have been vindicated. Remember all those famous stories of how he healed the acrimony at the Law Review by convincing conservative members that he trusted and respected them. He “was a non-combatant. He was mature and held himself above the fray. He was courteous, decent, and respectful,” one of the conservatives on the Review later recalled. That worked out just fine, supposedly. So why shouldn’t it work in Washington?

But staying above the fray is a curious political strategy when civil wars are going down. Some of us find it the Achilles heel of the Obama presidency. But now that his second term is underway, it’s probably not going going away. It’s so deep in him. Maybe it has something to do with a particularly interesting interval in his childhood. I’ll be turning to that story next.

Precedent Ford

Ah, Algeria: thirty-two militants killed in a ill-advised raid of a hostage compound, but at the expense of twenty-three hostages’ lives (as of last count), saving face, posthaste, being judged more important than saving lives. What kind of testosterone-besotted incompetent fourth-raters could botch a “rescue” like that?

Why, our own beloved United States, of course, which once upon a time did something even more splenetically macho, unilateral, and stupid.

It was May 12, 1975. Not a fortnight earlier, the South Vietnamese army in whose cause America had bestowed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and expended 56,000 lives, collapsed in the field and started randomly killing civilians and each other. A Viet Cong tank crashed through the gate of the South Vietnamese presidential palace in Saigon, immediately re-dubbed “Ho Chi Minh City.” A chaotic helicopter evacuation of 1,000 American diplomatic and security personnel and 5,500 South Vietnamese (supposedly loyal embassy employees and such, but mostly people with the money and savage cunning to bribe or force their way aboard), ended in that indelibly humiliating image of a line of teeming bodies snaking up a ladder to a precipitous shack atop the embassy roof, the embassy grounds having commandeered by what Henry Kissinger had once confidently dubbed a “fourth rate military power,” North Vietnam (now just “Vietnam”).

And two weeks before that, The Washington Post quoted a remark by Henry Kissinger that he thought had been off the record; “The United States must carry out some act somewhere int he world which shows its determination to continue to be a world power.”

“Some act somewhere”: can you smell the liberty?

Then, on May 12, fortuitously, a rusty merchant tin can called the Mayaguez was captured somewhere off the coast of Cambodia, near the island of Koh Tang, having strayed, the new Communist Khmer Rouge regime claimed, out of international waters and into their territory. Cambodia being a nation in chaos (its pro-US government had fallen in the middle of April), communications were sketchy, negotiations difficult, but, as historian Dominick Sandbrook has written “these kinds of situations were hardly unknown and rarely made the headlines. Ecuador, for example, had seized American crews in disputed waters twenty-three times in as many years, and previous administrations had simply paid a fine to release them.”

But Ecuador was not Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asia had just wilted America’s dick.

At a National Security Council meeting, presidential counselor Bob Hartmann told President Ford, “We should not think of what is the right thing to do, but of what the public perceives.” Kissinger, perhaps salivating, said it was time to “draw the line”—and the next night, when no one still knew even where the ship’s thirty-nine crewmen were or whether they were in any sort of jeopardy, Kissinger averred, “I think we should seize the island, seize the ship, and hit the mainland.… people should have the impression that we are potentially trigger happy.”

You must establish a reputation for being too tough to tackle. If you use force, it should be ferociously.”

Someone asked about the War Powers Act, which required consultation from Congress in the event of military action. Ford responded, “I would hit, and the deal with the legal implications.”

And so he did. A Marine landing party stormed the beaches of Koh Tang—and, meeting heavy resistance, lost fifteen men and eight helicopters. American forces boarded the Mayaguez; it was abandoned. A navy pilot spotted white flags waving from a fishing boat—the Mayaguez crew, safe and sound, ready for rescue. Victory, right?

Not for the newly minted 1974 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Henry Alford Kissinger. “Tell them to bomb the mainland,” he said. “Let’s look ferocious.” So they did, with B-52s. (I love that this dialogue is in Kissinger’s memoirs. He’s proud of it!)

The final score: forty-nine American military deaths. Eighty-two total casualties. Eighty helicopters destroyed. Thirty hostages “rescued”—though it had never been established that they was ever any intention by the Cambodians to keep them (this makes this botch different than Carter’s in Iran; at least then people knew there were hostages). “They were so nice, really kind,” a crew member said. “They fed us first and everything. I hope everybody gets hijacked by them.” He should have hoped that nobody got rescued by Ford. As Sean Wilentz wrote, “Subsequently declassified documents revealed that Ford approved bombing missions which, for all he knew at the time, might easily have killed them men he was trying to rescue.”

Conservatives loved it. “It was wonderful,” Barry Goldwater said. “It shows we’ve still got balls in this country.” National Review’s Jeffrey Hart read Christopher Lasch dare excoriate the raid in The New York Review of Books (“an influential barometer of left-academic opinion”) as a “panicky and premature American resort to force out of proportion to the stakes involved,” and countered that “most people…knew instinctively…that details are irrelevant. It proved that the US government is not paralyzed, and that, in particular, President Ford is capable of acting decisively and with broad support.” Yippie!

