Saturday, October 17, 2015

Confessions of a Closet Conservative--my review of Sam Tanenhaus's "The death of Conservatism."

The Death of ConservatismThe Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

More than once I've been accused of being a conservative. That seemed strange, given that I marched against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, cast my first presidential ballot for George McGovern, and proudly backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. I was briefly a member of both the Students for a Democratic Society and the Friends of SNCC. But a couple of years ago I picked up a copy of The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus at a used book store, and realized I was guilty as charged. And that I was still a liberal.

I probably wouldn't have bought the book if it hadn't been for the author's name. I went to high school with his older brother Michael, who's now a psycholinguist at the University of Rochester, and I was curious to read something by Sam, whom I'd seen but never met. The book came out in 2009, to wide acclaim, though some critics have suggested that the reviews might not have been so positive had Tanenhaus not been the New York Times book review editor at the time.

More recently it's been dismissed as false prophecy because of the Tea Party victory in the 2010 elections. But after a rereading, I'm convinced that while Tanenhaus was premature in declaring the death of what he calls “movement conservatism,” his analysis holds up.

“What we call conservatism today,” Tanenhaus writes, “would have been incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who in the late eighteenth century set forth the principles by which governments might nurture the 'organic' unity that bound a people together even in times of revolutionary upheaval. Burke's conservatism was based not on a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies, beginning with their totalizing nostrums.”

In his most well-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke, writes Tanenhaus, “warned against the destablilizing perils of extremist politics of any kind. The Jacobins—in particular Robespierre, who proclaimed a 'despotism of liberty'—and more moderate figures, too, were inflamed with the Enlightenment vision of the ideal civilization and sacrificed to its abstractions the established traditions of what Burke called 'civil society.”

Burke sympathized with the American revolutionists, says Tanenhaus, because they, “unlike the French rebels, didn't seek to destroy the English government; on the contrary, they regarded themselves as faithful adherents of English law and justly accused England of having violated its own political and legal traditions by unlawfully imposing measures like the Stamp Act without allowing the colonists to make their dissenting case in Parliament.”

American conservatism since World War II, says Tanenhaus, has been a debate between “realists who have upheld the Burkean ideal of replenishing civil society by adjusting to changing conditions” and “revanchists* committed to a counterrevolution, whether the restoration of America's pre-New Deal ancien régime, the return to Cold War-style Manichaeanism, or the revival of premodern 'family values.'”

Tanenhaus gives us a brief but very readable history of modern American conservatism from the New Deal era to the 2008 election. Conservatives railed against Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, but, “[t]he complication was that Rooseveltism worked.” After FDR's successor, Harry S Truman, was elected in his own right, the Republican Party faced a choice in 1952 between the revanchist faction represented by Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, and the realists, who persuaded General Dwight D. Eisenhower to seek the nomination.

We learn about the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy and his intellectual defender, William F. Buckley, along with several thinkers of the postwar conservatism, including James Burnham, a former Trotskyite who had soured on Marxism after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonagression pact, Yale professor Willmoore Kendall, and Buckley's brother-in-law and classmate L. Brent Bozell. Whittaker Chambers, another ex-Communist (and the subject of a Tanenhaus biography) is portrayed as a moderating figure in the movement, who “embraced a genuinely classical conservatism.”

Tanenhaus reminds us of the young conservatives who formed the Young Americans for Freedom, who worked tirelessly for the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, but whose memory has been eclipsed by the rise of left-wing groups such as Students for a Democratic Society. Goldwater's landslide defeat, writes Tanenhaus, ushered in conservatism's “greatest phase, a decade-long period, from 1965 to 1975, during which the familiar dynamic between orthodoxy and consensus underwent a remarkable reversal. The liberal sun, even as it steadily enlarged, swerved off its consensus course and strayed into the astral wastes of orthodoxy. And the conservative movement, building a coalition of disenchanted and alienated elements of the old Democratic coalition—blue-collar urban ethnics, Jewish and Catholic intellectuals repelled by the countercultural enthusiasms of the New Left—shaped a new consensus.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, plus President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, had more to do with the rise of conservatism than the counterculture. Political thinkers such as Kevin Phillips, whose 1968 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, was a blueprint for Nixon's 1968 victory. While Nixon made the Party of Lincoln acceptable in the Deep South, Democrats could not recover from the debacle in Chicago, and antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy's refusal to make anything more than a reluctant endorsement of their nominee, Hubert Humphrey. Still, the election was a close one.

