Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Was the Civil War Necessary?

Was the Civil War Necessary?

New York Times
March 25, 2011

Writing about what might have been is something historians tend to avoid. You may find the occasional counterfactual sentence in a serious history book — What if Lee had accepted command of the Union army? What if Lincoln had lived? — but that sort of speculation is usually left to novelists, as when Philip Roth, in “The Plot Against America,” imagines a United States gone fascist under President Charles ­Lindbergh.

How the Civil War Created a Nation
By David Goldfield
Illustrated. 632 pp. Bloomsbury Press. $35.

“America Aflame,” David Goldfield’s account of the coming, conduct and consequences of the Civil War, is not a book about things that never happened. It is a riveting, often heartbreaking, narrative of things that did. Yet it also compels us to ponder choices not made, roads not taken — always with the implicit question in mind of whether the nation might somehow have spared itself the carnage of the war and, if so, what kind of nation it would have become.

At the outset of his masterly synthesis of political, social, economic and religious history, Goldfield tells us that he “is ­antiwar, particularly the Civil War.” Then he shows, in painfully vivid prose, young men marching into fields “fat with corn and deep green clover” only to be burned alive or torn by shrapnel, survivors left to breathe “in spurts, a frothy saliva dripping creamily from their mouths down to their ears, strings of matter from their brains swaying in the breeze,” or to die in their own blood and excrement or, if sufficiently alive to be carried off the field, to be treated by surgeons who, without knowledge of anesthesia or antisepsis, slice off mangled limbs with knives sharpened on “the soles of their boots.”

Many other books (one thinks of Charles Royster’s “Destructive War” and, more recently, of Drew Gilpin Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering”) have sought to convey, without glorifying or glossing it over, the battlefield truth of America’s four-year descent into organized savagery. What is distinctive about Goldfield’s book is that he believes the 600,000 deaths and countless mutilations could have been avoided. A war fought over the future of slavery did not have to happen because “the political system established by the founders would have been resilient and resourceful enough to accommodate our great diversity sooner without the tragedy of a civil war.” In advancing this thesis, Goldfield is returning to a view once held by eminent historians, including his teacher Avery Craven, that the war was an avertable catastrophe rather than, as Senator William Henry Seward of New York called it in advance, an “irrepressible conflict.”

In Goldfield’s telling, the force that drove the nation toward apocalypse was evangelical fervor of one form or another — in the North, faith in the righteousness of the abolitionist cause, in the South, faith in slavery as a guarantor of a threatened way of life. “Faith reinforced the romance of war” until “war had become a magic elixir to speed America’s millennial march” toward Armageddon.

But Goldfield’s belief that the “political system” could have solved the problem of slavery is a leap of faith of his own. Secessionists, after all, left the Union precisely because they rejected a constitutionally valid election that placed slavery, as Lincoln put it, “in the path of ultimate extinction.” In his first Inaugural Address, which Goldfield aptly calls “a walking-on-eggshells speech,” Lincoln tried to reassure slaveowners that he would not interfere with their peculiar institution where it already existed, but would only limit its expansion into territories over which the federal government held authority. But slaveowners did not concede the constitutional legitimacy of that authority — and the United States Supreme Court, in its notorious Dred Scott decision, had agreed with them.

Goldfield’s heroes are those who, in the face of this impasse, sought a solution short of secession — men like Alexander Stephens, a congressman from Georgia, later a reluctant vice president of the Confederacy, who was, in his words, “utterly opposed to mingling religion with politics,” and Stephen Douglas, a figure “of selfless patriotism and personal courage” who, recognizing his impending defeat in the election of 1860, campaigned through the South in an effort to save the Union and, after the attack on Fort Sumter, threw his support to Lincoln.

In the end, the war did put an end to legal human bondage in America. But emancipation came slowly — first as a military measure to deny the Confederacy the coerced manpower of its slaves, only later as a war against the institution itself once the valiant service of black soldiers had made the thought of restoring slavery after the fighting was over unthinkable.

How the Civil War Created a Nation
By David Goldfield
Illustrated. 632 pp. Bloomsbury Press. $35.

According to Goldfield, the war reduced the North to a sort of postorgiastic exhaustion, leaving former slaves at the mercy of terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan in a South determined to return them to subjugation. After a failed experiment in reconstruction on the basis of racial equality, some of the hottest antebellum abolitionists became apostates to their once-professed faith. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “passion for the plight of the slave” gave way to a preoccupation with decorating houses. Horace Greeley, who had once goaded Lincoln to act more decisively against slavery, wondered if his own enmity to slavery “might have been a mistake.”