But then, most of America loved it, too. Newsweek, the most liberal of the newsmagazines, called it “a daring show of nerve and steel.” Time’s cover pictured the president looking resolute, and exulted, “Ford Draws the Line.” His approval rating shot up eleven points. He started getting standing ovations on his travels.

So today we read, “Western leaders have criticized the Algerian government for failing to consult them before the military action.” Maybe they know what they’re doing. Once upon a time, the United States showed them the way.

Queer Abby


Abigail Van Buren. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac.)

Sometimes we feel so alone, we liberals, in this country where a massacre of children wins 100,000 new members for the National Rifle Association, where politicians and pundits’ answer to a middle class drowned in predation by plutocrats is to preach a squeeze on government spending, where a president heard in the voices of 3,000 people slaughtered by Al Qaeda an injunction to invade Iraq. The beacons, however, are out there—everywhere, and sometimes where we least expect them. I’m not saying Pauline Friedman Phillips, who published her advice column in some 1,400 newspapers under the pen name Abigail Van Buren, was some Emma Goldman or something. But for millions of ordinary Americans who trusted her, she was frequently a voice of progressive decency on the cutting edge of subjects on which most voices of authority were saying very different things indeed. We lost her yesterday. So here’s an example of what I mean.

In August of 1980 the director of the ballet company of which Ron Reagan, son of the presidential candidate, was a member for some reason felt moved to put out a standement that Reagan and all the other men in his group had “nice girlfriends.”

In the notion that ballet dancers must be gay, and that this was a shamefully horrible thing, he spoke to a fear shared by Ron Reagan’s father, who when Ron dropped out of college in 1977 to become a dancer immediately phoned up Gene Kelly to ask if that meant he was gay. Later, his adopted son Michael helped him process a disturbing discovery: he caught Ron with a woman in his and Nancy’s (gross!) bed. Said Michael, “The bad news is that you came home early and you caught him. The good news is that you found out he isn’t gay.”

“Dear Abby” had a different view. Of the ballet director, a reader wrote in to decry the “sad commentary on our society’s attitude toward human sexuality that such a statement was made at all. Implicity in that announcement were the following erroneous assumptions: 1) That male partification in ballet requries lengthy justification lest it threaten our traditional views of mascuilinity; 2) that all male ballet dancers are suspect and therefore proof of their masculinity is required—i.e., having girfriends; 3) that without proof of their manliness, people might think they were gay; and 4) that being gay is bad.”

The reader asked Abby if she had anything to add. She didn’t. She just wrote, “No. Right on!” (And: “Readers? Write on.” She was democractic that way.) The same column (August 20, 1980) printed a letter of thanks “for your explanation as to why the ERA is a national need,” noting that still, in 1980, the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s sufferage was still ritually voted down every year in the Mississippi legislature.

Good thing Mississippi newspaper readers could read Dear Abby. Good thing Mormons could, too; indeed the link to the August 1980 column above is to the Deseret News—Salt Lake City’s Mormon-owned newspaper. Abby blazed trails for liberalism in the most reactionary precincts. People trusted her that way.

And by the way, let’s not forget her twin sister Eppie Lederer, who wrote as “Ann Landers.” She kicked some serious wingnut ass, too. Here she is in 1973 on a subject of current topical interest. A reader, incidentally a chauvenistic douche, writes in, “Annie Old Kid: Here we go again. I refer to your nutty views on guns. I have hunted since I was 12. I have never shot a gun carelessly or caused an animal to suffer.… Give us hunters equal time. Don’t take our guns away.” Ann gave back as good as she got: “Relax, Sport. I don’t want your hunting guns. I’m after the Saturday night specials, the handguns that are killing thousands of innocent people. Those are the murder weapons I’d like to see melted into scrap iron.”

Both of them, no apologies, no hemming and hawing: just straight up, unapologetic moral force. May Annie and Ann rest in peace.

Rick Perlstein last wrote about Barack Obama's rush to compromise when he should push ahead with his platform.

Our Obama Bargain (Part 1 of 3)


(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)

We have on our hands a President Groundhog Day. Tom Tomorrow nails it in this recent cartoon, as he so often does: regularly, and regularly and regularly, Obama initiates a negotiation; finds his negotiating partner maneuvering him into an absurd impasse; then “negotiates” his way out of a crisis with a settlement deferring reckoning (in the former of further negotiation) to some specified time in the future, at which point he somehow imagines negotiation will finally, at long last, work—at which point the next precipice arrives, and he lets his negotiating partners defer the reckoning once more.

First, it was his first failure to repeal the Bush tax cuts. He promised he’d really fight to get it done next year (he didn’t).

