Historical literature dealing with the immigrant and the “ethnic” group in American life is voluminous.
Historical literature dealing with the immigrant and the “ethnic” group in American life is voluminous. But from the beginning it has been largely the monopoly of the amateur historian, the ethnic jingoist, the minority booster; and it has been designed mainly to please circumscribed ethnic audiences by puffing the merits of their ancestors. In recent years, however, a number of professional historians have begun to show an interest in the immigrant and his descendants, and they have already far outdone the achievement of all the previous decades of amateur effort.
The names of Marcus L. Hansen, Theodore C. Blegen, Oscar Handlin, Caroline Ware, and a few other serious scholars who have combined documentation with tempered judgment to overcome prevailing misconceptions, are comparatively little known. Much more popular is the work of Louis Adamic. It is through his writings that the average reader becomes acquainted with the immigrant’s role. While giving Adamic due credit for reiterating the point that ours is by no means an entirely Anglo-Saxon civilization, it should be recognized that his books constitute virtually a glossary of the errors committed by the amateur investigators of immigrant history.
In his latest book, A Nation of Nations (1945), Adamic waxes indignant at the way in which American historians, generally, have ignored the role played by non-Anglo-Saxons in the making of this country. Indignation is the frame of mind in which the filio-pietists—those latter-day priests of ancestor-worship—have traditionally approached this question. Indignation at what historians either said or omitted to say about the achievements of particular ethnic groups helped motivate the organization of the Huguenot Society of America in 1886; the Scotch-Irish Society of America in 1889; the Pennsylvania-German Society in 1891; the American Jewish Historical Society in 1892; and the American-Irish Historical Society in 1898. These historical societies and others like them voiced the demand of the immigrant and the ethnic bourgeoisie for a recognition that, it was alleged, had been wilfully denied them by American historians of Anglo-Saxon heritage and New England birth and breeding.
Now this was in many respects a legitimate claim, and no less a figure in American historiography than John Fiske admitted that the professional American historian had been remiss in acknowledging what the non-English groups had done. Nevertheless, for all the justice of their case, the various national historical societies did little more than stew in the juice of their own indignation. Constantly on the alert for “Anglo-Saxon distortions” of American history, they invested tremendous energy in the discovery of folk heroes who had stood by the Anglo-Saxon giants during the major trials of the Republic.
The Jews have Haym Salomon; the Poles, Kosciuszko and Pulaski; the Italians, Philip Mazzei and Giuseppe Vigo; the Huguenots, the Faneuils and John Jay; the Dutch, a galaxy of figures clustering about the New Amsterdam settlement; the Swedes, Johan Bjornsson Printz and Johan Campanius; the Russians, Charles Thiel and Prince Dimitri Augustin Gallitzin; the Pennsylvania-Germans, Franz Daniel Pastorius; the Yugoslavs, Baron Ivan Rataj and several soldiers who served in George Washington’s army; and the Irish have various and sundry O’Neills, O’Donnells, Maguires, O’Mahonys, McCarthys, O’Sullivans, and O’Briens.
The Irish and Scotch-Irish are frequently at odds over historic personalities claimed by both, and there is a literature of controversy over whether a certain Major Enholm was a Pole, a German, or a Swede. Actually all three of the groups have some claim on the Major, but none shows any willingness to yield an inch.
Inevitably, the ethnic apologists claimed too much. Even the sympathetic John Fiske could say that: “In reading the memoirs and proceedings of Huguenot societies, Holland societies, Jewish societies, Scotch-Irish societies, etc., one is sometimes inclined to ask whether the people about whom we are reading . . . ever left anything for other people to do. . . . Amid so many claims that of England to further recognition as the mother country seems for the most part overridden.”
The dull volumes that the national historical societies grind out year after year, while rescuing sundry individual non-Anglo-Saxons from obscurity, tell very little about the life itself of the respective groups. Dazzled by the glamorous personality, the amateur historians neglected the folk life of the mass of immigrants. Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, investigating the sources of American culture in the transit of civilization from Europe to America (The Founding of American Civilization: The Middle Colonies, 1938), finds that filio-pietists, despite their careful reckoning of contributions, too often omitted just those things we should most like to know about the various American peoples. Busy in debating the ethnic ancestry of a subaltern of Washington, they would cheerfully omit telling us—“What was life like in the German agricultural village? In what kind of homes did the Swiss peasant live? What was the character of the peasant art of the Rhine Palatinate? What were the cultural influences of Ulster? Whence came the octagonal churches of Long Island and northern New Jersey? What have been the inheritances of religion, education, art, government, of the vast number of Swedes, or Russians, or Italians, who for decades poured through Ellis Island to become bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh?”
