Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Clinton and the Nineties (1992-2000)

There were really three Nineties decades (and I mean the 1990s, not 1890s) in the United States, from my perspective. In this final installment of my series* on the U.S. zeitgeist of 1950 through 2000, I will address those three partially overlapping periods.


The first Nineties were a continuation of the 1980s until 1992, a presidential election year. Also in 1992, a recession that began almost on the dime of when I expected it, in midsummer, was at the time was thought of as a structural event that augured a catastrophe for the country; it was not.

Few people today seem to remember how it felt at that time. I remember that on an outing with our kids to a baseball game, I told a friend that the downturn was coming and he was upset. My friend is a conservative Republican and Catholic; he was also a building contractor and construction is always very sensitive to economic fluctuations; he did not want his son to worry. I did not say it to crow over the moment out of ideology or boast of my economic independence (I had been promoted to manager of the company that I ended up buying), but because it seemed to be the economic reality.

The recession ended as quickly as it started. The economic music stopped a hot June week and boomed again in December, after Clinton beat Bush (Sr.).

However, the recession shook the confidence of the heartland states between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountain ranges. After morning in Reagan's America came a grayish sunset that gave people nightmares. That's why the motto for Clinton's campaign staff was "it's the economy, stupid"; a reminder that people vote with their pockets more than anything else.

Clinton won a traditional Democratic victory against Republican incompetence, characterized by a laissez faire attitude in the face of an economic recession. It was almost the same as Franklin Roosevelt's 1932 victory over Hoover's apathy toward the Great Depression. The 1992 recession was a mild recession but it frightened the mostly uninformed Americans who supported Reagan.

When the first cracks appeared in the Reaganite sieve, the American Dream honey syrup that Reagan had sold the public soured. Suddenly, people began to see negative changes that had been covered up.

It began, for example, with "the homeless," people who began to appear as street beggars in every major city for the first time since the Great Depression. (In part, it was a phenomenon produced by the closing, under Reagan's budgets, of transitional housing for low-functioning people who did not suffer aggressive mental disorders.)

Another pattern at the time was the awareness jobs losses to factories abroad, in general the movement of manufacturing to countries with lower labor costs due to the absence of unions (Mexico and Malaysia were very popular among the executives of transnational corporations). Goodbye "Made in U.S.A."!

Finally, the transformation of farmland from family-run farms, lost in the 1980s Reagan recession, into an industry run by companies that owned lands and employed people to farm and care for livestock; what ended up being called agribusiness. The family farm was for much of a century, from the 1880s to 1980s, a prop of the American Dream myth.

Both phenomena created a large share of the white middle class to fall abruptly from one socioeconomic level to another below. Industrial workers whose wages had allowed them home ownership and a paid university education for their children went to near-permanent jobless or underemployment paid well below what their skills warranted. More or less self-reliant farm owners whose grandparents claimed land during the expansion West became mere urban employees.

All that resentful mass had been carefully seduced by neoconservative Republicans, who nurtured racism, fanatical capitalist Calvinism (in which being poor is essentially viewed as the result of laziness, therefore sinful) and all the "cultural war" between conservatives and liberals concerning social mores (abortion, divorce, sexuality, etc.). All so they could vote against the economic interests.


The second 1990s came with Clinton, who presided over an economic boom unparalleled in U.S. history. Clinton, a centrist Democrat, talked about leading the country toward shared wealth. U.S. presidents do not have the power to control the national economy, but they have at hand levers to redistribute wealth, either upward (Reagan and Republicans) or downward (Clinton and Democrats).

Even ordinary people in this period came to have more money than they knew how to handle. The overall value of holdings in the stock market, according to the best well-known index, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, rose from 3,000 to 10,000 in the 1990s (now it is around 21,000).

The generation that was cradled in the 80's and went through adolescence in the 90's, now called Millennials, recall those golden years in which well-being was felt everywhere. Inflation fell to 2% annually and unemployment to 4%, both very low levels and almost the lowest levels possible in a growing economy. In part because of this, Millenials are a generous and self-confident generation, unlike their older brothers, Generation X (1965-1980), deemed as a little lost for being born amid much social unrest and the beginning of stagnation for the middle class.

Politically, the country split into "reds" and "blues," colors that came from a convention adopted in the 1980s for voter maps on television. When a Republican candidate's victory was projected television changed the color of the state from white to red, if the Democrat won the white state was colored blue.

That bitter partisanship that persists to this day. The Red, or conservative and Republican states, are in the South and Center South and the Southwest). Nothing to do with the nineteenth-century use of red by socialists and communists. Blue USA, or variously progressive and Democratic, covers both coasts (excluding the southern coastal states), New England and the northern industrial states.

Popularly, the gap is a matter of social place and culture, rather than ideology. Americans are not concerned with ideological much. A typology of the strata of American society would require a whole different set of posts (a future series?).

