Win McCormack

                                Reflections On Fifty-Five Years of National Disintegration

                                                             Win McCormack

    

     In the spring of 1967, the final semester of our years at Harvard College, I took the Government Department’s upper-level course in political philosophy, which was being taught at the time by Michael Walzer. This being the end of our academic career at the college, I was not paying as much attention to my course work as I might have done previously, but one thing did stand out to me--glaringly--on Walzer’s syllabus: The course ended with the writings of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. I thought to myself: Really? Did Western political philosophy really end in the last decades of the 19th Century? That’s it?

     A quarter of a century passed after that, and then one day I woke up to a New York Times article about how a minor State Department functionary named Francis Fukuyama had written an article called “The End of History,” arguing that the triumph of Western liberal democracy over Soviet communism represented signified the final stage of human political and economic development. The article hadn’t even been published yet, and thought leaders were already arguing about it, pro and con, mostly con, though none of them could figure out a way to refute it.

     Perusing the various inconclusive attempts to do so, I thought to myself: This article isn’t really so radical. Fukuyama, I felt, was saying that the same thing that Michael Walzer was implying in his syllabus back in 1967, while updating it, while updating it to fit new cirumstancs: Mill vs. Marx was the last stage of politico-philosophical development, and now that the ideas of the classical liberal Mill had bested those of the radical socialist Marx, history—in the Hegelian sense of history as a succession of ideas interpreting the human condition—was over. And furthermore, since no one (Marx to the contrary) can actually foresee the future, most everyone (in America anyway) already thinks that liberal capitalism is a permanent condition.

      However, I was uneasy with the idea that there was nothing beyond liberalism (though I considered myself a card-carrying liberal) and I began seeking alternatives. I holed up in the New York Public Library for several days, ordering up books with the word “Liberalism” in it, until finally Harvard Professor Michael Sandel’s anthology Liberalism and its Critics appeared.  The book contained a mix of articles defending and or critiquing liberalism, but those who critiqued it, such as Charles Taylor and Alastair Macintyre, had a strong case. The theory that the critics were promulgating, which Sandel himself endorsed and had been advocating for ever since, was republican theory, or as many call it, to ensure that people don’t confuse it with the American Republican Party, civic republicanism.

     What does republican theory call for, as opposed to liberalism? Liberalism concerns itself primarily (if not exclusively) with individual rights and liberty, while civic republicanism focuses on the interests of the community as a whole (a vantage point inherited by Ancient Greece and Rome). Advocates of republicanism think that, if left purely to its own devices, pure and unadulterated liberalism will eventually face serious problems. Jonathan Winthrop, addressing the flock of puritans he had brought to found what he called a “a city on hill,” expressed this idea thusly: “A private estate cannot survive in the ruin of the public.”

     So what exactly has happened to our country since we graduated in June 1967? What has occurred is a serious breakdown of community in America, at every almost level. When an eighteen-year-old walks into a grade-school with a semi-automatic weapon and shoots nineteen young children, and two adults staff members dead, that is as anti-communitarian an act as anyone could possibly perform. And when the right for an eighteen year-old (or anyone who had not been carefully scrutinized) to buy that particular type of gun is defended on the grounds of individual liberty, you can be sure that one of the philosophical foundations of the American nation, for a large section of the population, has rotted. The people who object to wearing masks and getting vaccinated for the protection not only of the community, but even of themselves, are implicated in this folly, this perverse vision of individual liberty and the Second Amendment.

     As an aside, the Second Amendment had its origin more (far more) in republican theory  than in libertarian theory. The purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that local militia had the armaments they needed to ward off an attacks on the community, not to protect themselves purely as individuals, as the American right-wing would have it. The real author of the Second Amendment was Machiavelli, who argued that the citizens of his native city of Florence should be the ones to defend it, and not hired mercenary troops. (And the Founders, except for Alexander Hamilton, did not want the nation to have a standing army).

