325. Projections

Ever since Jacob Weisberg took over as boy-wonder editor of the Washington Posts farm team, Slate, weve missed the minutes of the media conspiracy.  Instead, we get the complacently-recycled conventional wisdom straight, without the kibitzing. 

Some of us regret the change, but maybe were wrong to do so.  Maybe its just the inevitable process of journalistic growing up.  Maybe we should be happy for Jacob instead that hes found such a comfortable home in corporate media.  Why, I bet the Charlie Rose show wouldnt even misspell his name again if he were invited back today.

The latest evidence that Weisberg has gone over to the other side of the mockery barrier was last weeks column by David Greenberg.  Greenberg is great – fabulous, even – when writing about his subject, which is American political history viewed as a manifestation of popular culture.  But thats also his limitation: he sees all American history, including pop culture itself, as an expression of American politics.

Last weeks column asked what Ronald Reagans audience heard when he talked about "states rights" in  Mississippi during his 1980 campaign.  I dont dispute Greenbergs thesis insofar as it concerns Reagan, Nixon, Goldwater, Wallace or any other politician.   But they werent the only people alive in 1980.

That was was 27 years ago.   The majority of voting-aged Americans in 1980 had no difficulty skipping back in time another 27 years, to 1953.  To us, living in 2007, 1953 America seems like another planet.  For example,  people slept outdoors in the public parks during heat waves.  The link is to a picture from 1936 Detroit, but Eric Klinenbergs great Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago includes a similar photo from Chicago, 1963 (follow the Amazon search inside feature to figure 20 on page 57).  And Im pretty sure the custom survived during the interval between those photos.

No one was sleeping outdoors during heat waves in 1980, unless they had no choice.  America had, in fact, changed from 1953 to 1980, and the change was not necessarily for the better in every detail.  For the entire decade of the 1950s, the national homicide rate was between 4.1 and 4.9 per 100,000 inhabitants.  In 1953 there were 7,210 recorded homicides in the 48 states.  In the year of Reagans speech, by contrast, the national homicide rate was 10.2 per 100,000.  The total number of homicides in 1980 was 23,040, a three-fold increase from 1953.

Keep in mind the rapidly falling lethality rate of knife wounds and gunshots during the post-penicillin era.  Wounds that would have been fatal in 1953 could be survived in 1980.  The three-fold increase in homicides from 1953 to 1980 meant a greater-than-three-fold increase in the incidence of extreme violence.

With that background, heres Greenberg analyzing Reagans 1980 speech.  In 1980, he writes,

racial inequities had become intricately woven into many policies and structures of American life—from housing patterns to popular notions about crime and welfare—and any discussion of these issues invariably carried a racial subtext.

Invariably?  Any discussion?  It was impossible to talk about, say, the murder of an acquaintance without talking about race?  Or about how inadvisable it had become to sleep in the park?  Well, perhaps so, but how does Greenberg demonstrate it?  What sort of evidence satisfies the academic historians exacting standards?  He tells us: authors he admires have written books asserting that

Reagans success hinged on forging messages to Americans—not just Southern whites, incidentally, but also Catholic blue-collar workers and neoconservative intellectuals—that eschewed explicit racism while still tapping into sublimated resentments of blacks or anger at racially fraught policies like busing, welfare, and crime.

Homicide is racially fraught?  Crime is a policy?  People were angry at that policy, rather than at crime itself?  Well, okay, if you say so.

On one issue after another, Reagans image and appeal was shot through with a hostility to assisting minorities with positive measures—affirmative action, legal protections for criminal defendants, welfare programs (which mainly helped whites but were perceived as mainly helping blacks).

Legal protections for criminal defendants are a positive measure assisting minorities?  That (Im convinced) was a primary motive for the Warren Courts federalization of criminal procedure.  But isnt it possible that good motives might produce unintended consequences?  Who, exactly, does Greenberg think was being killed as the homicide rate tripled?  Neoconservative intellectuals?

According to Greenberg – and many, many other liberal intellectuals before him – Reagan succeeded by his deft use of "code words."  Again, I wouldnt be surprised to learn that Reagans handlers thought in those terms.  Thats not my point. 

But notice the projection.  The academic historian of 2007 thinks of Reagans words as symbols, conveying a message that contrasted with the common understanding of their meanings as words.  Therefore Reagans listeners in 1980 understood them that way, too.

The academic historian of 2007 has no concern at all about becoming a victim of violent crime in 1980.  Therefore Reagans listeners in 1980 werent worried about becoming victims of violent crime, either.

The historian doesnt believe for one second that Reagan was sincere.  Therefore Reagans listeners didnt believe it, either.

More than that, he believes Reagans supporters were, without exception, warped idealists, in that they didnt vote to further their own personal interests but rather to advance a racial agenda.  After all, if the voters had genuinely been concerned about crime, Reagans appeal to them wasnt hidden in "code words."  Greenbergs thesis depends on assuming the paradoxical selflessness of Reagans nasty-minded voters – all 43,903,230 of them.

In short, the historian despises Reagan and everyone who voted for him.  Therefore he assumes they all thought just like him. 

The liberal academic believes that when millions of Americans told themselves they were alarmed at the rising crime rate, they were either lying or (at best) kidding themselves.  And so heres one more paradox: the academic brand of liberalism, championed by Weisbergs Slate, defines itself by its contempt for citizens of the poorest section of the country and members of the working class (or at least the Catholics among them), and views as unworthy of notice the sufferings of victims of violent crime – people who are, by definition, the most vulnerable among us.

Twenty-seven years from today, will another academic historian find in Greenbergs article a clue as to how the Democrats succeeded in excluding themselves from the White House during 19 of the past 27 years?

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