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Archive for September, 2009

By Gil Troy, Globe and Mail, 9-18-09

[Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University and visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, is the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.]

Barack Obama’s election to the presidency was supposed to usher in a new, more mature era of race relations, but it could not evoke nirvana. There’s a growing chorus complaining that this summer’s hostility to his stimulus package, to his health-care reform and to Mr. Obama himself is racist.

“I think it’s based on racism. There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president,” former president Jimmy Carter said, clearly forgetting the euphoria when Americans elected a black president.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said she heard “an unspoken word in the air” when Republican Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during the President’s speech to Congress last week: “You lie, boy!” She also located Mr. Obama “at the center of a period of racial turbulence sparked by his ascension.” In fact, Mr. Obama is at the center of a political storm sparked by his leadership – as all presidents have been.

American politics is a contact sport. The long, rich tradition of American centrism does not negate the equally long colorful tradition of American mudslinging and partisanship. It is unfair and itself divisive to impute racial motives to Mr. Obama’s opponents without evidence. The shrill opposition reflects the high stakes surrounding the current debate, Americans’ enduring ambivalence about big government and the ugly way modern politics plays out in the media, within the blogosphere and on the streets.

Mr. Obama is controversial because he is seeking big changes. He’s no Bill Clinton in his second-term incarnation, focusing on minor policy “Band-Aids” such as the “V-chip” and school uniforms. Mr. Obama wants to be a transformational president like Ronald Reagan. During the transition, faced with the unexpected economic crisis, Mr. Obama read books about how Franklin Roosevelt re-engineered the U.S. economy. Headlines celebrating “Franklin Delano Obama” launched Mr. Obama’s ambitious first hundred days. Spending nearly a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy, taking over the U.S. auto industry, and now trying to solve the perennial health-care riddle – while protecting America and seeking world peace – are sweeping goals. No wonder there’s pushback.

The conservative counterattack is particularly intense because Mr. Obama seems to forget that Americans have mixed feelings about big government. There’s a strong individualistic streak in American thought. Every major jump in the government’s mandate has encountered fierce resistance. Conservatives denounced FDR as a Mussolini and even a Hitleresque dictator.

In 1993, Hillary Clinton was shocked at the vitriol directed her way when she led health-care reform efforts. The Clintons, in fact, endured far more abuse than Mr. Obama has – so far. The Clintons were accused of drug-running, murder, faked suicides, financial corruption, rape and cover-ups galore. After his impeachment, Mr. Clinton lamented Republicans’ descent into the “politics of personal destruction.”

Mr. Clinton and his fellow Democrats suggested these attacks were a conservative Republican tic. The implication then – as now – was that liberals disagreed as rational, reasonable human beings; conservatives were harsh, hysterical, character assassins.

Unfortunately, the loony left can be as vicious as the ranting right. In the 1980s, Mr. Carter and the Democrats called Mr. Reagan a war-mongering racist who would deprive blacks of civil rights while bumbling into nuclear war. One of the Democratic Party’s grand old men, Clark Clifford, called Mr. Reagan “an amiable dunce.” Respected liberal writer Garry Wills called him “Mr. Magoo.”

George W. Bush endured even more vicious attacks. Mr. Carter himself was one of many Democrats who said America’s leaders lied in the buildup to the Iraq war. During the 2004 campaign, an Internet ad compared Mr. Bush to Hitler. Bushophobia became so intense that critics often seemed more disgusted by Mr. Bush than by Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. “There is something profoundly wrong when opposition to the war in Iraq seems to inspire greater passion than opposition to Islamist extremism,” Senator Joe Lieberman, [then] a Democrat, said in 2007.

Vice President Richard Cheney was even more hated, and routinely compared to Darth Vader. Much of this enmity stems from the ever-accelerating news cycle, the blogosphere’s nastiness and Americans’ ability to speak, text and listen only to those with whom they agree.

Mr. Obama promised to lower the volume – acknowledging how shrill politics was under Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, two white presidents. Obama supporters should not be shocked that Republicans are attacking Mr. Obama as vehemently as Democrats attacked his predecessor.