     Sandel, in his first major work addressing the American political dilemma, showed how vital the republican tradition had been from colonial times through the Progressive Era (which may have been the highwater point of American republicanism) and into the New Deal, where in his view it was eventually snuffed out by the advent of Keynesian economics (which looked to the management of the economy as a whole and not its individual components or their interaction). But Sandel’s former colleague in the Government Department, Robert Putnam, now associated with the Kennedy School, has given more detailed and voluminous accounts of the disintegration of American society that has been in progress, in his view, since the mid-1960’s.

      Some classmates may remember that Professor Putnam spoke to us at our 35th Reunion, when his book Bowling Alone was a bestseller. In that book, he chronicled and described the disintegration of American community institutions of various kinds, from fraternal service organizations such as the Elks to church congregations, to (as title of the book implies) bowling leagues. A very few of you may remember that he spent considerable time explaining that, while he was convinced that American were having many fewer picnics together than they formerly did, he couldn’t find a way to prove it, but then finally did (I have recollection of what it was!). He looked at picnics as a kind of community ritual.

     In any case, Putnam saw the crisis that we are now in approaching, though I don’t think he divined how dire it would turn out to be--perhaps even terminal, as far as the continued existence of the United States as a democracy might be. To extend and deepen his original trajectory of thought, he has written one last book (recently retired), The Upswing: How Americans Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, which lauds the communitarian accomplishments of the Progressive Era and summon younger generations to recreate in a new form. Those who want to appraise the full scope of his vision, but don’t want to deal with the book in toto, can read the cover story review I did of it in the October 2020 issue of The New Republic (dated online September 17 2010 because that’s when the October issue was posted in that venue) entitled “From I to We: Robert Putnam’s and Shaylyn Garret’s Vision For A New Community.”  

     And here’s where, I am sad to say, my fellow classmates, I bring disconcerting news: Professor Putnam thinks that it was our fault that America has fallen apart since we were in college. Our fault, in the sense of out generation as whole. He believes the starting point was 1965, right smack in the middle of the Class of 1967’s residence at the college. How did he pick the year 1965? That choice was in part based on the changes he saw in American popular music that began that year, especially in the lyrics of the two most influential sources of that music, The Beatles and Bob Dylan. With the Beatles, it was the transition from lyrics like All You Need Is Love to Eleanor Rigby. With Dylan, it was the leap from idealistic protest songs of the early Sixties to interior and self-concerned monologues, of which Lay Lady Lay might be one example. These transitions were harbingers, in his view, of the drastic social changes that the economically distressed 1970’s brought about, when the 60’s generation of which we were a part abandoned its youthful idealism (the kind of communitarian idealism articulated in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address) for a crass and self-involved materialism that set the stage for the advent of Ronald Reagan and neoliberalism. In Upswing, one commentator is quoted as saying that the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and World Warr II and into the suburbs decided to “pull up the drawbridge behind them.

     What exactly is neoliberalism? There is a myriad of analyses of its doctrines (Michael Sandel has an updated version of Democracy’s Discontent coming out this fall that traces its influence on America from the 1990’s, when that book was first published, to the present, with an emphasis on the adoption of the basics of the neoliberalism’s viewpoint by regular liberal leaders of the Democratic Party, most especially Bill Clinton and Barak Obama. Neoliberalism, in my interpretation of it, is a theory of political economy which maintains that people’s basic relations in life are not principally to each other but to the market economy. Milton Freedman was its proselytizer in the United States. In neoliberal theory, there is no such thing as a holistic social order, let alone an organic community composed of individuals freely sharing a common life with each other. There are only, fundamentally, commercial relationships, which don’t often involve a great degree of fellow-feeling. Aristotle said that the basic model for relations between citizens of a Polis should be that of friendship. Margaret Thatcher, quintessential neoliberal, is famed for having supposedly said, “There is no such thing as society. There are only separate individuals.” It is a Margaret Thatcher situation we are in now, and not an Aristotelian one (or the one imagined by the civic republican cum liberal Founders of our nation).

     These are matters I’ve been pondering for quite a while now, and writing about since I took over The New Republic magazine in 2016. I write a monthly column in TNR called Res Publica, which has various translations, but the one I prefer is “The Public Interest,” and the words Res Publica constitute the root of the two terms “republic” and “republican.” In my column, I expiate on the kinds of matters discussed above—the concept of community, and the various threats to the American community we face now. I haven’t provided any answers to the question of how we can save the America from the internal threats it faces now, and I haven’t seen any convincing answers from anyone else either.

