Over coffee early this morning I began reading Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Heck I’ve got at least two other books going, so why not I thought. Of course, the introduction of a book is critical, you have to keep the reader going, pulling their desire to know along. So here’s Meacham, in a rather simply way, introducing us to Jackson’s general proclivities:
Jackson was fond of well-cut clothes, racehorses, dueling, newspapers, gambling, whiskey, coffee, a pipe, pretty women, children, and good company.
So hey, what’s not to like about this guy already?…
Now here is some good news. In this age of digital dominance, it’s good to see that printed book sales are holding their own. That’s what PWC Global is reporting.
Initially, books downloaded and read on an Amazon Kindle or some other electronic device, when they became popular, seem to put a dent in printed book sales. This had some sad consequences for bookish store types like me. I think of Borders books. It closed down nationwide in 2011 and that really hurt because, at least in my area, Borders was the only real competitor to Barnes & Noble Booksellers. I actually liked Borders a little better—because it always seemed to have a better selection on hand, and a better coffee shop to boot. Of course now B&N is really the only bookish place, besides maybe a public library, I can go to enjoy browsing and indulging in a little bookish culture and being around my fellow bibilophiliacts.
I don’t currently have an Amazon Kindle or B&N Nook or any other digital book e-reader device (though I do have the Kindle app on my iPhone that I’ve never used). My wife actually bought me a Nook e-reader about 5 years ago but I never used it, so, being the professional ebayer she is, she sold it. Initially, I thought I could use an e-reader, but the allure of a physical book has a strong hold on me. I love the smell of a new hardcover book—preferably with deckled edges—and the tactile feel of the book, of turning the pages, and having the physical book on my bookshelf. For now, I’m an incurable preferrer of printed books. And so I book on, born back ceaselessly upon the bookstore aisles, browsing for another book.
This book is a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent—a reminder that periods of pubic dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance that they are survivable.
I am writing now not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does.
— Jon Meacham
I recently completed Jon Meacham’s new book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. An instant New York Times bestseller, it is, for various reasons, a very timely book for these very challenging—sometimes soul crushing—and chaotic times. As a historian, Meacham takes a look at the past—from the American Civil War to the Civil Rights era—in order to provide an informed (more hopeful) perspective about the possible trajectory of our turbulent times. In some sense, Meacham’s book is mental therapy; it’s meant to talk you off that ledge.
Meacham looks at some of the great American social struggles—i.e. the civil war, rise of the Klan, women’s movement, the civil rights era, etc, etc,—and some of the prominent people who’ve shaped our nation’s slow march toward a more (though not) perfect union. He focuses mostly on Presidents who, while not perfect, usually (until recently) used their office to lead, to unite and heal, not to divide and humiliate, Americans. With that said, Meacham’s goal is to also remind us that “the struggle is real,” that tumultuous times are more the rule than the exception, and that we must participate in our democracy if we expect hope to prevail over fear. He reminds us that the soul of America is no different than the soul of an individual. It’s a battleground of light and darkness, of hope and fear, of order and chaos. “Our fate is contingent upon which element—that of hope or that of fear—emerges triumphant.” What we pray for, and what our history suggests, is that hope will prevail over fear given enough time, visionary leadership, and activism by the people. Visionary and ethical leaders, as if we need reminding, aren’t guaranteed, but a free people who are hopeful and determined, can prevail over the forces of darkness, fear, and reaction.
Also, for those, like me, who collect quotes, I should note, that besides being a great read, Meacham’s book is worth having just for the quotes alone. The book is littered with great quotes, some I’d never seen before, by prominent people in our history.
Here is a sampling:
“Duty” is the operative word in the following quote. Duty requires one to subordinate one’s personal interests to those of the greater good, the nation, the law. Governing as if these two interests seem to always conveniently sync, is often called “corruption.”
In a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires, to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people. — Thomas Jefferson, 1810
I’d never seen this one before, but it’s a damn good one, and without a doubt from my experience a rock solid truth:
Now, look, I happen to know a little about leadership. I’ve had to work with a lot of nations, for that matter, at odds with each other. And I tell you this: you do not lead by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it’s usually called ‘assault’ — not ‘leadership.’ . . . I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion—and conciliation—and education—and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know—or believe in—or will practice. — Dwight D. Eisenhower
And wow, the following presents a honest sense of humility and the awareness of the responsibilities of power that seem almost devoid in our current President.