Lamenting the horrors of the war, Goldfield computes its total monetary cost at around $6.7 billion in 1860s currency, and asserts that if “the government had purchased the freedom of four million slaves and granted a 40-acre farm to each slave family, the total cost would have been $3.1 billion, leaving $3.6 billion for reparations to make up for a century of lost wages. And not a single life would have been lost.” But this computation proceeds from some dubious assumptions. Such a transaction can be made only if there is a willing seller as well as a willing buyer — and, as Goldfield himself notes, all attempts at compensated emancipation, even in the small border state of Delaware, where slaves were a minor part of the local economy, failed because slaveowners had no interest in such a deal. And even if they had, just where would the 40-acre farms be located? In the South? Or in the western territories, where abolitionist sentiment was often mixed with racist animus — a sentiment, that is, in favor of excluding black people, whether slave or free?

Throughout Goldfield’s book, one sees the present peeping through the past. In his allergy to the infusion of religion into politics, and his regret over the failure of government to achieve compromise, he sometimes seems to be writing as much about our own time as about time past. Yet even looking through his eyes, one finds it hard to imagine that the post-Civil War constitutional amendments by which black citizenship rights were advanced could ever have been ratified if the slave states had remained in the Union. The “secession war,” as Walt Whitman called it, would seem to have been a necessary prelude to the process of securing black equality — a process still unfinished ­today.

Despite its implausibilities, Goldfield’s thought experiment in alternative history is provocative in the best sense. Most history books try to explain the past. The exceptional ones, of which “America Aflame” is a distinguished example, remind us that the past is ultimately as inscrutable as the future...

Andrew Delbanco, the editor of “The Portable Abraham Lincoln,” is the Levi professor in the humanities and the director of American studies at Columbia.
A version of this review appeared in print on March 27, 2011, on page BR12 of the Sunday Book Review.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Who cares what scientists believe? The House GOP is on the record: The earth isn't warming

Mar 16, 2011
Triumph of the flat-earth Republicans
Who cares what scientists believe? The House GOP is on the record, now and for all time: The earth isn't warming
By Andrew Leonard

In this week's most obvious serving of dog-bites-man news, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted on Tuesday to approve a measure designed to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. This was not unexpected: House Republicans declared their crusade against the EPA on Day One of the new Congress.

But along the way, three Democrats on the committee put Republicans neatly on record by proposing three short amendments to the "Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011."

Henry Waxman, D-Calif., asked Congress to concede that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level."

Diana DeGette, D-Colo.'s, amendment asked Congress to accept "the scientific finding of the Environmental Protection Agency that the 'scientific evidence is compelling' that elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases resulting from anthropogenic emissions 'are the root cause of recently observed climate change.'"

Jay Inslee, D-Wash., asked Congress to accept that "the public health of current generations is endangered and that the threat to public health for both current and future generations will likely mount over time as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and result in ever greater rates of climate change."

Every single Republican on the committee voted against all three amendments, with the sole exception of Tennessee's Martha Blackburn, who declined to vote on DeGette's amendment.

It is possible to understand how people might disagree that climate change is a threat to public health (we'll all just start farming wheat in Siberia or northern Canada) or that humans are the main cause of rising temperatures (sunspots! natural variation!). But I still find it confounding that 31 Republicans are willing to deny, flat-out, that temperatures are rising, period. But let's outsource this argument:

Last spring, the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences reviewed the available facts and declared that "A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems."

The NAS position makes things nice and tidy. The House Republicans in charge of energy policy are unanimous in their contradiction of the findings of the United States' most august body of scientists...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What, greed in the nuclear industry? Has it compromised safety in Japan, the US and everywhere else?

Russian nuclear accident specialist Iouli Andreev, who as director of the Soviet Spetsatom clean-up agency helped in the efforts 25 years ago to clean up Chernobyl, has lashed out against the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and private corporations for failing to heed lessons from that 1986 nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine...

Reports: Lax oversight, 'greed' preceded Japan nuclear crisis

Reports suggest that greed within the worldwide nuclear industry, combined with an insufficient UN watchdog and lax oversight of Japan's nuclear plants, contributed to the Japan nuclear crisis.
By Stephen Kurczy
Christian Science Monitor
March 16, 2011

As Japan races to control a nuclear crisis in the wake of Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami, the country's sterling image as one of the nations most prepared to prevent and manage a disaster of this magnitude is being tarnished.

Reports are emerging that both the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency and the Japanese government failed to properly ensure the safety of country's nuclear power industry.

The reports are challenging the recent refrain that the world's No. 3 economy couldn't have done better and once again highlighting how poor government oversight of an industry that allegedly cut corners to turn higher profits can spawn an environmental disaster.

IN PICTURES: Japan survivors

Just as the BP oil spill one year ago heaped scrutiny on the United State's Minerals Management Service, harshly criticized for lax drilling oversight and cozy ties with the oil industry, the nuclear crisis in Japan is shining a light on that nation's safety practices.
Design flaws in nuclear reactor containment vessels?

Four out of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (also known as Fukushima I) have now suffered explosions or fires since a March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated the region and knocked out electricity at the plant, which caused cooling systems to fail and reactors to suffer at least partial meltdowns.

