Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Our House Divided - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

Ross Douthat, New York Times, August 16, 2017 [original article contains links]

Image from article, with caption: In July, members of the Ku Klux Klan protested the planned removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va.

Summertime, sweltering and stressful, makes our cold civil war feel hot. The
madness and violence of last year crested in the summer, with the shootings of cops
in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Now the dog days are here again, and with them a new
spasm — white supremacists with tiki torches, antifa and the alt-right going at it, a
white nationalist running down protesters, a little Weimar re-enactment in the
streets of Charlottesville, Va.

So while the president blathers about how some of the torchbearers were fine
people, other people are talking about whether we could have a civil war for real. In
The New Yorker, Robin Wright quotes a State Department expert on internecine
conflict whose personal estimate is that “the United States faces a 60 percent chance
of civil war over the next 10 to 15 years.” Lest you doubt his science, he was part of an
informal poll by the military journalist and historian Tom Ricks earlier this year,
which produced the lower but still notable consensus estimate that we have a 35
percent chance of falling into civil war.

What do these bets mean? Their language evokes our own 1860s, 1930s Spain or
contemporary Syria. But Ricks says he means something narrower — a period more
like the late 1960s and early 1970s, with serious and sustained political violence and
widespread resistance to political authority, but without Chancellorsvilles or

That seems more plausible than what people usually mean by civil war. But we
are still not close to even that level of breakdown, nowhere close to the social chaos
and revolutionary fervor that gave us 2,500 bombings in 18 months during Richard
Nixon’s first term. The chaos during Trump’s ascent and presidency has been
extreme by the standards of recent politics but not by the standards of America’s
worst periods of crisis.

So why the civil-war anxieties? In part, because our media environment breeds
hysteria; in part, because Trump himself does so.

But the underlying reason people are worried is a plausible one: America’s divisions
are genuinely serious, our cold civil war entirely real.

Our divisions are partisan: The parties are more ideologically polarized than at
any point in the 20th century, and party loyalty increasingly shapes not just votes
but social identity, friendship, where you live and whom you hope your children

Our divisions are religious: The decline of institutional Christianity means that
we have no religious center apart from Oprah and Joel Osteen, the metaphysical gap
between the secularist wing of liberalism and religious traditionalists is far wider
than the intra-Christian divisions of the past, and on the fringes you can see hints of
a fully post-Christian and post-liberal right and left.

Our divisions are racial and ethnic and class-based and generational,
conspicuously so in the Trump era. And they are geographic: The metropolis versus
the hinterland, the coasts against the middle of the country. It would not be hard to
sketch lines on a map partitioning the U.S.A. into two or three or four more
homogeneous and perhaps more functional republics. And if you imagined some
catastrophe suddenly dissolving our political order and requiring us to start anew, it
is not at all clear that we would be able to forge a reunited republic, a second
continental nation.

Moreover, our divisions induce a particular anxiety because each of our two
main factions reigns supreme in one particular arena. Conservatism is (somehow)
politically dominant, with control of the legislative and executive branches and a
remarkable power in the states. Meanwhile liberalism dominates the cultural
commanding heights as never before, with not only academia and the media but also
late-night television and sportswriting and even young-adult fiction more
monolithically and — to conservatives — oppressively progressive.
So both sides have reasons to feel threatened, disempowered and surrounded;
both can feel as though they exist under a kind of enemy rule.

Thus described, it may sound remarkable that we haven’t plunged into domestic
chaos and civil strife already. But not every American is a partisan, there is still more
to life than politics for most of us, and under the right circumstances people with
deep differences can live together in peace for a great while — so long as events do
not force a crisis, so long as the great political or social questions don’t feel so
existential and zero-sum that they cannot be managed or endured.

Slavery was such an existential issue — but its closest analogue today, abortion,
does not lie so close to the center of our politics. Race, immigration and religious
liberty are all volatile, but the specific controversies are more incremental than
existential: Voter-ID laws are not Jim Crow, and toppling Confederate statues isn’t
Reconstruction; refugee restrictions aren’t internment camps; fights over the rights
of Christian businesses and colleges are not a persecution.