Nixon's presidency ended in resignation and disgrace, dividing conservatives, but, as Tanenbaum writes, “Watergate secured the ascendancy of movement revanchism. In the twenty-year period from 1968 to 1988, the Republicans captured four of the five presidential elections. The single defeat, in 1976, was remarkably narrow, given the circumstances: an unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford, who barely survived a challenge in the primaries—by Reagan, the Right's new tribune...”

And when Reagan finally came to power, movement conservatives had a problem, or, as Garry Wills had written earlier in The Confessions of a Conservative (1979): “The right wing is stuck with the paradox of holding a philosophy of 'conserving' an actual order it does not want to conserve.” Reagan, while declaring government “the problem,” failed to rein in the growth of government, as did his designated successor, George H. W. Bush, which brought about what Tanenhaus calls conservatism's “most decadent phase.” Tanenhaus compares Newt Gingrich, who orchestrated the GOP's 1994 “Contract with America” triumph, with the French Revolution's Danton.

The contract's “reforms”—term limits, purging of moderates from committee chairmanships—would have “mystified” classical conservatives who saw institutional traditions as Congress's great strength writes Tanenhaus. “Meanwhile , Gingrich, and the House's Robespierre, Tom DeLay, tried to delegitimize a popular president, Bill Clinton, and assembled a shadow government of lobbyists who gained increasing influence over the legislative business of Congress.”

Tanenhaus cites a 1995 article “Why Intellectual Conservatism Died” by Michael Lind in Dissent: “In 1984, the leading conservative spokesman in the media was George Will; by 1994, it was Rush Limbaugh. The basic concerns of intellectual conservatives in the eighties were foreign policy and economics; by the early nineties thy had become dirty pictures and eviant sex.” Tanenhaus goes on to say, “They not only abandoned Burke. They had become inverse Marxists, placing loyalty to the movement above their civic responsibilities.”

George W. Bush, writes Tanenhaus, “so often labeled a traitor to movement principles, was in fact more steadfastly devoted to them than any of his Republican predecessors—including Reagan.” Deregulation, the $1.3 million tax cut, the plan to partially privatize Social Security, faith-based initiatives, the “war on terror,” and the mission to “democratize” Iraq were all in line with movement conservatism. And by 2008 we were in the midst of the Great Recession.

The Death of Conservatism was published in 2009, after the Obama landslide of 2008, but before the Tea Party resurgences of 2010 and 2014. And as a prognosticator, he was off by at least a few years. Movement conservatism is alive and well, but it seems headed toward another disaster—a government shutdown, or perhaps a default on the national debt. At this writing, all of the Republican presidential candidates, including the so-called “moderates” such as Ohio governor John Kasich, are clearly in the revanchist camp. And the frontrunner is none other than Donald Trump, whose politics seem a parody of right-wing extremism.

“Most of us," concludes Tanenhaus, "are liberal and conservative: we cling to the past in some ways, push forward into the future in others, and seek to reconcile our most cherished notions and beliefs—'prejudices' in Burke's term, 'animal faith' in [George] Santayana's—with the demands of unanticipated events... There remains in our politics a place for authentic conservatism—a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.”

The Death of Conservatism is short—only 123 pages, including the bibliography. It lacks footnotes and an index, which would have been helpful. But those are minor points. It's a valuable resource for anyone—liberal, conservative, or both—to understand the nuances of American postwar conservatism. And perhaps because it failed to predict the rise of Tea Party revanchism, you can buy a used copy for a penny on Amazon. Or, I should say, a penny plus the $3.99 shipping and handling charge.

*Revanchism, from the French revanche (revenge), refers specifically to the French movement in the 1870s and '80s to regain Alsace and Lorraine, which were lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War; and generally to any right-wing movement which aspires to regain something lost or perceived to be lost.