Next, in the summer of 2011, stung by his self-proclaimed Tea Party “shellacking” in the midterm elections (compare that to Ronald Reagan’s radically un-conciliatory response to his own shellacking in 1982), he promised to negotiate a deal to reduce the debt by $4 trillion. Then, once he lured John Boehner to the table, the Republican announced as his terms holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling. The president reportedly thought he and Boehner were working together—“to freeze out their respective extremists and make the kind of historic deal that no one really thought possible anymore—bigger than when Reagan and Tip O’Neill overhauled the tax code in 1986 or when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich passed welfare reform a decade later.” He also believed, somehow, that Boehner could whip the gang of congressional lunatics he supposedly “led” into obedience. Silly Obama, who ended up with…this year’s debacle, as Tom Tomorrow’s dialogue between Bohner and Obama relates. December: “The arbitrary deadline is almost upon us! We’re about to go over the fiscal cliff!” (Bohner: “Who could have forseen it?) January: “Postonponing the threat of sequestration will buy us a little more time…before the next arbitrary deadline!” (“Sounds like a plan to me!”)

That time he went into those negotiation, of course, with four aces in his hand: the sovereign will of the American electorate, following a comfortable re-election victory borne aloft on the campaign promise to fight for tax hikes for those making over $250,000. Somehow the final disposition ended us up with a tax hike only for those making over $450,000 and left 82 percent of the Bush tax cuts in place permanently. A friend of mine called it the biggest betrayal of a winning coalition by a president since LBJ ran on not sending our boys to Vietnam.

But not to fear: he promises yet once more another bite at the apple: “The new new deadline will solve everything,” he says in Tom Tomorrow’s paraphrase, as Boehner, looking on at the sublime sucker in his midst, exhales contentedly, “Of course it will.”

As Paul Krugman put it, the bad taste in progressives’ mouths “has less to do with where Obama ended up than with how he got there. He kept drawing lines in the sand, then erasing them and retreating to a new position. And his evident desire to have a deal before hitting the essentially innocuous fiscal cliff bodes very badly for the confrontation looming in a few weeks over the debt ceiling. If Obama stands his ground in that confrontation, this deal won’t look bad in retrospect. If he doesn’t, yesterday will be seen as the day he began throwing away his presidency and the hopes of everyone who supported him.”

But he never really stands his ground, does he?

Or to put it more accurately, he continues to presume good faith on the part of his adversaries by deferring the reckoning for the next negotiation. He imagines they’re playing the same game as he is: struggling nobly toward the goal of a “Grand Bargain,” each side giving up something of their cherished shibboleth—Democrats, spending and entitlement programs; Republicans, tax cuts. Even though in real life Boehner’s minions have already pledged never to revisit the tax question ever again—on the Sunday shows on January 6 Mitchell McConnell confidently announced, “The tax issue is finished, over, completed. That’s behind us"—and see ahead of them only a grand opportunity to confront “the biggest problem confronting our country…our spending addiction.”

In Groundhog Day at least Bill Murray learned something by the last reel. Not him. In our last reel with Obama we’ll still be in purgatory. Because the world simply doesn’t work in the way that he thinks it does. And yet he insists that it must.

We’ve arrived at a question of character, or deep psychological disposition. I’ve always thought of Barack Obama’s obsession with a “Grand Bargain”—Democrats give something on spending, Republicans give something on taxes—as having very little to do at all with concrete policy questions. After all, the austerity Obama seems to want has more and more been revealed as bad policy. Bad politics, too, of course. More and more, in fact, I wonder whether in some deep wellspring of his being this isn’t ultimately the point: if it’s bad, then it must be good. After all, he’s always said such deals should “hurt.” In the rhetoric of hurt lives the magic thinking: that the pain in itself makes for noble transcendence. In itself—not in the policy outcome.

There’s something so arbitrary about it, so cliché: pick the one thing that Republicans are supposed to cherish most (tax cuts!). Pick the one thing Democrats are supposed to cherish most (spending!). If you get both to give up what they cherish, something transcendent has occurred; something mystical; something deep, deep inside America’s soul—healing!

It’s almost as if, were the Democrats’ most cherished nostrum was that the sky is blue; and if the Republicans’ most cherished nostrum were that the sky is red, Obama somehow imagines that if he can somehow get both to agree that the sky is purple, lo and behold, America will finally be a warm and conciliatory place.

But guess what! The sky is blue!

To cash out the allegory: Guess what! Spending more during a recession, and keeping faith with Medicare and Social Security, which are not in imminent crisis anyway, is great for the well-being of the country!

And guess what! Even if feckless Democrats are glad to entertain the notion that the sky just might be purple, pronouncing themselves as eager to cut spending as Republicans (vitiating, by the way, the very premise that big spending is some sort of hard-shell Democratic shibboleth), insane, Leninist Republicans will never, ever, ever, ever, ever stray from their conviction that it is red—in other words, that tax cuts magically create prosperity, always and everywhere, every time. Why, here’s Rush Limbaugh braying that very thing the other day.