Similarly, Marcus L. Hansen accused the amateur historians of compiling too many lists of statesmen, soldiers, poets, novelists, and educators of immigrant origin, while directing entirely too little consideration to group life in the American township, village or city ward—where, as Hansen said, “the leaven in the lump can be detected.” Hansen wrote this in 1927, in an essay entitled “Immigration as a Field for Historical Research” (American Historical Review, Vol xxxii). Another attack upon the jingo approach was made jointly by Joseph S. Roucek, Carleton Qualey, Maurice R. Davie, and Caroline Ware in a book, The Cultural Approach to History, published in 1940 and edited by Miss Ware. These writers struck at the concept in general of ethnic “contribution,” a thesis overworked by the jingoes in their efforts to prove one ethnic group as good as or better than another. Their fundamental error was, they held, in failing to realize that immigrant and native cultures were dynamic and underwent change as a consequence of their interaction with the American environment; it was, therefore, highly inaccurate to conceive of any “contribution” as deriving exclusively from a single ethnic group—particularly after the latter had been in America for many generations and become completely assimilated to the dominant pattern. It was also objected that the individual making a “contribution” might not be truly representative of the culture of the group that claimed him. He might, in fact, have achieved success precisely by casting off his group’s culture and becoming assimilated. Finally, ethnic cultures should be considered, as Davie asserts, as aspects of larger integration in the American scene, rather than as separate entities, and it was therefore a mistake to treat them as distinctive contributions.
By 1940, therefore, the filio-pietistic approach B to immigrant and ethnic history seemed totally discredited. Yet, five years later, Adamic did not hestitate to revive it. Most contemporary American historians being rather fair toward the immigrant groups, Adamic goes back to the 19 th century to kick the old dead bones of John Fiske and Henry Cabot Lodge for their sins against non-Anglo-Saxons. Then, with many a fervent protestation as to the many-stranded character of the American people and our multinational origin—a thesis that no one today seriously challenges—he labors the obvious by recapitulating the glories of ethnic folk heroes. Did you know that “one of Edward R. Stettinius’ grandmothers was a Reilly”? That “George Washington was kin to a branch of the McCarthy family”? And now that you know, do you really care?
Adamic’s performance, in the true tradition of amateurism—and even of jingoism—makes it clear that recent progress in ethnic historiography is the result, not only of the rise of a few trained scholars who have specialized in immigration and ethnic problems, but also of the general advance in the techniques of writing American history.
Most of the history produced in the 9th century was political and narrative history, some of it quite good. But it hardly noticed the immigrant; and on the few occasions when it did, his religious convictions or political behavior generally became the target of adverse comment. (Oscar Handlin has in a perceptive essay, “The Immigrant and American Politics”—one of a collection by different hands, edited by David F. Bowers and published in 1944 under the title Foreign Influences in American Life—pointed out some of the very interesting political aspects of immigration that the 19th-century political historians failed to perceive. This essay makes one realize by how far these historians missed the boat in their accounts of the immigrant in politics.) However, when in the 1880’s John Bach McMaster began turning out his formidable volumes on American social history (A History of the People of the United States, 8 volumes), his wider scope led him inevitably to deal with the immigrant at greater length than had the political historians. The causes of migration, the nature of the immigrants’ voyages, their distribution, and their dwellings and their occupations, came into the picture. There are, of course, many shortcomings in McMaster’s account, particularly when judged by present-day standards, and he retained many of the political historians’ prejudices against immigrants. And yet, in this monumental history of his, the immigrant did abandon his role as a historiographic hangnail and begin to be integrated in our nation’s history.
At about the same time that McMaster was startling the political historians with his unorthodox views of our history, Frederick Jackson Turner, in Wisconsin, introduced a seminar in immigration at the state university. Wisconsin, with its large immigrant and second-generation population, was a good natural laboratory for such a study. Reuben G. Thwaites, mentor of Wisconsin’s State Historical Society, realizing this, had already begun to collect documents on migration into Wisconsin. Turner’s students eagerly turned their attention to the fruits of Thwaite’s industry, and the most ambitious of them, Kate Everest (later Mrs. Levi), turned out some very creditable studies of German immigration into Wisconsin.
Turner himself seemed to grasp better than any historian of the period the significance of immigration in our national development. Much of what America was, he said in 1889, could be explained in terms of the peoples who made it. “The story of the peopling of America has not yet been written. We do not understand ourselves.”