     I apologize for a perhaps overly academic presentation, but after all this is a reunion of people who attended Harvard College. And we can be proud of the fact, maybe, that it is two Harvard professors of great distinction, Michael Sandel and Robert Putnam, who have lead the way in the field of political science in thinking about the matters that will be under discussion Thursday, even if one of them has blamed us for the Slough of Despond that the country has fallen into.    

    

      

    

    

     

    

    

 

    

    

    

     

 

Jim Dakin

Jim Dakin

Changes since 1967

Unfortunately, I am unable to be at our 55th reunion, where I would have loved to be part of this session in particular. I spend a lot of time pondering and reading about the changes that have taken place over time, and especially during my lifetime. Without question, my understanding is vastly more sophisticated now, than it was in 1967.

With regard to science, I am constantly struck by the law of unintended consequences. Certainly, modern technology, medicine, and public health have allowed many to live longer and more prosperous lives. An unintended consequence has been stress on our planet. The internet has become a fabulous tool, connecting most of us and making information available beyond our wildest dreams in 1967. An unintended consequence has been the internet’s role in dividing us in various ways. I do not subscribe to the view that science and technology will lead us to a “technotopia” in which all of our problems are solved by science and technology.

Anyone remember reference to the “War to End all Wars,” or our adolescent and college years when public confidence in the US Government was approaching 80%? How about Fukuyama’s 1992 “End of History” book in which democracy triumphs around the world? Our track record for predicting the future is not great.

I, personally, have spent much of my career in electric lighting technology. The LED electric light bulb of today, for the same amount of light, requires just 10% as much electricity as the 1967 light bulb, and 1% as much as Edison’s 1888 light bulb. LEDs have created the possibility of significantly reducing energy consumption for lighting going forward. It might actually work out that way, which is a good thing, a small step in a good direction, an intended consequence.

In spite of all the unintended consequences, I am guardedly optimistic that our civilization will muddle through in some form. But it is hard to predict what that form will be. Certainly, family and friends will remain important. Religion, in its many forms, will remain important also; different versions of religion need not be in conflict.

Perhaps some of my classmates will be more clairvoyant.

 

Jim Dakin '67

 

 

Jeremy Thorner

Jeremy Thorner 

     The hardest lessons we have now all learned is that, aside from the unthinkable prospect of nuclear war, planetary warming is the most serious threat to our survival and that the political will to impose the restrictions and extract the sacrifices that need to be made to confront the problem effectively is just not there.  And so, in our powerlessness to cease all the activities that require the burning of fossil fuels and to convert immediately to clean renewable sources of energy, we must all weep for the future we are bequeathing to our children, grandchildren and the generations to follow.

      Well, over a century ago, after the Industrial Revolution, it was realized that an increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 would have consequences for our planetary temperature, when in 1896, the legendary Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius published a study entitled "On the influence of carbonic acid [i.e. CO2] in the air upon the temperature of the ground."  Forty years ago, in 1981, NASA scientist James Hansen published a prescient paper in Science reminding us all, in no uncertain terms, about the dangers of the rise in human-generated CO2 levels in our atmosphere.  And, it's been a decade-and-a-half since our fellow Harvard alumnus Al Gore (Class of 1969) first released the original version of his movie ("An Inconvenient Truth") in 2006 again raising the alarm about the causes of climate change and its consequences.  And, still virtually NOTHING has been done, except lip service to the problem.

     The evidence is overwhelming and incontrovertible that greenhouse gases [CO2, SO2 (acid rain), NO, etc.] generated from the burning of fossil fuels, from raising animals as food [CH4], and from industrial products [e.g. fluorinated hydrocarbons] are the culprits in trapping the Sun's heat, causing global warming and thus the ensuing drastic changes in our climate.  The global warming our planet has suffered already is causing near catastrophic extreme weather events (floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, massive wild-fires), acidifying the oceans, melting the polar ice caps, the glaciers and the permafrost in the tundra, and, in the process, destroying ecosystems and causing precipitous declines in precious and irreplaceable biodiversity.