And yet, for Obama work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die—that we can, all of us, some day, agree about things that are not true, that really help no one, but that, by mere virtue of the agreement, will render us no longer Red America and Blue America but the United States of American. And the sky? Everyone will say it is purple. And this will be counted as a great victory.

To be continued. Next time I write about Barack Obama’s biography—and try to puzzle through where this perverse conception of the ways of the world comes from.

Remembering Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia Meetup in 2009. By Sage Ross (Flickr: Boston Wiki Meetup), via Wikimedia Commons.

I had other plans for how to spend my Saturday. I had other plans for my next blog post here at The Nation. Then I learned my friend Aaron Swartz had committed suicide, facing a baseless, bullying federal indictment that might have sent him to jail for decades, and fate demanded this be a day to remember.

I remember him contacting me out of the blue—was it in 2005?—and telling me I needed a website, and did I want him to build one for me? I smelled a hustle, asking him how much it would cost, and he said, no, he wanted to do it for free. I thought, What a loser this guy must be. Someone with nothing better to do.

How long was it before I learned instead that he actually was a ball of pure coruscation, the guy who had just about invented something called an “RSS feed” and a moral philosopher and public-intellectual-without-portfolio and tireless activist and makeshift Internet-era self-help guru and self-employed archivist and what his deeply inadequate New York Times obituary called “an unwavering crusader to make that information free of charge”—and, oh yes, how long was it after I heard from him that I learned that he was, what, 20 years old?

My friend Jon Stokes reminds me of the time Jon invited me and my then-wife out to dinner, and Aaron tagged along—he was an inveterate tagger-along, a modern-day Luftmensch—and explained to us this thing he helped make called Reddit, which I did not understand at all. I didn’t understand anything about that part of his professional world; it was only that he somehow understood everything about my professional world. All of our minds, each of us, contain a universe, but how is it that his mind contained fourteen or fifteen of them?

I remember when we all went to a talk by Barbara Ehrenreich at the Newberry Library in Chicago—the Internet tells me it was 2006—and he spent any down time in the activity around him doing this weird thing on his cell phone, fingers flying. Which added up to two memories: one, of a soul squeezing meaning out of every last second of his life. And two, of the first time I saw a person send e-mail from a machine he kept in his pocket! Afterward, at a restaurant, I remember him patiently but exuberantly explaining to Barbara Ehrenreich what RSS was (“a computer code that provided a format for delivering regularly changing Web content”: yes, he thought of that), what Reddit was, why it mattered, etc.

He was also the first person I knew who wrote five-word e-mails, no more information, and no less, than what he needed to convey, Twitter avant la lettre—like all of us now; we are all Aaron Swartz.

It would have been around then that I started sending him every chapter of Nixonland as soon as it was finished for his editorial input. He was the first besides me to read it. Many gifted computer geniuses out there. How many had such a powerful commitment to learn and understand history? (Check out the range of his reading.) Writing history was his real dream, I remember him telling me. I wish I remembered the book ideas he sketched out for me. Maybe I will soon. I do remember, though, the time he told me the story about when he decided to quit college at Stanford. Imagine a college professor offhandedly saying the reason the United States fought the Vietnam War was anti-communism, and imagine this freshman—Aaron—vociferously nailing the poor prof to the wall (was this the first day of class? maybe) by citing an infamous March 24, 1965, memo published in the Pentagon Papers stating that only 20 percent of the reason America was in Vietnam was “to keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands” and that 70 percent of the reason was “to avoid a humiliating defeat.”

Poor professor. I quote the memo verbatim because I imagine Aaron doing so, too—maybe he used that little computer in his pocket to look it up.

(A September 2010 e-mail to me: “I have a profile I want to do that would make a great New Yorker piece. How do I go about pitching them or should I just give up?”)

I remember a creature who seemed at first almost to be made up of pure data, disembodied—a millionaire, I had to have guessed, given his early success building a company sold to Condé Nast, but one who seemed to live on other people’s couches. (Am I misremembering that someone told me he crashed in his apartment for a while, curling up to sleep under a sink?)

Only slowly, it seems, did he come to learn that he possessed a body. This is my favorite thing he wrote: about the day “I looked up and realized I couldn’t read the street sign. I definitely used to be able to read that sign, but there it was, big and bright and green along the highway, and all I could make out was a blur. I had gone blind.” Legally blind, it turned out; and then when he got contact lenses, he gave us an account of what it felt like to leave Plato’s cave: “I had no idea the world really looked like this, with such infinite clarity. It looks like a modernist photo or a hyperreal film, everything in focus everywhere. Everyone kept saying ‘oh, do you see the leaves now?’ but the first thing I saw was not the leaves but the people. People, individuated, each with brilliant faces and expressions at gaits, the sun streaming down upon them. I couldn’t help but smile. It’s much harder being a misanthrope when you can see people’s faces.”

This man is dead now.