View all my reviews

Friday, July 24, 2015

West Madison Street Revisited

In December of 1966 I was a 15-year-old high school sophomore who had just joined the University High School (Iowa City) chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society. And thanks to a family trip to Chicago, I had the opportunity to visit the SDS national headquarters. We were staying with family friends in Elgin, so I took the Milwaukee Road commuter line to Union Station. I should have simply taken the West Madison bus, but I wanted to ride the L, so I walked up to Clinton and Lake and boarded the Lake Street L. I wasn't familiar with the “A” and “B” stops, so I just got on the first train headed west.. It happened to be a “B” train, so it went right by the Ashland stop, which would have put me within a few blocks of the SDS headquarters. I got off at California Avenue, much farther west than I needed to be, and in the heart of the West Side ghetto. I walked south to Madison Street, where I paid another 45 cents to board an eastbound Madison Street bus.

Chicago was one of America's most segregated cities, and the neighborhood around Madison and California was a solidly black and poor one. Strangely enough, I don't remember any stares from riders on that Chicago Transit Authority bus, even though I must have been the only white person on board. I vaguely remember a couple of blocks where most of the residents looked poor and Asian—perhaps a northerly extension of Chinatown. But I got off the bus at or near Ashland and found my way to the second floor of a nondescript building on the north side of the street.

My visit to SDS headquarters was anticlimactic to say the least. Carl Oglesby wasn't there, nor was anyone whose name I knew. There was a a harried-looking young woman, busy at her typewriter, who had no time to talk. I looked around the lobby of this, the headquarters of the most prominent radical student organization, which could have been mistaken for a dentist's waiting room, took a few pamphlets, and went back downstairs to catch the West Madison bus back to the Loop.

In those days, West Madison was Skid Row. A few blocks east of Ashland most people on the street were white. Most looked middle-aged or older. The street was lined with taverns, cheap restaurants, and Single Room Occupancy hotels, all of which catered to people down on their luck. The Starr Hotel, which I passed but don't specifically remember, was infamous because just a few months earlier, Richard Speck, who had murdered eight student nurses, was found there. Nearly fifty years later, memory has become a blur, mixed with later scenes of Chicago streets, and appears to me as a sort of Ashcan School image, with ghostlike figures in drab overcoats standing on the sidewalk or walking in and out of the taverns and flophouses.

I got off the bus at Canal Street, near the majestic North Western Station, and walked the two blocks south to Union Station and the commuter train to Elgin.

Recently, while on a layover between the Lake Shore Limited from Elkhart and the California Zephyr to Galesburg, Illinois, I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to wander west from Union Station. I walked west on Jackson until I came to a small one-block park. It made sense to head north, and after walking a couple of blocks on Adams, I turned north toward Madison.

It was, as I expected, no longer Skid Row. The transition from downscale to upscale had begun in the early 1980s with the opening of Presidential Towers, which was built on the site of the Starr Hotel. The taverns and flophouses were gone, replaced by condominiums, trendy restaurants, day spas, dog grooming salons and boutiques. Instead of middle-aged men down on their luck, there were beautiful young men and women, their skin tanned, oiled, and glowing. I imagine that many of those Skid Row denizens of 1966 bore tattoos that were mementos of service in the Pacific. In 2015 I noticed a young woman sporting an artistically designed armband tattoo that probably set her back a few thousand dollars. It was certainly more tasteful than the “Death Before Dishonor” inks of the World War II era, but surely less genuine.

There was one holdout from the Skid Row days—the shuttered Phil's Tavern, which appeared to be on the way towards demolition or renovation. In any case, this single reminder of the street's past would soon be gone or turned into another upscale establishment. Pete Anderson, of the blog, Pete Lit,researched the name and location of Phil's Tavern, and found nothing except for a Google Street View image from May, 2014, showing the building with a shingled awning obscuring the sign. That probably accounts for the sign's easy readability. “Based on the drab exterior and the tiny size of the building,” Anderson writes, “it's probably safe to say that Phil's used to be a nondescript, hole-in-the-wall dive, perhaps dating back to the era when this stretch of Madison was the city's skid row.”