World Wide Web

The third 1990s began with the widespread emergence of technology that had been carefully developed for universities and government (but not public use) since the 1960s, the Internet.

The network was based on Unix, an operating system produced by the old AT&T Bell Labs, also the cradle of the programming language C. It was conceived as a decentralized system for military reasons, with the idea of ensuring the survival of the computer communications medium after a nuclear war. Once marketed in the 90's when the telephone monopoly was undone by judicial order, the Internet began the revolution we all know today.

Internet and computer technology maximized productivity to unthinkable levels only years earlier and led to a global boom that prolonged the U.S. recovery into the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. Many Americans in the late 1990s came to believe that the fall of Soviet Communism and the rise of the Internet proved that all problems could be solved in a global capitalist world. That, at least was the idea proclaim in the era's bestseller The End of History by Francis Fukuyama.

This was only the inevitable delusion of a decade in which unparalleled wealth and a geopolitical uni-polar world run with high-tech seemed capable of organizing globally and curing all ills. The U.S. government at last had fiscal surpluses projected as far as the horizon. Wall Street was roaring (it is said that even members of the last Soviet politburo applauded at the finale of their secret screening of the film "Wall Street"). Europe was unified with a single currency. Even China made its opening to capitalism. A new technology was unifying the human race forever.

Of course, there were omens that this was not going to last.

When welfare reform was approved in 1996, reducing benefits to a lifetime maximum of five years, there was an indication of a lack of sensitivity toward economic losers that one day would effectively generate a permanent underclass.

Similarly, the Clinton scandals with Monica Lewinsky yielded a national soap opera. However, although I didn't realize for a decade, it was a vast smokescreen to hide the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the law that since the 1930s had separated banking, brokerage and insurance companies into watertight and separate compartments. (The repeal's eventual result was seen in 2008.)

As if that were not enough, the electoral fraud that defeated Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, who won the majority of votes but lost the electoral college, proved that the country's socioeconomic and political Darth Vaders were alive and well.

The 1990s did not end in the year 2000 (or 1999 as some thought). The era ended a sunny, late-summer, on September 11, 2001, when two passenger planes crashed into the twin towers of the so-called World Trade Center in New York.

*This ends my short series attempting to sketch the contemporary cultural and social history of the United States, how 50 years felt. All this comes from an exchange with a French correspondent, which provoked thoughts that could be of interest to my Spanish-speaking readers in another blog and now my English-speaking readers.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Reagan's Dawn (1981-1992)

The ascendancy of the broad civil rights, peace and sexual openness movement of the 1960s and 1970s came to a screeching halt some time around the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 in a manner as sudden and surprising as the election of Margaret Thatcher's Tories in 1979, an election I witnessed while living in London.

Just as Thatcher shook the Labour Party, Reagan was an unexpected blow to the U.S. liberals, who espoused centrist or center-left views. When the Republicans nominated Reagan candidate, I was convinced Carter's reelection was assured.

U.S. presidents are usually reelected and serve a term of eight years. Until Carter, only nine of the 37 previous presidents had been in power for a single four-year term or less. One of them was Carter's predecessor, Gerald Ford, who was appointed by Nixon and never elected. Before Ford, there was Herbert Hoover, who failed to be reelected in 1932 at the outset of the Great Depression, for which his party was blamed, arguably with some justification.

Nothing remotely resembling the Depression had happened under Carter. Why did the electorate end up denying him a second term and handing over the White House to a mediocre actor whose governorship of California had little to show for itself?

In part, Reagan's victory can be attributed to something Lyndon Johnson predicted to his intimates when he signed the Civil Rights Act. "We've given the South to the Republicans," Johnson said. The Republicans adopted the famous "southern strategy," the stoking Southern white resentment at the advancement of African-Americans. Indeed, Reagan's 1980 campaign was launched in Philadelphia, Miss., site of the slaying of three civil rights workers -- in effect, a dog whistle.

The campaign could also be called Goldwater's revenge. This became evident to me years later when I studied the resumes of key but lesser known Reagan people. These were folks of more or less my generation whose political awakening had come with the electoral beating of Barry Goldwater in 1964. These Republican political operatives had quietly established a neoconservative network financed by executives and millionaires (today we would say billionaires), all essentially dedicated to reversing every social and economic reform since 1932.

Republican neoconservatives were split from the outset into two significant wings.

Some wanted to mandate the reversal of social changes in sexual morality (legalization of abortion, for example), women's relatively broader life choices and, laterally without explicitly saying anything out loud about it, racial integration. These were the social conservatives.

Others wanted to revert civil society to what it was more or less around 1928, before the stock market Crash of 1929, to a country in which there was no public financial assistance, few workers were in unions, taxes were very low and the stock market and banking sector operated essentially free of legal constraints. These were the economic conservatives.