Yes, and not a person of pure data after all. I remember the time, at the height of our friendship, when he announced he was taking a month off from connecting to any computer. I remember him telling me afterward about what it felt like: glorious, radiant, strange, alive, true (he mostly read history books). Dude got to see what it was like outside Plato’s Cave two separate times in his life. How many of us can say that?

I remember, looking through old e-mails, that he helped produce an Internet radio show called “The Flaming Sword of Justice.”

I think about how I’m able to pull together a sort of timeline of our encounters together—the time we went to the Newberry Library, a time a year ago we sat for coffee and he gave me relationship advice (yes: he had a body), the month-long computer hiatus—because smart, dedicated people like him worked very hard, often with no thought of personal profit or gain, making ours a world of useful data, making data useful, making it possible to have a record of the world as it goes by, making the world more meaningful by making data more human and shapable and direction-ful. He was one of those people: one of the best.

I remember always thinking that he always seemed too sensitive for this world we happen to live in, and I remember him working so mightily, so heroically, to try to bend the world into a place more hospitable to people like him, which also means hospitable to people like us. I like what the blogger Lambert Strether wrote on my Facebook page (in Aaron’s memory, friend me!): “Our society should be selecting for the Aaron Swartz’s of this world. Instead, generous and ethical behavior, especially when combined with technical brilliance, turns out to be maladaptive, indeed lethal. If Swartz had been Wall Street’s youngest investment banker, he would be alive today.”

How the NRA Became an Organization for Aspiring Vigilantes (Part 2)


Ronald Reagan in the 1953 film Law and Order. (AP Photo.)

In 1972, the Republican platform supported gun control, abiding by a simple proposition with which many of us in the reality-based community agree: less guns, less crime.

We pledge a tireless campaign against crime—to restore safety to our streets, and security to law-abiding citizens who have a right to enjoy their homes and communities free from fear. We pledge to…[i]ntensify efforts to prevent criminal access to all weapons, including special emphasis on cheap, readily-obtainable handguns…with such federal law as necessary to enable the states to meet their responsibilities.

Which shouldn’t be all that surprising given that, despite the beginnings of the movement in the other direction I documented in my last post, the National Rifle Association supported the same sort of gun control, too.

But by 1980, the Republican platform said this:

We believe the right of citizens to keep and bear arms must be preserved. Accordingly, we oppose federal registration of firearms…. We therefore support Congressional initiatives to remove those provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968 that do not significantly impact on crime but serve rather to restrain the law-abiding citizen in his legitimate use of firearms.

That same year, for the first time in its 109-year history, the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate: the Republican nominee, of course, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Reagan, they said, would see to it that the Justice Department “will pursue and prosecute those in government who abuse citizens for the political ends of gun control.” (How’s that for paranoia?)

What happened in between? For one thing, as I suggested in my last post, gun-toting was no longer associated with the far left—with Black Panthers and other aspirants to armed revolution. More importantly, though, the culture of Americans who owned guns had evolved more and more toward what some have been mistakenly associating with the 1990s: the “tactical turn”—a moral vision of the world in which good guys and bad guys are obviously distinguishable, and the self-declared good guys wash themselves in fantasies about good guys overpowering bad guys via stockpiles of increasingly powerful weaponry. Joined, of course, by fantasies of liberal Gestapos ever poised to take those stockpiles away.

Start this story with the debate over the “Saturday night specials.”

The Gun Control Act of 1968 referred to in the 1980 Republican platform, among other things, banned the sale of firearms by mail, and established a federal system of licensing individuals and companies who bought and sold guns—“the Communist line,” according to the NRA’s magazine American Rifleman. It also included a “sporting purpose” test to attempt to ban guns known as “Saturday night specials”: cheap, throwaway guns some believed all but useless for anything but the commission of crimes. That statutory formula (no guns with short barrels, small calibers and non-adjustable sights) did not work. Saturday night specials stayed on the streets. And by the 1970s one of the most active lobbies in new attempts to control them was… the NRA. In 1971, their director said, “We are for it 100 percent. We would like to get rid of these guns.” In 1973, their man in Congress, Michigan Democrat John Dingell, introduced the latest bill to ban them.

In 1975, the NRA moved more aggressively into lobbying, with a new Institute for Legal Action. But suddenly, the tenor of their lobbying had radically shifted. Their new legislative shop was headed by a right-wing former border control agent named Harlon Carter whose claim to fame was leading a 1950s operation called “Operation Wetback.” Ban Saturday night specials? No way. Harlon Carter was a fan. “A lot of famous people I have talked to have referred to the so-called Saturday night specials as a girl’s best friend,” he told the Associated Press. “They’re small enough to fit into a woman’s purse or be at her beside at home.” (Maybe one of those famous people, incidentally, was Ronald Reagan. The future president, it happened, practiced what he preached: Shortly after the 1980 election, Nancy Reagan admitted she kept a “tiny little gun” in a bedside drawer that her husband had taught her to use.) The NRA, Carter insisted, would oppose legislation aimed at “inanimate objects instead of the evildoer.” Boasting of working seven days a week, he helped kill the very bill the NRA was instrumental in introducing.