Closer to Ashland the neighborhood had become less trendy, but was still no slum. The block where the SDS headquarters had been was now greenspace. But there was one other interesting holdover: the Palace Grill and Sandwich Shop near the corner of Madison and Ogden Avenue. The building appeared to be new, but its owners had preserved the weathered neon sign proclaiming the place had been around since 1938. It had adapted to the changing neighborhood, offering sandwiches on ciabatta bread and a complete line of official Chicago Blackhawks merchandise.West of Ashland I could see the gigantic United Center, where the Blackhawks and Bulls played, looming ahead. It was time to head back to Union Station.

It's easy to ridicule the Young Urban Professionals, or Yuppies (the term has been around since the early 1980s, if not before). Still, I have to remind myself that they have chosen to live in the city. They're living in lofts, condominiums, and apartments, and not in McMansions built out in the exurbs, where farmers recently were growing corn and soybeans.

The West Side has more than its share of slums, but this stretch of West Madison was no longer one of them. It's hard to feel nostalgia for Skid Row. But the place did serve a purpose. The down-and-out are still with us, and the SRO hotels, which gave them a relatively safe place to stay, are mostly gone. They're completely gone from the old Skid Row.

In the world of 1966 there was still a profit to be made from the down-and-out, and while the owners of the SROs weren't always admirable men, they did provide a service that today's entrepreneurs don't. And cash-strapped social service agencies aren't in a position to fill the gap. Nor are charity-run shelters such as the Pacific Garden Mission. So yes, one can mourn the loss of Skid Row, if only because it made life a little more bearable for the poorest among us.

Photo Credits: Pete Anderson (Phil's Tavern)
                        Associated Press (Starr Hotel)
               (Palace Grill)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe

Jay Gould's daughter said, 'Before I die,
There are two more roads that I'd like to ride.'
Jay Gould said, 'Daughter, what can they be?'
'The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.'”
I was reminded of the old hobo ballad because I've never ridden over Southern Pacific rails. I've been on the Santa Fe many times, beginning with a Cub Scout trip from Albuquerque to Lamy sometime in the early 1960s, and then a longer trip to California in 1965. And there were several visits to family in New Mexico in the 1980s and '90s. But the storied Southern Pacific has eluded me until this year.
Amtrak has a Service Award Trip program which allows long-term employees to take a “free” trip after ten years of service and every five years thereafter. I've never taken the offer because it isn't completely free: Internal Revenue Service rules require Amtrak to collect taxes on 80 per cent of the tickets' value—usually 30 to 40 per cent. But this will be my last chance to take such a trip. I started work on February 21, 1984, and the service award trip needs to be taken within one year of the anniversary. I turned 63 in November, and don't expect to be working in 2019. So this is my last chance.
Last summer Kathleen and I found out we'd be grandparents for the first time around the middle of January. Our daughter and son-in-law live near Portland, and they wanted Kathleen to stay with them for the first month. It was a great opportunity to use my Service Award Trip. Beginning next Monday (barring unforeseen circumstances, we'll head west on the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, then south on the City of New Orleans to its namesake. After a night in the Crescent City, we'll ride west on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles, where we'll switch over to the Coast Starlight, spend one night in San Francisco, and then head north to Portland on the Starlight. (Sadly for us, the Southern Pacific's successor, Union Pacific, is replacing ties between Eugene and Portland, so the last three hours will be on a bus.)
Not only will this be my last chance to take the Service Award trip, it may be my last chance to ride the Sunset Limited. It's been around since 1894, and is the oldest continually-operating name train in the country. And it was and is central in the fight both to kill off and to save the American passenger train.
In the 1960s, after most American railroads had given up on passenger service, their strategies for dealing with the issue varied tremendously. A few road, such as the Santa Fe, maintained excellent service consistently, even when they were trying to discontinue money-losing trains. But some, led by the Southern Pacific, downgraded service to drive away passengers on at least a few of the trains they wanted to eliminate. And it really wanted to get rid of the Sunset Limited. By 1968 the New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset was a coach-only train, with a the only food service from the road's infamous Automat Buffet.
When Amtrak took over the route on May 1, 1971, regular sleeping, dining, and lounge car service was restored. And it survived the major Amtrak cuts of 1979 and 1997. But in the last few years, it's been the target of conservative politicians who use it as an example in their crusade to eliminate Amtrak. It doesn't have the ridership of other long-distance trains, mainly because of there are no same-day connections on the New Orleans end, along with the elimination of the New Orleans-Orlando segment after Hurricane Katrina and the bypass of Phoenix in 1996. And like 1979 and 1997, 2015 is a year with a Democratic president and Republican ascendancy in Congress. At this writing, it's unclear whether the Obama Administration will follow the example of the Carter and Clinton Administrations and agree to major Amtrak cuts. Unlike the the two previous Democratic administrations, Obama's has been consistently pro-Amtrak. But whether that will be enough to prevent another mass train removal is up in the air at this time. Personally, I believe the Sunset route to be a key one in the national transportation system.
While Kathleen will stay in Portland for about a month, I'll need to get back to work. My plan is to fiddle-faddle my way from Portland to Los Angeles, taking the Starlight to Sacramento and then using a bus-train bus connection that should get me to Los Angeles Union Station in time for No. 4, the Southwest Chief. It's another train with an uncertain future. Just as the Union Pacific downgraded its, line through Phoenix, leaving the Sunset to stop at Maricopa, a little town some 30 miles south of Arizona's capital, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe plans to downgrade the storied Raton Pass route through Albuquerque, Lamy (the stop for Santa Fe), Las Vegas (older than the one in Nevada), and Raton, New Mexico; Trinidad, La Junta, and Lamar in Colorado; and across Kansas through Garden City, Dodge City, and Hutchinson. At Newton, Kansas, the line joins up with the BNSF's main freight route for the run into Chicago.
BNSF is willing to maintain the line to passenger train standards if the states along the route agree to pay the cost. So far, Kansas and Colorado have committed to support the route. It's up to New Mexico. Should the Land of Enchantment fail to support the route, the Southwest Chief could be gone. The alternative would be to route the train on the main freight line through Wichita and Amarillo. It has the advantage of adding these stations to the Amtrak network, but the disadvantage of bypassing some of the West's most beautiful scenery.
In fact, it's the route that inspired “America the Beautiful.” In the summer of 1893 Katharine Lee Bates, then a professor at Wellesley College, made a trip from there to Colorado Springs, where she had taken a temporary teaching position. At Chicago she stopped over to visit the World's Columbian Exhibition, nicknamed the “White City,” which she changed to the more poetic “alabaster.” From Chicago she took the Santa Fe through La Junta. West of Kansas City she heard a fellow passenger complain about the endless wheatfields, but for her they were the beautiful “amber waves of grain.” And as the train rolled west across the plains toward La Junta, gaining altitude all the time, she saw the Rocky Mountains, which really do look purple in the distance.
Bates missed going over the Raton Pass, where passengers can see deer and bear from the train, the grasslands between Raton and Las Vegas, New Mexico, broken by the rock formation that really does look like a Conestoga wagon, as you pass by Wagon Mound. Here pronghorns are common, their white rumps easily visible as they run away from the train.
Las Vegas, a notorious wild-west town in the 1880s, is home to La Castañeda, a former Harvey House that's now being redeveloped. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders came there for their reunions. And in the first movie version of Red Dawn, the inn served as the Soviet headquarters.
At Glorieta Pass there's more mountain scenery. It's where in 1862, Colorado Volunteers, with the help of a local guide, took a hidden path around the Confederate lines, destroyed the Rebels' supply train, and put an end to the plan to extend the Confederacy to the Pacific. From Glorieta the train heads through Apache Canyon and then heads down the Rio Grande Valley into Albuquerque, with the majestic Sandia Mountains seemingly changing with every mile.
The Raton Pass route is truly a national treasure, and I home and pray that New Mexico joins Kansas and Colorado to keep the Chief running over the line.
The upcoming trip has given me inspiration for a writing project—to examine the past, present and future of long-distance passenger trains, with special emphasis on the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.
But right now, I'm just looking forward to a great American rail journey.
Image: The Southern Pacific's Sunset Limited. probably in the 1950s.