The social neoconservatives courted Christian fundamentalists disenchanted with Carter. They also wooed conservative Catholics who saw as "heresies" in both the "spirit" of the Second Vatican Council and the massive rejection of the papal prohibition of the contraceptive pill and aspired to a return to the social "orthodoxy" of the 1950s. (These folks forgot about the era's discrimination against Catholics.)

There were voters coming from military families who, despite the military tradition of absolute partisan neutrality, felt betrayed by Democratic politicians during and after Vietnam. To these add male, white industrial workers and "ethnics" (non-Anglo-Saxon whites), resentful of losing labor and economic pre-eminence to African-Americans and women.

All of these were the people Spiro Agnew had called "the silent majority," whom a relatively obscure preacher from Virginia now called "the Moral Majority," a base clamoring for what was then called the Reagan Revolution, which was actually akin to the French Revolution's Thermidorian reaction, a counter-revolution.

Reagan supporters were very effective propagandists. They spoke of a modest electoral victory (Reagan won 50.8% of the popular vote) as a "landslide" merely because Reagan managed to get the majority of electors in 44 states. They also managed to cast an old man who would soon be doddering but remained a capable script reader as "the great communicator."

The Reagan Administration tried, and in many cases succeeded, in reversing the socioeconomic policies of at least the previous 20 years thanks to its propagandists.

Some things could not be overtly reversed. Legal and institutional racial segregation was not coming back. However, Reagan managed to erode the power of unions, minorities and women; and he launched a vast redistribution of resources that favored the richest through tax cuts and public debt that paid handsome interest.

In order to bring down inflation, which hurts those who possess disposable wealth the most, Reagan triggered an recession that led to a 10 percent unemployment rate in 1982, the highest since the Depression. The downturn accelerated the decline of the middle class and in this way imposed wage and labor discipline. All these fireworks for the plutocrats, involving dull numbers noticed primarily by economists and stockbrokers, were hidden behind a clever smokescreen of social propaganda.

The counter-revolution turned neoconservative slogans into accepted social values. Overnight the entrepreneur became a hero, greed a virtue and the nuclear family a sacred institution that served as a safeguard against the ills of feminism, homosexuality and free love. God and calling oneself a believer was in fashion again. Washingtonian magazine, a bland regional glossy, expressed the Reagan zeitgeist in the nation's capital with an issue of those years whose cover proclaimed, "God is Back!"

Of course, God had never been gone -- at least beyond the U.S. Northeast and West Coast -- and neither had traditional values, the so-called Protestant ethic (hard work, frugality, family integrity and at least the appearance of sexual restraint). During the 1960s and 1970s, the era's youth and intellectuals had only made it seem that way.

More significant was the social and cultural behavior of those whom Agnew had called "silent" and were now empowered.

The N-word returned. It was used by Randy Newman, for example, in a satirical song about "rednecks." Although Newman did not intend this as an insult (quite the contrary: he was mocking those who still used that term), was a sign of change that this kind of joke could be played on the radio without causing riots.

I heard the word one morning in the fall of 1988, used by a white, upper-middle-class man standing in his bathrobe at the door of his elegant suburban Bethesda house. He spoke angrily to an African-American woman, a mail carrier who, as I witnessed it, had accidentally let her bundle of mail drop to the man's feet, instead of delivering it in his hand. It was dreadful to hear and I still remember the scene exactly, even the location: Bradley Lane.

Something similar happened with "girl" instead of "woman" or "young woman". It was one of many terms (mailman had become mail carrier) that feminism had managed to establish as a less unconsciously prejudiced vocabulary.

Hippies were ridiculed, as was sexual debauchery (which declined with the onset of AIDS) and recreational drugs. Curiously, in the world of finance cocaine spread, as a stimulant whose frenzy effect meshes well with the Protestant work ethic; a cocaine-fueled broker is very, very, very attentive ... at least until the effect fades.

The ideas spread that government was inefficient by nature, unions a bunch of goons and every modern education strategy was a fanciful but mistaken concoction of African-American novelists and lesbian poets. Once again people spoke with awe of the traditional Eurocentric literary and intellectual canons (also called "dead white men").

All this was captured in an Orwellian showpiece: a 1984 Reagan reelection television commercial that began with the memorable words, "It's morning again, in America." The commercial shows white faces, middle-class suburbs, a stationwagon and a wedding. In the world of that commercial it's as if the hippies, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the struggle of African-Americans and women for their human rights had never happened.

This is the sixth in a short series of posts that attempt to sketch contemporary U.S.cultural and social history, dwelling on how the time and place felt from a personal perspective, with the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers in the background.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Disco Era (1974-81)

The Seventies in the United States began after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973. Notably, it was an anticlimactic end to a turbulent decade.