     If enlightened and privileged individuals like us don't take this challenge seriously and with the immediacy it deserves, who else will?  If we don't make the necessary sacrifices ourselves (e.g. give up that luxury retirement cruise around the world on a dirty diesel exhaust-spewing ocean liner), how can we ask any other segment of society to do so?  If we don't get up out of our chairs and demand that our local, State, Federal and international leadership take action to save Earth, then, as I said above, you can kiss it goodbye now.  As they say, there is no Plan(et) B.

Sincerely yours,

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Jeremy Thorner

Division of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Structural Biology

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology

University of California Berkeley

 

 

Janis Richter

Janis Richter

 

In response to the request for an update for our 55th reunion book I went beyond the personal because I was so concerned about the future of our democracy. If you can use this for the symposium as well, feel free:

The year we graduated was full of political turmoil but, as I remember, there was hope and optimism that we were making progress – on civil rights, on questioning the war in Vietnam, on raising some alarm about environmental degradation. That optimism was sorely challenged post-graduation as the war dragged on and Reagan's “welfare queen” rhetoric put a black face on poverty.

But there were also times we met our collective challenges – addressing air and water pollution, protecting native habitats with the Endangered Species Act, making health care possible for millions of families through the Affordable Care Act, and reforming racially charged police practices one community at a time.

As I reflect now with the experience of the ups and downs over the last half-century, however, I realize that we never can assume a victory will survive without due diligence and support.

After Watergate it seemed we had exposed and put an end to political corruption. Not so, apparently, with the rampant self-dealing and corrupt use of power exposed in the Trump administration.

When I was growing up we were taught to hide under our desks or along the wall in the hallway in case of nuclear attack. After allowing the federal assault weapon ban to elapse, schoolkids are now required to practice lockdowns in case a mass shooter should come to their school.

Voting rights for minority voters that gained federal protection while we were still in college are now being undermined by state laws across the country designed to make it harder for certain populations of voters to get to the polls, submit their ballots, or even have their ballots counted.

My optimism about the promise of our nation has been sorely tested in the last decades. I no longer feel optimistic that each success – to protect immigrant and minority families, to make the social and physical environment safer, to offer help with the costs of education or health care – will be a permanent victory.

Instead I now know that we can never rest on our laurels. I realize now that democracy requires a determined commitment to stay in the “game” and do what we can, with our words, our money and our votes, to support leaders and decisions that match our democratic values and aspirations. And when we are no longer on this earth, the next generations will have to do the same 

As one of my young grandsons said during the most recent Presidential election – “this is important – my future depends on it. 

Janis Richter 

Rochelle, VA 22738

 

PS The best research I've read on the dangers to democracy in "How Civil Wars Start" by Barbara F. Walter. The conclusion of data-driven research on dramatic changes toward or away from democracy is that rapid change in power structures fuels divisions that can lead to big social divisions as groups re-align themselves and fight to retain or gain political power.

...

 

Ted Hammett

   Reflections on 60 Years of History – Harvard/Radcliffe 55th Reunion

Ted Hammett – June 2, 2022

 

It seems to me that two related transformations underlie the changes in all of the other dimensions listed in our call for classmates’ reflections on 60 years of history.

The first is our loss of faith and trust in our government and for one another. Clearly, the Vietnam War and Watergate – events during and shortly after our time at Harvard – were critical early drivers of this erosion.

They fueled a secondary but equally important sea change: a loss of commitment to learning, understanding, telling, and acting on the truth for the benefit of all our people. I am certainly guilty of this, going back to my muddled and passive “opposition” to the Vietnam War, which I describe in my forthcoming memoir 

History, the discipline in which I’m trained, should always be about truth-telling rather than mindless self-congratulation or baseless demonization. We have seen the wages of this distortion in many conspiracy theories and culture wars. There are a few promising signs amid this dismal picture. An example, close to home, is Harvard’s powerful Legacy of Slavery project and the university’s commitment to atone for those painful truths in its history.

Can we recapture our commitment to the truth and thereby rebuild our faith and trust in our nation, our government, and each other and our commitment to caring for our communities? I only know that we must if we are to survive and leave our grandchildren a world and a country worth living in.