An economic crisis can spur a crackup. But our wealth and the welfare state
both cushion us substantially, as we saw after the Great Recession. Wars can lead to
dissolution: Opposition to the War of 1812 brought New England to the brink of
secession, opposition to Vietnam helped give us our last era of calamity, and of
course defeat in World War I broke up the multiethnic empires that the United
States increasingly resembles. But our wars are so professionalized and
technologized that even unpopular ones can be sustained a long time without
pushing domestic politics to a breaking point.

This leaves the most likely near-term threat to our fractured republic as either
something external to the system — a worst-case pandemic or terrorist attack, a
climate-change-induced catastrophe — or else a threat concentrated at the top, in the
imperial presidency around which our democratic derangements increasingly

If you asked me to script a path from where we are today to a period of violent
division or disunion, I would invent a character with some of the qualities of a
Trump and some of an Emmanuel Macron — a charismatic leader who appeals not
just to the extremes but to some populist or technocratic center, and who promises
an escape from polarization and division and from the gridlock that those divisions
have induced.

Then I would have this character retain his mystique more successfully than
usual for recent presidents, and use it to pursue an agenda at once
extraconstitutional and fairly popular, so that institutions would either struggle to
contain him or simply surrender in a way they won’t for our current chief executive.
Then add the right crisis, or the right cascade of them, and imagine one side or the
other in our current cold civil war seeking actual “Second Amendment remedies” or
forming a for-real Resistance against presidential tyranny — and suddenly you could
have the kind of strife that the experts cited by Wright and Ricks seem to be

But watching Trump stagger and Macron’s poll numbers sink, I would still judge
my imagined scenario remote.

Things are getting worse in many ways, and the rest of the Trump era does not
promise much in the way of healing and reconciliation. But despite what scripture
tells us, in politics a house divided against itself can sometimes stand for quite a
while — so long as most people prefer its roof to the rain and wind, and relatively few
have a clear and pressing incentive to start knocking down the walls.

An imaginary conversation with a six-year-old

Six-year-old: Grandpa, do people die?

Grandpa: Yes, they do.

Six-year-old: What happens to them when they die?

Grandpa: They go to hell or heaven.

Six-year-old: And those that don't -- those who don't go to hell or heaven?

Grandpa: They go somewhere in between. It's called life on earth.

Monday, August 14, 2017

"People fall off the scaffolds -- Note for a Discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

"People fall off the scaffolds as if they were drunk, into the machines, all the beams topple, all embankments give way, all ladders slip, whatever people carry up falls down, whatever they hand down, people stumble over. ...

For a person as sensitive as Kafka was, or at least as he presented himself as being—it is entirely possible to view his life in a light other than the one he himself shone upon it—inner escape was the only available strategy. “If we are to believe his own personal mythology,” biographer Reiner Stac...

Confederate monuments, more than 700 across USA, aren't budging - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

Rick Hampson, USA TODAY [original article contains a video]. See also "New Mexico Territory in the American Civil War," Wikipedia; thank you for the critical comment on the article and the lead, AF].

image from article

After the church shooting in South Carolina, the old granite Confederate Memorial Fountain that had sat for a century in Hill Park became a flash point.
The monument described by its inscription as “a longing tribute to our Confederate soldiers’’ was really, one man said at a public meeting, honoring “traitors and rebels … not ‘fallen comrades.’ ’’ Some people wanted to remove it, some to rename it, some to leave it alone.
It was a debate like many that erupted almost two years ago — except it happened 2,000 miles west of Gettysburg and 200 miles south of the Canadian border, in Helena, Mont., a state that was not even a state during the Civil War.
Helena’s memorial fountain is one of at least 700 and possibly more than 1,000 Confederate monuments in 31 states — in public parks, courthouse squares and state capitols.

Some of these monuments have become rallying points for white nationalists and other far-right groups, including Southern neo-secessionists.
Many are where you might not expect them – including Charlottesville, Va., a liberal college town that was convulsed Saturday by protests against the removal of a statute of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee from a public park.
And they’re not all antiques. In North Carolina, for instance, 35 monuments have been added since 2000.
Many, including Helena’s, were created by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which was advancing the spurious idea that the South left the Union and fought the Civil War over states’ rights, not slavery.
Many Confederate monuments from this era have attracted national attention since a white gunman with a passion for the Confederate battle flag killed nine black members of a bible study group in Charleston.
New Orleans’ removal of four Confederate monuments from prominent locations spurred protests and threats against work crews. And even before Saturday's melee, weekend, the Lee statue controversy in Charlottesville, Va., had  prompted a torch-light protest that evoked memories of the Ku Klux Klan.
Such monuments have been embraced or embellished by the right-wing neo-Confederate movement, which calls the Civil War “the War of Southern Independence"; advocates Confederate doctrines such as secession and legislative nullification; and longs for the day of white Christian cultural and political dominance.