“Evildoers”: pay attention to the word.

Shortly after opening Harlon Carter’s lobbying shop, however, as Jill Lepore has reported in The New Yorker, the powers that be in the NRA chose to move away from the politics of crime and gun control and back to their identity as a sportman’s organization. Plans were laid to move their headquarters from Washington to bucolic Colorado Springs. The hardliners, however, weren’t having any of that: those in favor of the NRA going “soft on gun control,” as the muckraking liberal columnist Jack Anderson paraphrased the hardliners’ position, “worried about its image, becoming too involved in conservation causes, and looking for liberal money”—no fit image for an organization of hard men with guns.

There was, at that, another reported reason for the move to Colorado: Washington street crime. “A lot of people poked fun at this,” Anderson reported. And hard men with guns don’t like being poked fun at. And so they readied for bureaucratic war.

In 1977, Carter’s faction packed the national convention in Cincinnati and effected what one of the ousted officials called a “gentlemanly bloodbath.” Said one of the coup plotters, “People who are interested in conservation can join the Sierra Club. If they’re interested in bird-watching there’s the Audubon Society. But this organization is for people who want to own and shoot guns.” Immediately the announcement went forth: “the National Rifle Association is cutting back on its conservation and wildlife programs to devote most of its energies to fighting gun control.” The next year Jack Anderson followed up: “the most extreme of the extremists have formed a tight little clique which pulls strings inside the organization. They operate with great mystery and secrecy, referring to themselves cryptically as the Federation. Let a timorous official show the slightest weakness, and his name will go down on the Federation’s secret ‘hit list.’ ”

That 1977 coup has been widely written about of late. What most of us don’t know about, however, is Ronald Reagan’s role in laying the ideological groundwork for the historical transformation.

In 1975, after eight years as governor of California, Reagan took a job delivering daily five-minute radio homilies on the issues of the day. By June of that year he was on some 300 stations. And that month, in that frighteningly persuasive Ronald Reagan way, he addressed himself in a three-part series to a new proposal by Attorney General Edward Levi to pass a gun control law specifically targeted at high-crime areas. What follows are never-before-published Reagan quotes from my own research listening to dozens of these broadcasts archived at the Hoover Institution at Stanford for the book I’m working on about the rise of Reagan in the 1970s. They show Reagan bringing the NRA hardline faction’s worldview to the broader public.

“Now, that’s funny,” he said of Levi’s proposal. “It seems to me that the best way to deter murderers and thieves is to arm law-abiding folk and not disarm them…. as news story after news story shows, if the victim is armed, he has a chance—a better chance by far than if he isn’t armed. Nobody knows in fact how many crimes are not committed because criminals know a certain store owner has a gun—and will use it.” So the attorney general of the United States, Reagan said, “should encourage homeowners and business people to purchase them and learn how to use them properly.”

He concluded that first broadcast foreshadowing so much NRA rhetoric to come: “After all, guns don’t make criminals. It’s criminals who make use of guns. They’re the ones who should be punished—not the law-abiding citizen who seeks to defend himself.”

Good guys, bad guys, never the twain shall meet—despite all the evidence, which I’m sure was available even then, that the people most likely to be victim of a gun in the home are people who live in that house. Or the moral evidence of the entire history of the human race: that the boundaries between “good people” and “bad people” are permeable, contingent, unknowable; and that policy-making simply can’t proceed from the axiom that one set of rules can exist for the former, and one for the latter.

Conservatives don’t think that way. For them, it’s almost as if “evildoers” glow red, like ET: everyone just knows who they are. My favorite example from studying Reagan was the time the time news came out that Vice President Spiro Agnew was being investigated for bribery. The Governor of California told David Broder, “I have known Ted Agnew to be an honest and and honorable man. He, like any other citizen of high character, should be considered innocent until proven otherwise.” Citizen of high character: I don’t remember that line in my Constitution. That same week, he said of an alleged cop-killer, not yet tried, that he deserved the electric chair.

And it wasn’t just political demagogues, in 1975, who were saying so. “Wicked people exist,” wrote the late James Q. Wilson in an influential policy book that year, Thinking About Crime. “Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people.”

Have you ever met an “innocent person”? The Bible I’ve read suggests that there are none.

Now that silly view is hegemonic. “The truth is,” another conservative said not too long ago, “that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters. People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons, that no sane person can every possibly comprehend them. They walk among us every single day.” That was Wayne LaPierre explaining “law-abiding citizens” need to have as many guns close to hand as possible, the better to fuel the fantasy that more, bigger guns, everywhere, are what can save us from future Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedies.

At that, what is a “law-abiding citizen”? A law-abiding citizen is law-abiding only until they violate the law. At which point, they are a criminal, and outside conservative graces—but if conservatives have their way, they may be a criminal with an assault weapon, purchased back when they were a law-abiding person, because law-abiding citizens can never be denied any gun. Oops. But you can’t take that assault weapon away—that’s thanks to people like LaPierre.