Two of those reactor containment vessels may now have cracked and appear to be releasing radioactive steam. Their designer, General Electric, is now feeling heat for marketing the reactor despite safety concerns dating back three decades. Indeed, just as the BP oil spill drew scrutiny on several multinational companies, the crisis in Japan is underscoring a "flat world" where responsibility – along with environmental and economic fallout – spreads across oceans.

Russian nuclear accident specialist Iouli Andreev, who as director of the Soviet Spetsatom clean-up agency helped in the efforts 25 years ago to clean up Chernobyl, has lashed out against the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and private corporations for failing to heed lessons from that 1986 nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine...

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Huckabee: No 'attack' on Natalie Portman

Conveniently left out of this discussion, so far: The GOP push to slash many the programs that could ensure these babies a better life.

Huckabee: No 'attack' on Natalie Portman
March 6, 2011
By Cathy Lynn Grossman

Mike Huckabee, the ex-preacher, ex-governor and GOP front-runner for the 2012 presidential race, has plenty to say about Natalie Portman, unwed motherhood and poverty but not much about the GOP-led budget cuts to programs that help young families avoid the poverty trap.

In the Murphy Brown move of 2011, Huckabee condemns successful women, real as Portman or fictional as Brown's 1992 TV character (blasted by then-vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle as a bad "lifestyle choice") for glamorizing the single mom experience when, in reality most will be raising their babies in poverty, he says.

What he told Michael Medved on air:

One of the things that is troubling is that people see a Natalie Portman or some other Hollywood starlet who boasts of, 'Hey look, we're having children, we're not married, but we're having these children, and they're doing just fine. But there aren't really a lot of single moms out there who are making millions of dollars every year for being in a movie.

What he now says at his political action website Huck PAC:

However, contrary to what the Hollywood media reported, I did not "slam" or "attack" Natalie Portman, nor did I criticize the hard-working single mothers in our country. My comments were about the statistical reality that most single moms are very poor, under-educated, can't get a job, and if it weren't for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death. That's the story that we're not seeing, and it's unfortunate that society often glorifies and glamorizes the idea of having children out of wedlock.

Conveniently left out of this discussion, so far: The GOP push to slash many the programs that could ensure these babies a better life...

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Bay Area Rep. Jackie Speier stuns House colleagues with story of her abortion

Bay Area Rep. Jackie Speier stuns House colleagues with story of her abortion
By Bruce Newman

It happened nearly two decades ago, in the most personal and painful of moments. Jackie Speier, 17 weeks pregnant, was losing a baby she desperately wanted. She miscarried, with the fetus slipping from her uterus, and doctors told her the baby wouldn't survive.

Agonizingly, Speier and her physician husband terminated the pregnancy.

Minutes before midnight Thursday, that unbearably emotional experience came pouring out in the most public way when the 60-year-old Democratic congresswoman from San Mateo spoke about her abortion to stunned colleagues on the floor of the House.

"I lost a baby," Speier began softly, admonishing Republicans for graphically describing the procedure she had endured. "But for you to stand on this floor and to suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous."

By Friday, her three-minute speech had gone viral on the Internet, with many Americans lauding her courage.

Speier had just listened to Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., assail Planned Parenthood as a place where babies are "exterminated." He described a procedure known as "dilation and evacuation" as fetal murder.

She had been standing at the alternate podium in the well of the House -- where members await their turn to address the chamber -- when suddenly she forgot what she had planned to say.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Not one of you has endured this
procedure,' " she told the Mercury News in an interview Friday. She said she thought, —‰'How dare you? How dare you talk about it in those terms?' That's why I changed what I was going to say."

Speier on Thursday joined other House Democrats from California to voice concern about Republicans' efforts to block federal aid to Planned Parenthood. The House on Friday voted 240-185 to cut off funding.

"It was pretty tense in the chamber anyway," Speier recalled. "The language being used, the nature of the comments, it got so incendiary."

She said she felt "a sense of disbelief at the level of vitriol and animus coming from my colleagues, who don't have a clue what they're talking about."

Speier turned right and glared at Smith, who "just put my stomach in knots," and continued to look directly at him as she froze the hushed chamber. "Because I'm one of those women he spoke about just now."

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, was standing in the aisle as Speier began to speak. Pelosi quickly took a seat and didn't move until Speier had finished.

As a member of the California Legislature, Speier was the first lawmaker to have a baby while in office, giving birth to her second child when she was 44. The "spontaneous abortion" she described -- a miscarriage, in common terms -- occurred before that birth.

The 20-minute procedure she received, known as either "dilation and evacuation" or "dilation and extraction,'' involves the use of medical instruments and suction to remove a fetus from the uterus after it has died. The cervix must be dilated before the fetus can be extracted, and the procedure, under some circumstances, has been labeled "partial-birth abortion'' by political opponents.

"This was not an elective procedure, but it really emphasizes how important it is that doctors be trained in the technique, because it is the same, whether elective or management of a miscarriage," said Dr. Amy Jean Voedisch, a Stanford University OB-GYN...