When U.S. prisoners were released and they asked about the war's outcome, they were given the Pentagon-approved statement "they did not win and we did not lose." Similarly, Nixon's resignation in August 1974 was only one sentence long. Thus ended the two remaining causes of 60's era unrest.

Anti-discrimination laws began to bring about a quiet and slow integration in both the worlds of work and higher education, insofar as color was concerned.

Women began to graduate from universities in numbers never seen before and by 1979 they would become a permanent functional part of the workforce. However, it was only briefly in the past decade, as a result of massive layoffs of men following the Great Recession, that women were for short periods a majority of the workforce, as they are of the overall population.

Gays and lesbians came out of the closet and a popular band called The Village People provided the theme songs to the new egalitarian messages on sexual orientation.

In addition, Baby Boomers began adulthood, leaving adolescence and early youth behind to take on marriage, making money. Former hippies (or wannabes) changed into young urban professionals, or yuppies, whose emblematic wine and condos replaced joints and communes. Thus began a frivolous time accompanied by a musical rhythm called Disco and the turn towards the widespread use of cocaine.

This drug, unlike the recreational hallucinogenic and largely distracting substances of the 60s, induces a a sense of extreme mental acuity leading to frantic mental activity. It was the drug that fit perfectly with the new materialistic zeal and adult indulgences of 70s Boomers.

The quintessential Seventies image is of yuppies sniffing cocaine powder from $100 bills used as funnels to their nostrils. At least, that would be the cinematic scene. I, personally, did not witness it, although I heard of people who engaged in this.

However, life is not Hollywood and many other Boomers, once married and with children, faced the problem of passing on their values, which meant a revival of traditional religion. This was also the spirit of the Jimmy Carter era.

The essential feature of this exceptionally honest politician who came to the White House in 1977 was his authentic religious faith. Carter was a "born again" Protestant, a Baptist who took seriously the call in  John 3: 3, that unless one is born anew, one cannot see the kingdom of heaven.

At that time there were some 70 million Protestants affiliated to one church or another; 13 million were Baptist, making their denomination the second largest in the United States, after Catholics, who then totaled around 48 million people. After Richard (Tricky Dick) Nixon, Americans wanted a leader they could believe in and trust.

Another undercurrent that was invisible at the time (except during a brief oil shortage) was the decline of U.S. economic pre-eminence compared with Europe and Japan.

Today it is a commonplace among economists to note that improvement in the U.S. standard of living more or less halted in 1973, when the median household income stagnated, and later even declined, after having doubled in real terms from 1945 to 1965. Now the whole world parrots Thomas Piketty, who in my view largely parroted Emmanuel Saez, in his pronouncements on economic inequality; but this is now, not then. No one noticed much at the time.

The only evidence of a phenomenon pointing to change that was visible at the time to most Americans was the remarkable appearance of Japanese and European cars and a basket of imported goods never before available to the common consumer. Before the 1970s, everything had been "Made in U.S.A." Japanese goods, as famously noted in the 1985 film Back to the Future, were widely regarded as "crappy" imitations. The Japanese learned to imitate better very quickly.

Economist Robert Reich has offered perhaps the best, most ironic and, once I read it, obvious, explanation of the massive entry of Japanese cars into the American market. According to him, it was an unintended consequence of the foreign policy that produced the Vietnam War.

A side-effect of the conflict was introduction of trans-Pacific cargo shipping in volumes never seen before, a now well-understood staple of American military movements. For the Normandy invasion in World War II, for example, the U.S. military built floating piers to avoid the harrowing effort of having to capture Cherbourg. ("No port? We'll take one with us.")

Here's what happened with Vietnam. Cargo ships went from California to Southeast Asia bearing weaponry and supplies, soon enough shippers realized that they faced an enormous fuel expense of sending back empty cargo ships.  Shipping companies started looking for cargo in the Philippines and Japan to fill the ships and make money on the return trip.

That's when Japanese automakers took advantage of the offer and specifically built the smallest cars possible so they could ship and sell the largest number of units in the United States. Thus, the small foreign car market was born in the USA. Today, in Washington, I drive my Mercedes in a sea of ​​German and Japanese cars; hardly any cars are from Detroit.

Trade competition, which took place in a variety of other industries (textile production, hitherto highly unionized, was destroyed by cheaper Asian imports), also stimulated the export of U.S. jobs and factories abroad.

This had two kinds of huge consequences. At first, this enriched shareholders and executives thanks to savings in labor costs. In the long run, however, it led to the progressive destruction of a whole layer of the broad middle class: the industrial worker who by then could dream of sending children to college.

An important part of the American social fabric began to fray and few became aware of it until someone pointed it out, as we shall see.