Helena’s fountain is comparatively obscure. But it illustrates two surprising things about Confederate monuments:
They’re not only in the Deep South: Although the vast majority of these monuments are in former Confederate states, they are also in border states that fought with the Union (like Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia and Maryland); in Union states, including Massachusetts, Iowa and Pennsylvania; and states that in 1861 were mere territories, such as Montana, Arizona and Oklahoma.
Two-thirds of Kentuckians who fought in the Civil War did so for the Union. Today, however, the state is saturated with Confederate memorials. The Fairview birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis is marked by a 35-story obelisk, one of the nation’s tallest.

They’re not just memorials to the fallenHelena’s Confederate memorial was constructed more than 50 years after the end of the Civil War. Most of its counterparts also came decades, not years, after the war. Historians say that time lag reflects white Southerners’ focus not so much on remembering the dead as providing a justification for rolling back black civil rights, which had advanced during post-Civil War Reconstruction.
This historical revisionism in support of a system of segregation known as Jim Crow was not restricted to the South; it stretched across a nation more concerned with national unity in the face of foreign threats than with black rights.
They’re still cropping up: The establishment of Confederate monuments, which crested between 1900 and 1930 and again during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, didn’t end with the 20th century.
Their numbers actually have been increasing. One, dedicated in Mitchell County in 2011, commemorates 79 men “who died for their freedom and independence.’’ And not for slavery.

'Who wore the grey … were in the right’

“Confederate monument’’ conjures images of imposing equestrian statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, or the huge bas-relief sculptures of Lee, Jackson and Davis at Stone Mountain, Ga.
But some monuments are more Confederate than others. They range from the strictly funereal to the aggressively polemical, like one in front of the Anderson County, S.C., courthouse with the inscription: "The world shall yet decide, in truth's clear, far-off light, that the soldiers who wore the gray, and died with Lee, were in the right."
After Charleston, Confederate monuments fall roughly into three categories:
  • The vast majority that have remained unchanged and largely unremarked upon.
  • The relative few that that have been “contextualized’’ by additional plaques or signs. For example, the Confederate soldier statue in The Circle at the University of Mississippi had two different explanatory signs last year; critics objected that the first did not mention of slavery.
  • The even fewer that have been moved. A statue of Davis that enjoyed an honored spot on the University of Texas’ Austin campus for 82 years is now in a museum. The city of Louisville exiled its seven-story Confederate memorial late last year to a Civil War re-enactments site in Brandenburg, Ky.
Few public Confederate monuments have been changed, moved or razed since 2015. While flags can be lowered, songs censored, mascots switched and schools renamed, monuments are the most tangible and least mutable memorial symbols.
Several factors favor the status quo.
One is financial: It took $400,000 to move the Louisville memorial. A second is legal: Several states have moved to prevent or impede the movement of war memorials.  A third is philosophical – ambivalence about tampering with a historical artifact, no matter how unpalatable its message.
The issue makes strange bedfellows. Both Gary Gallagher, a prominent University of Virginia history professor, and Richard Spencer, a prominent white supremacist, advocated leaving Charlottesville’s Lee statue in place.
To Spencer, the statue is a symbol of white power.To Gallagher, it tells an important story about the time in which it was erected — although he told a city commission last year that he’d like to see other statuary in the park that tells other stories.
In a further irony, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, who voted against the statue’s move, was the one who likened Spencer’s torch light march to a Klan rally, saying it was “either profoundly ignorant or designed to instill fear in our minority populations.’’