However, neither Turner nor his Wisconsin seminar made much progress in the study of immigration—except for the work of Miss Everest. And Turner’s famous paper on the influence of the frontier upon American historical development (1893) actually stressed the transcendent importance of environmental rather than ethnic influences on our national development. If it were true, as Turner held, that Old World cultures speedily disintegrated in the frontier environment and that the immigrant settler, within the course of a single generation, was transformed into a new man, then it could be reasonably concluded that the study of immigrant cultures was not too important.
(Later an effective critique of this aspect of the frontier hypothesis was framed by Marcus L. Hansen, who felt that the culture-shaping factors of the American frontier were less narrowly environmental than Turner believed and were the result of a synthesis of environmental, seaboard, and European influences. Rather than accept what Turner said about the dominating influence of the frontier as such, Hansen wanted a thorough investigation made of the relative roles of environmental, European, and Eastern influences on the frontier—Hansen’s “Remarks” on the discussion of the Turner thesis; Dixon Ryan Fox, ed., Sources of Culture in the Middle West,1934.)
Apart from Turner and McMaster, the work of Edward Channing forms a highly significant preliminary to the rise of a group of historians specializing in immigration. Channing was the last of the great narrative historians—that is, like McMaster, he tried to cover a rather large segment of American history in a multi-volumed account (A History of the United States, 6 volumes). Again like McMaster, Channing aspired to present a comprehensive view of the American social complex. As it happened, he was better trained for this job than his predecessor. Whereas the data McMaster presented on the immigrant gives the impression of being highly unselective, Channing’s two chapters and more on the same subject suggest a rather definite approach. He was, for example, interested in the Old World culture of the immigrant, realizing that this, too, was a part of American history. And he seemed to sense that the heart of the problem lay in the immigrant community rather than in the careers of those outstanding individuals whom the national historical societies were constantly bringing to the foreground. That Channing’s treatment suffers from limitations is owed less to his failure to understand the problem than to the nature of the sources at his disposal. He had to look for his information in the writings of the filio-pietists—since nothing else was available on the subject.
Deliverance was, however, soonat hand. Channing completed the sixth and final volume of his long narrative history in 1925. Two years later Marcus L. Hansen published, in the American Historical Review, his essay on “The History of American Immigration as a Field for Research.” This trail-blazing piece announced the entrance upon the scene of a trained historian specializing in immigration—even more, a specialist with a master’s touch.
Hansen’s essay demonstrated that immigration could be an engrossing and rewarding field of research. By relating immigration to the general pattern of historical development, he showed it to be a subject of greater importance than the narrative historians had given us to suppose. Hansen’s essay made it apparent that one could be interested in the history of immigration and in the history of ethnic groups without becoming a publicity man for any single ethnic group and without spouting about “contributions.”
Hansen’s eye-opening essay pointed to the fact that “emigration has been connected with as many phases of European life as immigration has of American life.” Hansen wanted scholars to explore “the emigrant trade from the days when the captain journeyed inland to solicit passengers for his spring voyage to the time when no village was without its agency and no day passed without an emigrant ship leaving some European port. . . .” He then compared the depth of historical research into tariff history to the dearth of investigation into “the development of the legal conditions under which the most valuable of all our imports has entered. . . . Castle Garden and Ellis Island are each worthy of a volume; and the administration of laws, the State Labor Bureaus, and the welfare activities at Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and New Orleans should not be neglected.”
Hansen wanted to have the relation between the flow of immigration and the distribution of immigrants in our continental area investigated; and also their different destinations in periods of prosperity and depression; the reasons for the attraction exerted by individual states or regions at different times; the various highways of immigrant traffic. He noted immigration’s bearing on the material development of our country and “the labor policy of canals and railroads—the hierarchy of contractors and subcontractors, the recruiting of men, labor conditions and the methods of preserving order.”
These do not exhaust Hansen’s suggestions for research. But they are enough to indicate how successful he was in establishing the basis for a new and original approach to an understanding of America, one built on knowledge of the peoples who made our country. And Hansen’s argument for the influence of the immigrant upon national development was a far more persuasive and well-reasoned one than Turner’s in behalf of the frontier. But Hansen did not indulge in extravagant statements such as those that had made Turner’s hypothesis so provocative, and on whose wings that hypothesis won wide circulation.