* This is the fifth in a short series of posts that attempt to sketch contemporary U.S.cultural and social history, dwelling on how the time and place felt from a personal perspective, with the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers in the background.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Revolution (1963-74)

The countries of the New World prospered after World War II because they were never attacked on the continent. In this entry* we shall see how the United States began to feel a grassroots new cultural, social and political current brought about by the first postwar generation.

The decade that in the United States is still remembered as simply "the Sixties" began with three symbolic starting points.

In late August 1963, an African-American civil rights march on Washington was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. President Kennedy was assassinated in November. Then in February 1964, on the very widely watched Ed Sullivan Show, a group of long-haired English musicians called The Beatles played their electric guitars amid deafening cheering from teenage girls.

John F. Kennedy, for a time regarded as almost an informal saint and martyr (until his rampant sexuality became known), was said to have advocated reforms the "liberal" wing (in the U.S. and non-European sense) of the Democratic Party sought to carry. To "honor Kennedy's memory," Lyndon Johnson, a Southern political genius, succeeded getting a broad range of socio-economic legislation approved.

The first triumph was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which remains the basis of all protections and guarantees of equal rights for minorities and women. As for women, conservative Southerners proposed adding "sex" as a joke, to the prohibition of discrimination by "color, creed or national origin"; the liberals took them at their word, knowing that their adversaries had made a tactical error. (U.S. liberals are not the European liberals who advocate a hands-free market and laissez faire policies, but reformers favoring substantial government intervention in the economy, albeit less so than the European left.)

Johnson also launched, the following year, when he won by a really overwhelming margin never seen again, the "War on Poverty. In less than 10 years, poverty was reduced from 19% to 11% (today it is 15%, to be explained later). LBJ also bequeathed a very broad socio-economic legislation, such as federal health insurance for the elderly and the poor, assistance for families and children in need, expansion of access to food stamps, subsidies for housing, etc.

The disadvantage for liberals, one from which the Democratic Party does has yet to recover, is that the South became Republican when the Democrats ended racial segregation. Nixon in 1968 called it "the southern strategy" to reverse the geographical alignment of the two parties.**

In economic terms, it was a moment of enormous prosperity. The average salary doubled between 1945 and 1965. African-Americans entered  supervisory and professional occupations. By the end of 1970 women would join them (and soon surpass them).

There was also new music, a Dionysian sound of rock-and-roll that broke with the apolitical restraint of earlier popular music. To rock was added the rediscovery of British and Irish folk music, and its traditional forms of popular protest. Popular music stopped being so much about romantic love as Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others, sang about rights, peace, humanity and, as Che Guevara put it, a deeper love of people.

The important topic of the era was freedom. Why more freedom? Looking back half a century later, I would say that prosperity made society more expansive and tolerant. There were protests (and I say this in the broad sense of the Latin protestare, which is "witnessing") of love, racial integration and peace. It all came from the conviction that the time had come to share prosperity, well-being, and happiness (often expressed as sexuality) as widely as possible. It began with the March in Washington singing "We Shall Overcome" reached its climax in Woodstock with the song of Country Joe & the Fish against the Vietnam war.

I left the United States in 1961 and returned in 1970. I left a country that thought itself essentially white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon and orderly, whose average people showed little interest in the rest of the world. I returned to a country where people drank French wine with their meals, had been in Europe or planned to do so even if it was backpacking, had experimented with some recreational drug, was open (in theory at least) to sexual variety and racial integration, and talked about breaking with conventions an awful lot.

That was my generation, embedded in "the movement," which was a fuzzy mixture that had a hint of hippie, a bit of leftism and stylized anarchism, a general tendency to accept radical changes towards a new country where the important thing was to love a great love for all.

We launched a cultural revolution that expanded job opportunity for African-Americans and other minority groups, such as Hispanics, and the oppressed majority, women. It was done through changes in the way of thinking, dressing and talking; and without violence.

This was especially evident in what is now called the "second wave" of feminism, which began with the publication in 1970 of an anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, the emergence of Ms. magazine and the song I Am Woman in 1973. Two words suddenly disappeared from everyday vocabulary: "boy" for black workers vanished overnight after the 1964, 1967 and 1968 riots, as did "girl," somewhat more slowly and reluctantly, for a woman.

Finally, there is the question of attire and the length of men's hair. The consensus of all with whom I have talked about it is that until about 1968 the Beatles haircut was only for the musicians and a few adventurers who were the real hippies of 1967. However, by 1971 or 1972, even adults, like presidential candidate George McGovern, had at least sideburns and no male under the age of 30 had hair that did not reach at least the bottom of the neck.

Adults, corporations and the de facto powers, that is, all those who felt threatened, opposed this amorphous movement.

Unlike the worker-student coalitions in Europe, working-class whites resisted the changes, resentful of new competition in employment and housing from blacks, whom some of these workers still hated; for the white worker, racial prejudice was like coming home and kicking the dog in lieu of kicking the unassailable boss. There was a long history on the part of the wealthy of skillfully using ethnic hatreds to divide workers. Yet it takes taking a good look at those who opposed the youthful rebellion carefully to understand.