Our stockpiles of course can also save us, according to that other constitutive gun nut fantasy from a tyrannical government—from “those,” as Reagan put it in a guest article in the September 1975 issue of Guns & Ammo, “who see confiscation of weapons as one way of keeping the people under control.”

Yes, the man who signed the Mulford Act in 1967 outlawing the carrying of weapons in public, back when the target was Black Panthers, was also an early adopter of, and crucial propagandist for, the theory that armed citizens should imagine themselves taking on the state—once the likes of the Black Panthers were defunct. As he put it in the the third part of his radio series that June, what the authors of the Second Amendment “really feared was that government might take away the freedoms of the citizens in their newly created free state. Each of those first ten amendments guarantees a freedom. the Second Amendment guarantees the right of the citizen to protect those other freedoms. Take away the arms of the citizen, and where is his defense against not only criminals but also the possible despotism of his government? In police states they take away the citizens’ arms first. This ensures the perpetuation of the state’s power, and the ability of police to deal with dissenters, as well as criminals.”

“So isn’t it better for the people to own arms than to risk enslavement by power-hungry men or nations? The founding fathers thougt so. This is Ronald Reagan. Thanks for listening.”

What makes us Americans, or even just participants in a civilization, is precisely that we surrender the horrifying conception of life is nothing but a violent war against all, resolving to live by legitimately constituted authority instead. To give up that conviction is democratic heresy. That heresy was another of Ronald Reagan’s gifts to us.

Rick’s first post on NRA history talked about the radical left’s initial role in promoting gun ownership, before the right took over the movement.

How the NRA Became an Organization for Aspiring Vigilantes (Part 1)

The radical left, including the Black Panthers, also contributed to the rise of gun vigilante culture in the United States, a phenomenon that later shifted to the right. (AP.)

A lot of what I hope to be doing with this blog I fear might verge on pedantry. Too much of what we observe today on the right we act as if started the day before yesterday. Always, we need to set the clock back further—as a political necessity. We have to establish deeper provenances. Or else we just reinvent, and reinvent and reinvent the wheel.

Or, in this case, reinvent the assault rifle. Some of the best coverage and reflection on December 14—the day of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary—has come from the outstanding folks at Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. And part of the mix over at TPM is its reprinting of e-mails from ordinary readers, offering marvelous worm’s-eye views and analyses of the issues of the day. Sometimes, however, the worm’s-eye view only views what the worm’s eye views. On December 15, as the nature of the fearsome arsenal took inside that first grade classroom—the Bushmaster XM-15, the 10mm Glock SF and 9mm SIG Sauer handgun—was becoming apparent, but before, I think, it had been established that the mother he stole the guns from before murdering her may have been a “full-on” prepper, arming for Armageddon, TPM printed this interesting e-mail from a reader identified as SS:

I was raised with guns. More to the point, my childhood was steeped in gun lore…. I bring this up to establish my bona-fides.

The gun culture that we have today in the U.S. is not the gun culture, so to speak, that I remember from my youth. It’s too simple to say that it’s “sick”; it’s more accurately an absurd fetishization. I suppose that the American Gunfighter, in all of his avatars, is inescapably fetishistic, but (to my point) somewhere along the way—maybe in, uh, 1994?—we crossed over into Something Else….

I can’t remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980s. Even through the early 1990s, I don’t remember the idea of “personal defense” being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today: I have college-educated friends—all of whom, interestingly, came to guns in their adult lives—for whom gun ownership is unquestionably (and irreducibly) an issue of personal defense. For whom the semi-automatic rifle or pistol—with its matte-black finish, laser site, flashlight mount, and other “tactical” accoutrements—effectively circumscribe what’s meant by the word “gun.” At least one of these friends has what some folks—e.g., my fiancee, along with most of my non-gun-owning friends—might regard as an obsessive fixation on guns; a kind of paraphilia that (in its appetite for all things tactical) seems not a little bit creepy.

The “tactical” turn is what I want to flag here. It has what I take to be a very specific use-case, but it’s used—liberally—by gun owners outside of the military, outside of law enforcement, outside (if you’ll indulge me) of any conceivable reality-based community: these folks talk in terms of “tactical” weapons, “tactical” scenarios, “tactical applications,” and so on. It’s the lingua franca of gun shops, gun ranges, gun forums and gun-oriented YouTube videos. (My god, you should see what’s out there on YouTube!) Which begs my question: in precisely which “tactical” scenarios do all of these lunatics imagine that they’re going to use their matte-black, suppressor-fitted, flashlight-ready tactical weapons? They tend to speak of the “tactical” as if it were a fait accompli; as a kind of apodeictic fact: as something that everyone—their customers, interlocutors, fellow forum members, or YouTube viewers—experiences on a regular basis, in everyday life. They tend to speak of the tactical as reality.