Montana and the Lost Cause

In 1916, Helena was a Northwestern city with a Southern heritage. Southerners followed the Missouri River north to Montana during and after the Civil War. They included Confederate deserters and veterans; released POWS; war refugees; and, after gold was discovered in 1864, prospectors.
They settled in and helped shape Helena, whose very name was pronounced Southern style — HELL-in-ah, rather than heh-LEE-nah.
Georgia C. Young, a nurse who was born in Georgia, came to town in 1885 at age 28. She was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC had grown out of groups formed immediately after the Civil War by war widows and other white women to give Confederate veterans, who were excluded from federal cemeteries, a decent burial.
But over time they became invested in the white battle against the black vote. To that end, they promoted the “Lost Cause’’ theory of the war: that it was fought not because of the South’s insistence on slavery, which benefited slaves as much as their masters, but on states’ rights.
Part of the UDC program was installation of Confederate memorials, many mail-ordered and mass-produced (in the North). One at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (of a soldier today known as ‘‘Silent Sam’’) was modeled on a Harvard student who posed in Boston for a Canadian sculptor.
Georgia Young raised about $2,000 for a fountain carved by a sculptor whose father was a Union soldier.
Like most of its counterparts around the nation, the fountain aroused no opposition. For one thing, it was designed to enhance Hill Park in the spirit of “City Beautiful’’ urban planning. For another, it stood for national unity — especially important since the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.
In March 1916, six months before the fountain was dedicated, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation made its Helena premiere. The film, as racist as it was innovative, was shown in the city’s largest auditorium, where it played for weeks to packed houses.
At the fountain dedication ceremony, the paper reported, Georgia Young “lauded the present day American spirit, a spirit of union with no feeling between the old North and South that caused such bitterness and sorrow years ago.’’ That for some the war was one of liberation went unsaid.

The post-Charleston compromise

For 99 years the fountain was notable only as the answer to a trivia question: What is the northernmost Confederate monument?
But after the Charleston shooting some saw it differently. A city council member worried about “an inaccurate perception of our city as not warm and welcoming.’’ Another suggested it be renamed “the Civil War Memorial’’ (despite its one-sided inscription).
A third council member called that “a knee jerk reaction” and “a solution in search of a problem.’’
Finally, a compromise was reached: a sign explaining how the monument came to be and what it originally signified. “Ten years from now, if a tourist asks, ‘Why is there a Confederate fountain in Montana?’ there’s an answer,’’ says Andres Haladay, a council member.
Ed Noonan, another council member and a film teacher, has studied the city’s reaction to Birth of a Nation and now understands the fountain’s real value:  “We look at the nation’s racial problems as distant from us in Montana. But the fountain shows that we, too, played our role in Jim Crow.’’

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Interest in U.S. diplomatic corps tumbles in early months of Trump

via MM (thank you!) on Facebook

Daniel Lippman and Nahal Toosi, Politico [original article contains links]

image (not from article) from

The number of Americans taking the Foreign Service exam has fallen to the lowest in nearly a decade.

Interest in joining the State Department’s elite ranks of Foreign Service officers has tumbled in the early months of the Trump administration, triggering worries among former officials about the long-run risks to U.S. diplomatic power.

This June, the number of Americans who took the Foreign Service exam to start the process of joining the prestigious State Department ranks fell 26 percent from the same month a year earlier to 2,730, according to data obtained by POLITICO. The June tally marked the lowest number of test-takers in nearly a decade.

The drop in interest threatens to constrict the State Department’s pipeline for skilled diplomats representing U.S. interests around the world. It comes in the wake of President Donald Trump’s proposal to slash the department’s budget by a third, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s push to overhaul State’s overall structure. The nearly 14,000 Foreign Service officers carry out U.S. diplomacy around the world, interacting with people from other countries while helping Americans overseas.

“The Foreign Service is like the military — if you don’t bring in lieutenants now, you don’t have the majors you need in 10 years and don’t have the colonels you need in 20,” said Ronald E. Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy who served in a number of top diplomatic posts including as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.

Trump’s comments on Thursday thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling American diplomats from Russia because it would save the U.S. “a lot of money” stunned and disappointed the State Department rank-and-file and could further dissuade people from joining the diplomatic corps, though Trump said Friday he was "absolutely" being sarcastic with the remark.