Thus, two decades after its publication, Hansen’s essay on research into immigration remains little discussed. Very few of Hansen’s suggestions have been made the subject of special studies. The garden Hansen envisioned is, with a few exceptions, barren still. Historical researchers continue to fight shy of problems related to immigration. This might be because of the ill-repute that the filio-pietists have lent this field of inquiry. Or it also might be the result of the habitual readiness with which the bulk of non-Anglo-Saxons in our population turn their backs on their ancestral cultures. On the other hand, the frontier hypothesis has flourished. Is it because it is almost a quarter of a century older, or is it because the frontier has always held the center of the imagination as typifying America, swaying scholars, in this land of immigrants, to write about “American” rather than “immigrant” themes?
Hansen, as pioneer in the field, was mainly concerned with fixing the immigrant’s role in our national life and with bringing him into true perspective in the broader national picture. Both of his books, The Atlantic Migration, 1607-1860 (1940) and The Mingling of the Canadian and American Peoples (1940), present a broad panoramic view that differs markedly from the approach in T.C. Blegen’s two monumental volumes on Norwegian immigration, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860 (1931), and The American Transition (1940). Blegen’s two volumes are built upon the thesis that there are “two creative forces in our national life—the European heritage and the American environment.” The first of his volumes deals with the European background of Norwegian immigration and the second depicts “the American transition of the Norwegian immigrant as the dynamic process it was. . . .”
To begin with the European background and then go on to the American scene, as Blegen did, is undoubtedly the best way of describing the group life of an immigrant people. However, an important aspect of the latter’s fate in America is its adjustment to other groups and to the more general American civilization. This is a complex problem that can be best investigated in microcosm. Blegen, in covering the entire field of Norwegian immigration, of necessity had to spread himself too thin.
Focus on the problem of adjustment requires both a broad and also an intensive approach. Broad in the sense that more than one group must be studied; narrow because the locale of the study must be circumscribed lest tangential aspects of the problem prove too many and elusive for the student. The study of adjustment does not warrant investigation of the continental wanderings of an immigrant people in all their ramifications—as was possible in Blegen’s study of the Norwegians. Nor should the historian concern himself too much with the more general, remoter, long-term effects of immigration upon national development. Investigation of how an immigrant group adjusted to its environment requires the pattern of research to be concentrated upon a sharply defined geographic area and upon a specific period of time. All else becomes background to a study of the “internal constitution of the social milieu” in question, within which, as Emile Durkheim said, the origins of the social process must be sought.
Oscar Handlin, in Boston’s Immigrants, 1790-1865 (1940), ingeniously combines the techniques of historian and sociologist. Handlin states, as did Hansen before him, that “the character of the environment—the community in its broadest sense—is particularly important in the study of the contact of dissimilar cultures. It is the field where unfamiliar groups meet, discover each other, and join in a hard relationship that results in either acculturation or conflict. . . .”
But the historian, attempting to explore an immigrant community that exists only in the past, is peculiarly handicapped. “Lacking the sociologist’s or anthropologist’s direct access to the subject by questionnaires or observation, he must piece together his story from widely diversified sources, and, tethered within the limits of that which is known, impale upon a rigid page the intimate lives and deepest feelings of humble men and women who leave behind few formal records.” From the yellowed historical record alone, Handlin reveals “the basic factors influencing their economic, physical, and intellectual adjustment,” and seeks to explore in the character of that adjustment “the forces promoting or discouraging group consciousness and group conflict. . . .”
Handlin admits that this problem places him at the very frontier of his function as historian. This, however, is the inevitable position of an historian who adopts immigration as his special field. Even as the historian of the tariff must, of necessity, understand the economics of the historical problem with which he is dealing, so the historian of immigration must know his way about in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. The very nature of immigration has thus forced Handlin to go outside the confines of historical study proper.
Another important study of an immigrant community is by Hyman Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860 (1945). Within the limitations Grinstein set for himself in the preface of his book, he has done a workmanlike job and made an important contribution to American-Jewish history. However, compared to Handlin’s account, it is dull and unimaginative, largely because Grinstein narrowed altogether too arbitrarily the field of inquiry and did not give himself sufficient scope. He is too much concerned with the internal aspects of community life and too little interested in the relationship of the Jewish group to other New Yorkers of the time.