Well, I have been President for a year and a quarter, and whatever the future many hold I think I may say that during that year and a quarter I have been a s successful as I had any right to hope or expect. Of course political life in a position such as this one long strain on the temper, one long acceptance of the second best, one long experiment of checking one’s impulses with an iron hand and learning to subordinate one’s own desires to what some hundreds of associates can be forced or cajoled or lead into desiring. Every day, almost every hour, I have to decide very big as well as very little questions, and in almost each of them I must determine just how far it is safe to go in forcing others to accept my views and standards and just how far I must subordinate what I deem expedient, and indeed occasionally what I deem morally desirable, to what it is possible under the given conditions to achieve. . . . Often when dealing with some puzzling affair I find myself thinking what Lincoln would have done. It has been very wearing, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it, for it is fine to feel one’s hand guiding great machinery, with at least the purpose, and I hope the effect, of guiding it for the best interests of the nation as a whole. — Theodore Roosevelt
And here the great transcendentalist nails it. This quote says what the bigger, more challenging, issue really is for America right now:
The form of government which prevails is the expression of what cultivation exists in the population which permits it. — Waldo Emerson . . . Amen to that!
Yesterday, Jon Meacham gave the commencement address at UMass Lowell. He provided these points of welcome wisdom gleaned from his decades of writing history and biography.
So what can we learn from the past as we engage the present:
That the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
That compromise is the oxygen of a free government.
And that we learn most from the past not by looking up at people from our history adoringly, or looking down on them condescendingly, but looking them in the eye and taking their measure as human beings, not as Gods, so that we can learn how they overcame the obstacles of their time.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m trying to better understand the various problems and agitations facing America and Western societies in general at this time. Of course there are always struggles to overcome, but I think it’s fair to say we face some unique challenges at this time in our history. The better we can get our heart and mind around them the better chance we have of overcoming them.
With that in mind, I recently completed Edward Luce’s new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. A very interesting read. It’s not a book meant to make you feel good. Titles like that shouldn’t. But it will cause you to do something we all need to do in moments (as a nation and as individual) like these and that’s pause to reflect on what truly matters. For those who don’t know, the word Liberalism in this context (the book’s title) is referring to a set of fundamental principles that constitute the basis of all Western democratic societies. We’re talking about things like a free press, religious freedom, equality, free speech, etc, etc. Western governments are in-fact liberal democracies.
Edward Luce thinks the Western liberal democratic model of governance, while not dead, is in serious trouble:
Western liberal democracy is not yet dead, but it is far closer than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.
Donald Trump, Luce argues, is a symptom not the cause of the disease in America. So naturally the question becomes: What brought on this disease? Well what holds liberal democracies together, Luce says, isn’t culture but economic growth. And when that economic growth stalls, leading to massive inequality and a loss of social mobility (U.S has the largest gap of both in the West), we begin to see this threat to the political order and ultimately the survival of liberal democracy.
By any numerical measure, humanity is becoming rapidly less poor. But between half and two-thirds of the people in the West have been treading water — at best — for a generation. Tens of millions of Westerners will struggle to keep their heads above the surface over the coming decades. The spread of automation, including artificial intelligence and remote intelligence, which some call the fourth industrial revolution, is still in its early states. So too is what the American journalist Fareed Zakaria has labelled the rise of the rest. The emergence of China is the most dramatic event in economic history. We are living in an age of convergence no less dramatic than the age of divergence brought about by European colonialism and the Industrial Revolution. The downward pressure on the incomes of the West’s middle classes in the coming years will be relentless.
So the lack of economic growth and social mobility has fueled this threat and the future doesn’t look good unless we return to policies that help build a prosperous middle class while avoiding policies that build a strong oligarchy—which is what we’re currently doing. That’s right, as one writer put, “No bourgeoisie, no democracy.” Being able to aspire upwards, the dream of upward social and economic mobility, is at the heart of the American (Western) dream. When economic growth sags, when wage growth stagnates (as it has for decades now in America), when large segments of the population are either unemployed or underemployed, or working multiple jobs just to stay above water, then personal investment in the current political system starts to weaken and you have a rich soil for rebellion and the rise of demagogues (i.e. the Donald Trumps of the world). Some Americans, as we witnessed in our last election, are fully willing to risk disaster, and we need to be mindful that we’ve reached the point where a Donald Trump could carry 60 million votes in the U.S. A Trump victory would have been impossible, say, 10 years ago. The idea that Americans posses some quality that exempts us from the forces of chaos can be dismissed now as nursery story. (It was never the case anyway.)
The economy has been improving steadily since 2009, but the massive inequality and lack of social mobility will not improve with current government policies and hence the problem will only continue to grow until we have yet another large economic shock or downturn (which will come eventually) and those millions of Americans, still treading water (for so long), will simply sink below the surface. We don’t have to imagine what they will try to drag with them under the waves.