Americans of the generation that had gone to fight in World War II and Korea, were shocked that their children chanted against going to Vietnam "Hell no, we will not go!" and even burned the stars and stripes. Those who married in church, had children and formed families now saw their offspring join in free love, which was possible first thanks to contraceptives then abortion, legalized in 1970. Older women felt mocked for being mere housewives without paid jobs or preofessions.

That generation felt ridiculed for being "squares" and "useful idiots" of the "system." As a political force, all these people who longed for the United States from "before" ( the black and white of the 1950s) became invisible after Barry Goldwater's wipeout defeat in the 1964 presidential election, and were briefly appeased by Nixon's Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who coined the phrase "the silent majority," a mass that resurfaced politically for revenge in 1980.

Notably, just as this era began with the unfinished presidency of Kennedy, it ended with another truncated presidency, Nixon's, which ended with his resignation in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal.

* This is the third in a short series of posts that attempt to sketch contemporary U.S.cultural and social history. I intend to present how the time and place felt from a personal perspective, and only in the background, the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers. All this comes from an exchange with a French correspondent that I thought might be of interest to readers of my Spanish blog.

** The Democratic Party was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1792, while the Republican Party was launched in 1854 by Abraham Lincoln. U.S. political parties do not represent distinct ideologies, but interests and opinions, rather than theories. Since the Civil War, Republicans represented industrial anti-slave interests (it's cheaper to pay a wage and let the worker figure out how to provide for himself with it, than to assume life-long responsibility for a slave's housing, food and clothing, however meager). The South became staunchly Democrat because it was unpalatable for whites to vote for "Lincoln's party" (former slaves in the South were effectively denied the vote until the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which conservatives are currently trying to undo). In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a personalist leader much like Argentina's Juan Perón or Brazil's Getulio Vargas, forged a unique coalition that comprised unions, white ethnics (meaning not of English origin) Blacks, liberals (including the tiny left and intellectuals) and Southerners for the historical reasons cited. This is how FDR became the only president elected four times (which led to a constitutional amendment, proposed by Republicans, to limit the presidency to two terms). That coalition was mortally wounded in the 1960s, as became clear in the 1970s and 1980s.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Two Men Who Opened Doors (1960-63)

Until November 1960, a Catholic had never been elected president of the United States. Al Smith, a Catholic of Irish origin, had tried it in 1928 and lost due to the anti-Catholic prejudice of the white Protestant majority. To the meaning of this reversion I dedicate this part of the series.*

The separation of church and state, written into the U.S. Constitution 200 years ago by Protestants who feared Rome as much as one another, had been the excuse for not having diplomatic relations with the Vatican State (relations that were established recently In 1983, under President Reagan, a Presbyterian who had been baptized Catholic).

You must have lived it to understand it.

The American Catholic world in 1960 was essentially a social castle, with walls of social protection for the 24% of U.S. inhabitants who professed the faith. It was an enclosed parallel society, governed by clerics (most of whom were of Irish origin and had their own fierce ethnic prejudices).

That small country within a country, which had been carved from the 1840s when the Irish came massively fleeing the potato famine, had seen the addition of waves of later European Catholic immigrants: Poles, Italians, Germans, Czechs and several Slavs.

A 1960s U.S. Catholic was seriously a Catholic. He went to Mass every Sunday, did not eat meat on Fridays and was part of huge families. He went to a Catholic school, whether parochial or private. If he was a worker, he joined a union in which his fellow Catholics were members with the active support of the clergy during strikes. The "lace curtain" Irish (except for the Kennedys), went to Catholic universities and from there entered Catholic law firms or Catholic brokers.

Our typical U.S. Catholic man married a Catholic woman and had 6 to 12 children. He bought insurance from a Catholic agent and went to Catholic bankers. He never joined a number of associations because they were Protestant and neither he nor his wife ever considered sending their children to a public school. Catholics paid taxes for public schools and also supported a network of parochial schools that did not receive a cent from the government.

On vacation they went to beaches where Catholics were welcome (often because hoteliers were Catholics). Oh, and since the Irishmen of New York and Chicago had built powerful local political machineries, being Catholic meant voting for pro-Catholic unions and the Democratic Party, not the Protestant, Republican, elite party.

The vast majority of Catholics had been poor and working class until the GI Bill, which subsidized the university for the soldiers who served in World War II (thus generating the broad post-war professional middle class).

The Irish came out of poverty by entering police work, then intelligence (there is even an inside joke in the CIA that the agency's abbreviation stands for "Catholics In Action"), local politics, trade unions, or the priesthood. Because they were the only natively English-speaking Catholic immigrants, the Irish became the ring leaders of all Catholic immigrants.