Some people who had previously been considering joining the Foreign Service, the backbone of the U.S. diplomatic corps, cited proposed cutbacks at the State Department and a perception that the new president is less interested in diplomacy.

“I feel like this is a time when more people should be trying to join State and trying to change the dynamic there right now,” said one grad student who had considered pursuing the Foreign Service but no longer is actively applying to State. The Trump administration doesn’t “treat the State Department with as much respect as they should.”

She’s now looking at private-sector opportunities, such as consulting, to gain experience and “wait out the administration.”

Devika Ranjan, president of the student Academic Council of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service this past year, said many of her recent fellow graduates, who earlier would have followed a storied tradition of the school’s grads going into State, are choosing to focus their attention instead on think tanks, nonprofits and further education. “They’re concerned about representing the United States abroad when they don’t necessarily agree with the decisions of the administration,” she said.

There are still more than enough applications to fill the limited number of open slots in the Foreign Service, an intensely competitive program in which only 1.8% of Foreign Service applicants get hired. The State Department expects to hire 222 new Foreign Service officers by the end of fiscal year 2017, according to a State Department official. Since 9/11, annual hiring for FSOs has ranged from about 300 to just above 700.

The exam is usually given three times a year. The number of applicants spiked to almost 9,000 in June 2009 and was mostly around 4,000 to 7,000 for tests during the Obama years.

Some current and former diplomats worry the U.S. is missing out on talented people who choose not to apply to State during the Trump administration, limiting the quality of Foreign Service officers ultimately hired to represent the U.S. abroad.

The data appears to be “a clear reaction to the actions taken by the current administration against the Foreign Service, and uncertainty about career prospects for new grads and other exam-takers,” said W. Robert Pearson, who was director general of the U.S. Foreign Service from 2003 to 2006.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said there was “continued strong interest in serving in the Foreign Service” and that the Foreign Service pipelines were “robust” with more than 750 candidates now being considered.

“The general trend of Foreign Service applicants has been on a decline” since the 2013 fiscal year, she said in a statement. “While there are regular seasonal variations, it’s clear that Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) applications overall move in the same direction as unemployment rates and with sustained, historically low unemployment rates, the Department is not surprised or concerned about a reduction in FSOT applications.”

Some conservatives have defended what the Trump administration is doing to the State Department and say it’s not surprising to see ebbs and flows of people interested in government service.

James Roberts, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said employment at the State Department has climbed since 9/11.

“There are a lot more people working there now than there were 10 years ago and the overall budget of the international affairs operation of the federal government has more than doubled the past 12 years,” he said. “So if there’s a proposal to take a cut, it’s on the basis of having expanded dramatically in the last decade. And of course that will affect decisions about hiring and personnel and retirement.”

Regardless of Trump being in office, many younger Americans say they’re still interested in joining the Foreign Service because they want to serve their country and travel the world with a career in the State Department.

“Despite the fact that Trump is trying to gut the State Department right now, I still would like to work there [even though] it seems to be on fire,” said one master’s student in international affairs, who recently passed the test.

“Right now is when we need good people the most, because things aren’t functioning properly and we need people who can pick up the pieces,” she said. “If people decide to stop trying it’s only going to get worse and the image of the U.S. will continue to go down overseas.”

Observers said the administration’s proposed budget cuts, for instance, sends a signal to Americans interested in foreign policy and international relations.

“There is a lot of talent inside that can choose and has chosen to go elsewhere,” said a former ambassador. “The new talent has choices, too.”

Tillerson “needs us more than we need him, and it will take our country a very long time to rebuild this very modest but valuable asset,” the former ambassador said.

Top grad schools for international affairs that typically funnel graduates to the State Department also report a drop-off in interest. Information sessions for students who wanted to learn more about life as a Foreign Service officer at one leading university regularly drew at least 20 to 25 people. At one recent session, only three people showed up, according to a career services official at that university.

Adding to the uncertainty for potential recruits is what the State Department, and by extension the Foreign Service, will look like by the end of Trump’s tenure. Tillerson, the secretary of state, has already suspended the use of prestigious fellowship programs and otherwise severely restricted hiring as he ponders ways to reorganize the department, a process that could take many more months to complete. The vast majority of undersecretary and assistant secretary positions have not been filled, leaving various bureaus headed by someone appointed on an acting basis.