history

FDR on the Limited Uses of Limited Government

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I visited the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. Down a path from the ancestral Roosevelt home is a Dutch-style building FDR had built to house his library of 22,000 volumes, which became his administrative home during his four terms as President.

It’s now a museum which houses his Oval Office desk, model ship collection, library, and the New York office he used as President, still arranged as it was on the day he died. There’s also an exhibit of many rooms which reconstructs the atmosphere of Roosevelt’s election and presidency.

Far from the triumphalism that has colored our view of the past, every decision of his presidency was made in the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear brought on by economic collapse. Much of what we now think of as inviolable, like Medicare and Social Security, was considered a gamble, even unconstitutional. Nobody had ever made such energetic use of the powers of the Federal Government before.

The Republicans have been trying to tear down what FDR built since the first 100 days of his first term. Trump’s reality show, a smokescreen for the malign neglect of the Federal bureaucracy, is just the latest and most vulgar incarnation of this effort.

And it seems Democrats have forgotten how to argue for the alternative to limited government. They are too busy fighting about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry or defending Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe to reach the same rhetorical heights that FDR scaled without fear.

Perhaps it was the presence of books in every room of FDR’s office and home which helped him find the words that made him so powerful.

In his bedroom, in his office, on surfaces in the hallways, I saw every kind of book: almanacs, mystery novels, editions of the psalms, sermons, dictionaries, ancient and modern classics, indices of the army and the navy. In photos of FDR and Eleanor, they are always surrounded by books, even when sitting on a table outside overlooking the Hudson River.

If we’re looking for the words to combat fascism and an uncaring government this time around, I suspect we won’t find them in the claustrophobic spaces of our little screens, but in the books that surrounded FDR and his cabinet.

Is Roe v. Wade our Dred Scott?

Earlier this week I wondered if there were a central axis to the cold Civil War we have in America. In the years leading up to the actual Civil War, all public debate revolved around the question of slavery. You couldn’t fully participate in the world beyond your door without calling yourself either abolitionist or pro-slavery.

When the Supreme Court, lead by the pro-slavery Chief Justice Roger B. Tawney, ruled in Dred Scott in 1857 that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” the country was torn in half. Instead of settling the question of slavery, as Tawney intended, we moved closer to war. In response, Republicans in Congress added another justice to tip the Supreme Court in favor of abolition.

In an editorial for the Post (which was summarized in The Week), Michael Barone posits that Roe v. Wade is the hidden fault line in our current politics. Barone’s editorial isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of abortion, but about the way that the issue has shaped electoral politics for 30 years, putting both Republicans and Democrats on ideological islands, unable to find common ground on anything, even when their beliefs or expediency in serving the public good might dictate it.

Is the abortion debate the source of the vast reserves of emotional energy that have been heaped on the Kavanaugh Affair by both sides?

Even if you believe that Kavanaugh’s offenses or the shadow of doubt cast on him render him unfit for the Supreme Court, or if you believe that his confirmation is a deliberate punishment of feminists by reactionaries, it is still worth considering how the abortion debate has invisibly fueled this controversy. It is like the sleeping dragon buried beneath the castle of contemporary politics. We don’t talk about it. We don’t dig it up. But we can feel its heat.

What do you think is the central axis of our politics?

P.S. – I almost didn’t post this, for fear of being misunderstood. Let me be clear: I am *not* calling for a repeal of Roe v. Wade. I am *not making a moral correlation between the wrongness of Dred Scott and the rightness or wrongness of Roe v. Wade. I am making a historical analogy that I hope will help us solve something that puzzles me about our politics, i.e. the source of the hatred and the co-existing unrealities that I see fueling it daily. 

The deep historical roots of our moment of toxic masculinity–and one rhetorical tactic that could get us through it.

Touring Salem last weekend, I learned that one of the causes of the witch hysteria of 1692 was the absence of a colony-wide government. About six years before the trials began, the governor of Massachusetts had been ousted, and the status of the colony’s government and even the colony itself were in disarray. This left the villages of Massachusetts at the mercy of the judges, magistrates, and clergymen who ran the local institutions.

In the absence of clear leadership at the top, these men started using and modifying the machinery of the state into a tool for state-sanctioned theft of property, the extraction of fees from the poor, and the punishment of their political enemies. And they took advantage of the lower status of women and religious prejudice to do it.

Sound familiar?

Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, has compares political institutions to Meso-American pyramids. If you start digging into the grand exterior you’ll eventually hit on the decrepit, subterranean sacrificial mound the whole thing was built on. At the root of the American political pyramid is a Puritan theocracy. If you put enough stress on the overlying structure, eventually you’ll find yourself cast down on the underlying ruin it’s built on. Atavism in institutions can be charming, but it can also be harmful, all the more so because it is so often invisible to those affected by it.

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