Progress in the historiography of immigration before 1925 is inevitably linked with increased concentration upon social history—as is apparent in McMaster and even more in Channing. The line of progress goes through the works of Hansen, Blegen, and Handlin, respectively typical of three different approaches to the history of immigration. First, there is Hansen, eager to impress upon historians the importance of immigration not only as a field for research but also as a key to the understanding of America. Then Blegen, centering almost exclusively upon the Norwegian element and presenting all the ramified details of their migration, and yet excluding the filio-pietism characteristic of amateur endeavors in this field. Finally, there is Handlin, who is interested mainly in problems of adjustment and accommodation and who, to analyze the adjustment of the Irish group, has concentrated his research inside the geographic area of Boston, as described above.
These three approaches have undoubtedly advanced our understanding of the immigrant’s role in American life, an understanding which will increase when other trained historians turn their attention to the field. Once a sufficient amount of preliminary investigation has been done, perhaps a synthesis will emerge that will present the immigrant in true perspective in the general trend of our development. As yet such a synthesis has not appeared.
Hansen died prematurely in 1938, leaving to others the fulfillment of the master-scheme he outlined a dozen years before his death. Today, there still exists no worthwhile, comprehensive survey of the entire field of immigration to the United States. George M. Stephenson fell far short of the mark when he attempted something of this sort in A History of American Immigration, 1820-1924 (1926); and more recently Carl Wittke has synthesized a mass of material on immigration in his We Who Built America: The Saga of the Immigrant (1940). The latter is in many respects an interesting and useful book, but it does not offer a fresh approach. It travels the well-worn, organizational grooves, presenting an outline history of each immigrant group and then describing the rise of nativism and the movement for the restriction of immigration; also, this book still places considerable stress upon the group “contribution” as exemplified in outstanding individuals. It is to be regretted that the energetic research and compilation that went into Wittke’s book was not projected from the standpoint of Hansen’s master-scheme. Had Wittke written with Hansen’s suggestions for research in mind, we should have been further advanced along the path toward synthesis.
It is to be noted that, despite their general reputation for unscholarliness, at least one of the national historical societies, the Norwegian-American Historical Society, has encouraged such an outstanding scholar as T.C. Blegen, and made the publication of his major work financially possible. This Norwegian organization is exceptional among the national historical societies for the high caliber of the studies it promotes.
The reluctance of the average professional to study immigration and ethnic problems puts an added responsibility upon the shoulders of the national historical societies and at the same time gives them a chance to play a really constructive role. It is not only that they contain at least the germ of an interest that, if intelligently guided, would result in creative achievement. They also have the opportunity of attracting able scholars to their field by financial and other means, and of establishing contacts with universities so that ethnic historiography can be placed upon a more solid basis.
Should the national historical societies persist in their independent way, little of value will come from them. Their errors are not solely filio-pietistic. At least no such accusation can be leveled against the Yiddish Scientific Institute (Yivo) group, which has a reputation for a sound scholarly approach. Yet, its very isolation from the American scene and from American scholars has betrayed it into publishing in Yiddish alone what Solomon F. Bloom in a recent issue of COMMENTARY called a “monumental history of the Jewish working-class in America” (Geshikhte fun der yidisher arbeterbavegung in di Fareynikte Shtatn). This seems to me, as it must inevitably to any student of immigration problems, a sad error in judgment, a kind of minor tragedy. For the small clan of scholars who are eager to read every work on immigration and immigrant peoples, a whole field of knowledge is blocked off by a language barrier.
The work of Yivo, of the American Jewish Historical Society, and of the Conference of Jewish Relations on Jewish immigrants, merits a more extended treatment than can be given here. (There is a good appraisal of the American Jewish Historical Society by Harold Jonas, “Writing American Jewish History,” in the Contemporary Jewish Record, Vol vi.) It seems curious that there has been so little interest on the part of the organized Jewish community in promoting sound research and writing about the role of the immigrant Jewish group in America, considering how much time, energy, and funds have been devoted to promoting understanding in so many fields and through so many mediums. But that is another article.
The above-mentioned and still absent synthesis, as well as separate studies in the field of immigration, would contribute not a little to the revival of history’s prestige as a discipline in the study of man in America. There can be little doubt that the trained historian, in recent years, has lost ground to the “social engineers”—the sociologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, and anthropologists. The employment by the government, during the war, of the abilities and experience of social scientists has underscored this trend. Historians need not, however, be alarmed by this development if they interpret their function in its broadest rather than in its narrowest, fact-finding, sense. Indeed, the historian can hardly avoid making himself master of the latest developments in the other fields of the social sciences, for these in a real sense belong in his field, from which they are actually off-shoots. To the extent that he does this his function becomes at once more difficult and also more valuable. The historian of immigration is in a strategic position to crucially advance his profession.
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The Study of Man: The Immigrant in American History
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The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?