The Italians (some of them) formed the Mafia, which originally was a set of independent self-protection groups (as they had been in Italy, when the Sicilians fought Italian annexation). The Poles were at the bottom of the social ladder, and were the target of prejudiced humor. There was for a time, from the 1880s at the end of World War I, a vibrant German Catholic community that supported its own bilingual German-English schools; this was destroyed by (a) the Irish clergy and (b) the war, when being of German origin was something that one hid.

Most non-Catholics do not know this part of our history and therefore do not realize how enormous it was for Catholics to see one of their own nominated and elected president. To the Protestant majority, Kennedy was just an appealing young man (and how young man he seems to me now!) in a hurry to get things done.

Listening President Kennedy's speeches once again after so many years, it is surprising to note how often he used the word "revolution" to describe nearly every proposal and challenge he posed. Yet, if one takes off his glasses of nostalgia, there is no doubt that he was a relatively conservative president.

In fact, what was revolutionary about Kennedy and the other John of his time, Popr John XXIII, was the role they assumed just as social culture was shifting. They were both catalysts of a social and cultural revolution that seemed to start in the United States and, through the U.S. megaphone of Hollywood and popular music, in the world.

For Catholics, Kennedy's election meant that the gilded doors of the famed American Dream had finally opened at all levels. In the 1960s, Americans of Irish descent rose in socioeconomic terms to the upper middle class. (In the United States the idea persists that we are all middle class, but we aren't.) Before 1960, Catholics were mostly non-professional, industrial and manual workers; after that, a very large proportion of Catholics became white collar workers and affluent.
How brief a shining moment it was! One moment, as I recall, even the nuns at school seemed to be walking on a happy cloud in November of 1960; the next moment, they were crying, on another November, three years later.

* This is the second in a short series of posts that attempt to sketch contemporary U.S.cultural and social history. I intend to present how the time and place felt from a personal perspective, and only in the background, the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Color Arrives (1958-60)

Although we are accustomed to think of our time in terms of decades, in terms of social consciousness decades don't match the decimal figure. The Sixties actually began in late 1963. Between 1958 and 1963 there was a "twist" of social consciousness, and in this entry in the series* I concentrate on 1958-60.

The significant cosmetic touch of the time was the introduction of color television and Technicolor (somebody's trademark). The first televised presidential debate took place. Then came cars with extravagant fins and the beginnings of rock and roll.

Color of another kind also came into prominence. The country was still largely segregated by the color of the skin. (It was called "race," but as we all know today, race is a social construct of prejudice and not a biological fact.)

In some states the separation was carried out legally and ubiquitously. But in 1954, the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of the schools; the armed forces, it should be noted, had desegregated by President Truman's order in 1946. There was a Civil Rights Act passed in 1958 that made some minor changes, but segregation continued.

What did it mean, in practical terms, to separate people by the color of their skin? There were separate facilities everywhere: white bathrooms and black bathrooms; restaurants for one and another color; separate seats on buses and trams.

This was not so obvious to me in New York, where that sort of segregation was just impractical and, after all, we were in the North. In New York, segregation was largely socioeconomic. African Americans were kept poor through discrimination in education and employment, in addition to housing.

I saw apartheid-type segregation when we moved to Washington, which is south of the Mason-Dixon line, the cultural and legal divide that had once separated slave states and free states. In Washington, as in New York, there was socioeconomic separation. Whites lived in the best neighborhoods, with the best schools and got the best positions.

In addition, I saw in the parks that there were water fountains marked "white" and next to them, other fountains, generally smaller and less well kept, for "colored" (as a child the word struck me as odd: white is a color and, strictly speaking, no one was really white). There were separate seats on the buses (but, interestingly, not on the streetcars).

Taxi drivers, waiters and, in general, service staff, were black. The police were white, as were the bus drivers.

I went to private Catholic schools (and to the French school a year), so I did not see black children in school. There was an amusement park, Glen Echo, to which I loved to go; only years later, when I returned from a long absence abroad, I learned that it had closed because it was segregated: it was a shock to realize I had never noticed there were no black children.

I also saw another type of segregation. At a time when African nations were becoming independent and began to send their first diplomatic delegations to Washington, a hotel we initially stayed in denied them lodging.

The Windsor Park Hotel which is now located in the Kalorama area is the annex building that the original hotel; it was quickly acquired to accommodate African diplomats. The main building eventually became the Chinese embassy and only this year was it demolished.

Despite these problems, the civil rights movement began to pick up momentum in those years and there was a sense that the United States was willing to become a country with a bigger heart. At that moment came a young politician who symbolized breaking another kind of prejudice, John F. Kennedy.