An interesting perspective, and I don’t question the accuracy of SS’s observations about his own experience. I do want to argue, however, that the culture he’s talking about—the one in which ordinary folk fancy themselves gunslinging avengers, rehearsing for the inevitable “tactical” scenario to come—goes back much further. It goes back at least as far as 1967, a time when there were no YouTube videos to document it—in Detroit, for example, where, as I wrote in Nixonland, that year’s historic riots touched off preparations among blacks and whites both for something approaching a race war:

A local black nationalist minister, Albert Cleage, observed to a reporter that the shooting ranges were packed and the city was way behind in processing gun registrations. “So naturally, any black man who can get ahold of a gun is getting hold of it.” A flyer circulated in white neighborhoods: “Are YOU READY NOW to PREPARE YOURSELF for the NEXT ONE? Or will you be forced to stand helplessly by because you were UN-prepared to defend your home and neighborhood against bands of armed terrorists who will murder the men and rape the women?” At an outfit called Breakthrough…organized workshops in VFW and Knights of Columbus meeting halls with representatives of the National Rifle Association, who suggested each family stockpile two hundred rounds of ammunition.

Ah, yes, the NRA. More on that later, but for now—continuing from Nixonland:

The NRA, once a hobby club for sportsman, was becoming a new kind of organization altogether. Its magazine, American Rifleman, had a new column, “The Armed Citizen,” which ran glowing accounts of of vigilantes. Connecticut senator Thomas Dodd, a conservative, had a bill pending to limit the sale of firearms through the mail. It had once seemed uncontroversial. Now white and black would-be vigilantes agreed the Dodd bill was a prelude to the confiscation of all firearms. Guns & Ammo called the bills supporters “criminal-coddling do-gooders, borderline psychotics, as well as Communists and leftists who want to lead us into the one-world welfare state.”

Sound familiar, kiddies? There’s nothing new under the wingnut sun. In any event, one of those supporters was Massachusetts’ young junior senator, Edward Moore Kennedy, whom the NRA’s American Rifleman said was following the “Communist line” for trying to outlaw the method by which his brother’s assassin had obtained the murder weapon. The tactical turn was well on its way.

Much of this information comes from a 1968 Esquire article by Garry Willls that he expanded into a marvelous book of reportage, The Second Civil War: Arming for Armageddon, and from a contemporary Time article you can read here if you’re a subscriber; sadly for history buffs and students, Time’s archives used to be, but are no longer, free.)

A bit more water would have to flow under the bridge before the transformation of the NRA into a de facto organization by, of and for for aspirant vigilantes would become complete. One historical transformation that contributed: the tactical turn on the left—among white revolutionaries and black power militants—had to die out. It began in earnest in 1966, when Black Panthers began patrolling the streets of the Sunshine State with guns. As I put it in Nixonland:

Here was one of the things that made these young men remarkable: beneath their berets and leather jackets, behind their bandoliers, they were also naively earnest. They believed implicitly in the majesty of the law. Revolutionaries in an only-in-America kind of way, they perceived themselves as a fully functioning ghetto constabulatory, apparently suprised when the response of the police—whom they called an “army of occupation”—was to wish them dead. “What are you doing with the guns?” a patrolman would ask them, a little afraid. ‘What are you doing with your gun?” Huey Newton would shoot back, and pull out one of the law books he always carried with him as other stood by with cameras and tape recorders.

(Yes again: nothing new—except the cellphone technology—under the sun.)

Huey would step out of his car and snap a live round into his chamber: California law only outlawed the carrying of loaded weapons inside a motor vehicle.

Things shifted, of course, when the Panthers started patrolling rich white neighborhoods, including the one where a right-wing supporter of Ronald Reagan in the state assembly, Don Mulford, lived. When the assembly debated Mulford’s subsequent bill to ban the carrying of loaded firearms in public places, Panthers strolled onto the floor of the state assembly fully armed. The Mulford Act passed right quick after that—and, ironically, one of the nation’s first high-profile gun control laws was signed by Governor Ronald Reagan. (We’ll see how ironic in my next post.)

Another 1960s scene of left-wing vigilante culture to contemplate: the time a pretty female revolutionary, a former Quaker who had once won a Decency Award from the Kiwanis Club, testified at the Chicago Seven trial about her practice shooting an M1 semiautomatic rifle. Why? the prosecution asked. “After Chicago I changed from being a pacifist to the realization that we had to defend ourselves. A nonviolent revolution was impossible.” She spoke, in other words, of the tactical as reality.

That left-wing world, of course, is long past. And once the gun nuts were mostly on the right, however, their long march to Capitol Hill hegemony began. In my next post, I’ll explain that process, and introduce an antihero into the story, who got involved in this business long before a lot of us knew, a little bit under the radar—long before, that is to say, he became the fortieth president of the United States.

Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes was able to kill twelve people and injure fifty-eight more with an assault rifle in July. George Zornick argues that a few key gun control regulations could have prevented the tragedy. 

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