And it is dishonest for Mr. Carter, Ms. Dowd and others to play the race card, implying that anyone who dares disagree with Mr. Obama’s health-care plan or stimulus package is a redneck. American politics needs a different tone – these delusional, demagogic, racial recriminations only make things worse.

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By Gil Troy, History News Network, 9-10-09

In his Wednesday night speech to a joint session of Congress, Barack Obama sought the perfect formula to express American attitudes toward big government. In 1981 Ronald Reagan proclaimed “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” In 1996 after his health care reform bill failed Bill Clinton declared “the era is big government is over.” “[O]ur predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem,” Obama said, riffing off of Reagan’s critique. “They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited.”

President Obama’s balance showed he understood better than most Congressional liberals the long history of American ambivalence regarding just how big government should be. As I argue in “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction,” just published by Oxford University Press, when Ronald Reagan was born in 1911, America’s federal government was still too small to be either the problem or the solution. The Progressive movement was, however, thriving, laying the groundwork for what would be Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, then Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. But Reagan was born into an American regime more scaled to the limited government of America’s Founders when they established the Constitution in 1787 than it was to the welfare state he would preside over from1981 to 1989.

Although the American Revolution was far less radical than the French or Russian Revolutions, Americans did rebel against executive power. The Revolutionaries’ experience with the King of England – and his colonial governors – soured a generation on strong, centralized government. The younger men of the revolution such as Alexander Hamilton, who assisted George Washington in fighting the war, better understood the need for effective government. They pushed for the new Constitution in 1787, replacing the Articles of Confederation that bore the mark of the revolutionary struggle by keeping the national government weaker than the states, and the executive impotent compared to the Congress.

Still, the Constitution established a federal government that was not supposed to overwhelm either “We the People” or “these United States.” Moreover, a strong ethos of self-sufficiency reigned. People were supposed to take care of themselves, especially considering America’s riches.

By 1980, Americans were ambivalent. They retained enough of their historic fear of executive power to dislike big government in theory. But after nearly fifty years of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deals and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Americans were addicted to many of the government programs that together made their government big, their tax bills high, their bureaucracy dense but their lives easier and their society more just. The Reagan Revolution played on the frustrations and tried to end this addiction, to no avail.

The post-Reagan standoff developed. Democrats often miscalculated by overlooking the growing, historically-rooted, backlash against big government. Republicans usually erred by overstepping and eliminating essential programs that Americans now took for granted.

As a candidate, Barack Obama invoked Reagan as a talisman – and a standard. While disagreeing with Reagan’s program, Obama envied Reagan’s impact. Obama wanted to be as “transformational” a president as Reagan and considered his two Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, failures. During the Obama administration’s first heady months, the media, popular and congressional lovefest seemed to be propelling Obama into Reagan’s league as a consequential president. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel conveyed the scope of Obama’s ambition by admitting: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

Suddenly this summer, the Reagan comparisons became more sobering, more a curse than a blessing. Reagan’s Revolution lost tremendous momentum its first summer. After peaking in August, 1981, with the signing of a major tax cut and the showdown with striking air traffic controllers, Reagan started meeting major congressional resistance. Having visited home during their summer recess, members of Congress returned to Washington worried about the economy and blaming the new president rather than his predecessor for what they started calling the “Reagan Recession.” Looking back, we can now realize that Ronald Reagan made his biggest impact in his first seven and a half months as president. Republicans and Democrats then spent the next seven and a quarter years scrambling on the new Reaganized line of scrimmage without major losses or gains for either side. And – Obama take note – Reagan learned he could have more impact by playing to the center than by pleasing his ideological allies.

History is not a DVD: conditions vary, outcomes are not repeatable. The Obama administration should learn from Reagan’s sobering summer as well as his stunning spring. But even more important, Obama and his Democratic allies must decode the mixed message Americans have long been broadcasting about government, as they essentially say, “yes” to goodies that work for them, but “no” when too many goodies for too many create a government that seems just too big and too threatening to individual freedom.