* This is the second of a short series of deliveries that attempt to sketch the contemporary U.S.cultural and social history. I intend to present how the time and place was felt from a personal perspective, and only in the background, the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

We lived in black and white (1950-57)

I see the 1950s in the United States in black and white, like television back then.

The 1950s of the last century, already half a century away, form a time of cars with rounded chassis and adults wearing clothes that often seemed too large. Clothes that had few colors, or no more color than the average floral wallpaper.

Insofar as I knew, men worked in offices. They wore hats, put on shirt and tie suits, some wore bow ties. They smoked. A pack of Parliament cigarettes evokes my father perfectly.

Women stayed home taking care of the house and the children (me and my companions). American women did not make-up. But all the moms, American or foreign (like mine), made sure we believed that the world was made for children.

We did not know it, but we were part of the U.S. baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964. Johnnies returned from war, got married, got scholarships to go to college, moved to the suburbs and, whatever else they did in their bedrooms, they scattered children everywhere. We, the boomers, were made to think that everything was possible.

Among the artifacts I preserved from that time is my favorite childhood book for years, The Golden History of the World by Jane Werner Watson and Cornelius De Witt (published in 1955), subtitled "A Children's Introduction to Ancient and Modern Times". Golden was a children's books brand.

The last chapter "Our World Today, 1950 -" begins as follows:
"This is a fascinating world to grow in. In our time the magic of fairy tales has come true, we can fly through the air the most comfortably seated house we can turn the world in the time it took in another time to go Paris to London or Boston to New York.You can shop in India, South Africa or Japan and pay for goods by signing our name on a piece of paper we have brought.And in the shops of our own towns goods are brought For us from all countries of the world."

It is definitely a world in which the child reader (I read it hundreds of times) could think that if there were pharaohs and Napoleons, and wars and miseries and everything in the past ... from here on, with me, a new story full of wonders begins.

In that clean and orderly New York, the New York of John Cheever's early short stories, it was possible to think like this even as an adult. Or so I understood.

It was a happy time for a president, Eisenhower, who had a baby face. He did not inspire much, but did not offend either.

There was dissent, of course.

There were the beat poets, such as Allen Ginsburg, whom my father said he met in a Bohemian bar in Greenwich Village. They were bearded people who said strange things, as incomprehensible to a child as to most ordinary people.

There were also the forerunners of the 1960s music revolution. Elvis then, like the original rockers, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and the Comets, and so forth. I only knew the classical music that both my parents listened to. Or the popular variety show music, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore and Perry Como.

I also think of those times as the Cold War era. There was nothing more frightening than a Communist. Once, in kindergarten, on a day devoted to talking about the various jobs there were, the nun asked us "What do your Daddies do?"

When I replied "Communist," the school called my mother, who after asking me what I was talking about realized I was confusing the Reds with what my father did. I had meant "economist".

There were many other things in that childlike period in the United States, but I did not notice them.

This is the first of a brief series of deliveries attempting to sketch the contemporary cultural and social history of the United States in my lifetime. It arises from an exchange with a correspondent in France, later a blog for my Spanish-speaking readers. I intend to present how time and place felt; the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers will only appear in the background, as small details in a panorama shot, somewhere near the horizon.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

How the United States evolved, from 1950 to 2000

Upon turning 65, I am giving a backward look at U.S. sociocultural developments, or the "feel" of the times that I lived, which are now history.

Not long ago, in my Spanish blog I wrote a series of entries on the U.S. in this period for my friends who are less familiar with what it's been like to be here. The next few entries will provide not merely a translation but an adaptation for the North American reader.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017


Three things point to apocalypse in the near future.

First, there is the world of my occupation, journalism (distinct from blogging). I have been reeling ever since May 31, when I heard that the New York Times Will Offer Employee Buyouts and Eliminate Public Editor Role. In my own less august journalism world, things have not been going according to plan either.

This is the kind of gutting of the invisible people who make a well-written, well-researched news medium possible. It happened to The Washington Post several years ago and only the calamity of Trump was temporarily stayed the executioner. The Post was never the Times, but it could be a reliable source of information, sometimes written decently. I explained it in The Information-free Society.

Second, my eye caught a business story in the Post, Why Apple is struggling to become an artificial-intelligence powerhouse, that made the Newtonian apple hit my head. AI explains the socioeconomic future!

Put simply, it is this: the elites, the unknown "they" who have their hands at the levers of society and the economy like the Oz wizard, behind the curtain of government, have decided to decimate the population. There are too many people, they fight too much, they want wages and rights and all sorts of things humans want but can't all have. Solution: starve 80 percent of humanity and leave a thin layer of highly educated people who can live off the goods and services produced by AI. (I would hope that me and mine are among the privileged 20 percent, but I can't be sure.)

Third, there's climate change. No further explanation is needed.

This may reflect the realization of my own personal apocalypse, as I approach my 65th birthday, but I honestly just don't see a better future.