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TAs are the unsung heroes of the university world

By GIL TROY, The Montreal Gazette, 9-8-09

As students return to university this month, the main focus on campus is on the dynamic between students and their professors. “Who’s teaching the course?” is the question on so many students’ lips. But they often give or get a partial answer. The truth is, at McGill and most large universities, students are not taught only by the professor, the marquee name on any course. In the many large lectures that abound, students are taught – and their experiences are often dramatically shaped – by teaching assistants, TAs, who play a critical role in helping the university function.

Unfortunately, most of the recent public attention regarding teaching assistants has been negative. Teaching assistants held a strike at McGill in 2008. Other universities have endured strikes as well. Unionizing TAs gives the impression of a strife-ridden relationship between TAs and professors. This is misleading. Universities thrive because of the warmth and co-operative spirit characterizing most professor-TA relationships

In fact, ideally, the professor is the TA’s adviser as well. By researching and teaching together, the professor and TA integrate the university’s two essential functions – discovering knowledge and transmitting it. The relationship, at its best, is delightfully old-fashioned, with the TA serving an apprenticeship under the mentoring professor’s watchful eye.

Of course, reality often intrudes. For example, at McGill hundreds of undergraduates take U.S. history courses but very few graduate students study U.S. history. Teaching assistants come from other fields, and the relationship between the professor and the TA is less multi-dimensional. Still, the TA is not only helping with discussion sections and grading, but is learning by doing and being coached by a senior teacher.

At McGill’s history department this fall, we are particularly sensitive to the importance of this relationship because one of our superstar TAs during the last few years, Thomas Brydon, died tragically in an automobile accident this summer, along with his girlfriend Laura Nagy. Tom started studying for his master’s degree in 1999. During that decade, he TAed in numerous courses and, most recently, had started teaching his own courses. As he taught, he worked on and completed his Ph.D in British cultural history: “Christ’s Last Ante: Charles Booth, Church Charity and the Poor-but-Respectable.”

I met Tom a year ago as I headed into a difficult semester filled with much travelling – and teaching. I had requested a top-notch TA who could substitute for me if ever I was away or delayed. When the department chair at the time, Catherine LeGrande, assigned me Brydon, a British historian whom I did not know, I was skeptical, knowing the semester he (and I) faced. My skepticism increased when I called him, and good Canadian that he was, he postponed our meeting because he was leaving on a canoe trip. I wondered: “What’s this Canadian bloke who specializes in England going to teach my students about the U.S.?”

Let’s be honest, historians, and certainly this history professor, are lone rangers. Most of us do our research, writing and teaching alone. To share the podium with someone else, to share responsibility with someone else, requires us to stretch outside our comfort zones. We are also thematic chauvinists, rooted in our specialties and doubtful that anyone who has not been steeped in our subject can understand us – let alone teach our material.

LeGrande reassured me, saying, “You’re going to love this guy, he is fantastic.”

If anything, LeGrande undersold him. Tom entered this ambiguous, fluid situation with his natural affability, his considerable experience as a teacher, and his strong vision as an historian – and thrived. He plunged into the work with great enthusiasm, sound judgment, and remarkable talent. Students loved him, respected him and learned from him – as did I.

In addition to mastering the mechanics of the course, Tom also mastered the material. The lectures he prepared were insightful, funny, energetic and well-received.

Tom should have lived to a ripe old age, continuing to teach and learn with the zeal that marks a great teacher and scholar. Coincidentally, highlighting that chain of transmission that links one scholarly generation to another, my graduate school adviser and mentor, David Herbert Donald, died at the age of 88, just weeks before Tom died at 33. Both left unfinished books – and resonant legacies – reminding me that great teaching turns us all into master mimics, as juniors imitate their seniors who imitated their seniors when they were juniors.

To honour Tom’s memory, all of us in the university community, professors, students, and administrators, should reflect on the importance of our TAs, as essential educational colleagues today and living links to tomorrow. And if those who control university budgets could invest more in hiring additional TAs and lowering the teacher-student ratio, that would be an ever more glowing, pragmatic, and most needed tribute to Tom Brydon, the kind of teacher we all wish we had, and the kind those of us in the education business should always aspire to be.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2009

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