Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Gen Eds H2: From 9-11 to the Present

This election year is the strangest I can remember. I think it's fair to say there has never been a candidate like Donald Trump in my lifetime. How did we get here?

Today I start looking back through world history. See my previous post for my basic framework. I am starting from the present and moving backward, and I am starting from my present. When I say "my" present, I recognize that I am an American of European descent. So that is the best place for me as narrator to start.

This is a series of posts on World History, the second topic in a series called, "General Education in a Nutshell." These are ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy.
1. In the previous post, I presented a rationale for the way I am approaching world history. As we start today, I want to mention two key components of my analysis. The first tool is what I am calling "pivot points." Certainly any decision we make, even the smallest ones, can have massive repercussions for later history. But I am going to focus my analysis on what I consider to be the most crucial points where history would be massively different if the event had not occurred or had happened differently. [1]

The second tool I want to use is the "counterfactual." What might history have looked like if the event had played out differently? Of course we cannot know for certain, but these thought experiments help us reflect on the real impact of the pivot point on the course of history.

Each week we will start at the moment before a major pivot point. We will start with the question, "How did we get here?" Then we will proceed back to what seem to be the most important pivot points in that period of history. Of course there are an infinite number of things going on at any one time. Any selection of certain events means we are "de-selecting" an almost infinite amount of other events. Only God knows all the events, characters, and settings in all their details and proper relationships.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders
1. This is the most unusual election of my lifetime (2016). In Bernie Sanders we had a candidate who called himself a "democratic socialist," which is truly strange given the negative connotation the word socialist has had throughout most of twentieth century US history. [2] Meanwhile, Donald Trump, a businessman, has managed to undermine the entire Republican establishment with a campaign that has channeled the anxiety and anger of a demographic whose default dominance in US society seems to be steadily diminishing.

How did we get here?

2. It is interesting to say, but I don't think the election of a female president would truly reflect a change in the current trajectory of American history. Clinton represents the current momentum of history and Sanders perhaps an accelerated version of that momentum (possibly where the trajectory is currently headed). It more seems like the election of Trump would represent a turning point or at least a turning blip.

[Turning blip option: Constantine made Christianity legal in AD313. The trajectory was then toward making Christianity the only legal religion, which happened under Theodosius in 380. But there was a "push-back" emperor, Julian "the apostate" (361-63). For a brief time, the empire went back to its non-Christian, "pagan" roots. But he was a last push back, a blip rather than a turning point.

Similarly, Bloody Mary (ruled 1547-58) tried to bring England back to Catholicism after her father left the Roman Catholic Church. But it was only a blip. When her sister Elizabeth became queen in 1558, the Protestant trajectory of England was ensured.]

If Trump were elected, it is not clear that he would ultimately change the current trajectory of American culture--at least not without a violent and devastating hand. It is more likely that he would prove to be a blip on the current trajectory. At the moment, it is looking as if he will be defeated. But many things can change in 89 days.

Supreme Court Obergefell Decision
3. The first pivot point I want to mention is the 2014 Obergefell decision of the Supreme Court. This decision afforded gay marriage the same status as heterosexual marriage in the United States. The decision did not come out of the blue. It represented the culmination of over a decade of legal back and forth on the subject, with some states having opened the door to gay marriage and others passing laws against it.

[The speed with which this situation has changed is striking. As an opinion, I tend to see movies and media as the most significant trigger of these changes. They have created a climate of acceptance that not only humanized what had largely been a distant concept, but they have encouraged individuals to be open in a way that had previously been rare.]

Obergefell put into effect a trajectory that was already well in play in American culture. However, it has had a seriously disorienting effect on a certain segment of the American population, not least conservative Christianity. Although the Trump campaign has publicly supported the current trajectory on this specific issue, the insecurity and anger on which his campaign feeds was greatly fomented by the Obergefell decision, IMO.

3. As our first counterfactual, we can ask this question: Would Donald Trump be the Republican candidate if Obergefell had not taken place? Was this Supreme Court decision the straw that broke the back of a camel that had been watching as America became more and more what Trump has called, "politically correct"?

Opposition to "political correctness" has been a key feature of Trump's campaign. In this category we might place a number of current trends and factors that play into his push-back against the cultural trajectory: 1) the empowerment of gay Americans and transgendered individuals under the law, 2) the rising dominance of the Hispanic demographic, 3) protests by the African-American community about violent treatment by law-enforcement, 4) an African-American president and the prospect of a female president, 5) increased negative pressure and rebuke in relation to language and actions that were once casual behaviors, and 6) a perception of increasing disadvantage at the same time that white males are being told they are privileged.

In consequence of these forces, a rising anger and anxiety has built within a certain segment of the American population. The animus of Trump's campaign toward illegal immigrants, toward all Muslims, and toward refugees relates at least in part to this racial insecurity (we will mention the terrorism component in a moment). Trump himself has occasionally moved beyond individuals in these categories who are threats to decry individuals who are legal and even war heroes. [3] These moments in the Trump campaign suggest that it is not merely illegal immigration in play or merely Islamic terrorism that is the driver but race itself at least to some degree.

Video of the deaths of a number of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement have set in motion first a "Black Lives Matter" movement protesting the way African-Americans are treated by the police. But the shootings of certain police officers have provided others with fodder for a counter protest ("Blue Lives Matter" or "All Lives Matter"). Long standing stereotypes are in play, fueling anger on all sides. Certainly some of those who support Trump are fueled in part by this aspect of our current situation.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)
4. The recent surge in Islamic terrorism is also a major factor behind the current climate of insecurity. ISIS coming to dominance in 2014 is seen by some as a major failure of the current Obama administration.

A number of factors seem to have combined to empower ISIS, which previously was informally called Al-Qaeda in Iraq. One was certainly the withdrawal of troops by the Obama administration in 2011. Iraqi forces were simply not strong enough to resist ISIS when it stepped into a power vaccuum. The US likely resisted intervention at first because of the prevalent view among experts on the Middle East that US involvement usually creates as much future difficulty as it solves current problems. Similarly, there is the matter of giving space to Iraqi sovereignty. Nevertheless, the US resumed its military involvement in Iraq in 2014 when ISIS' forces had advanced so far as to put significant Kurdish territory in danger in the northeast part of Iraq.

5. Another factor in the rise of ISIS is what has been called the Arab Spring. It began in Tunisia in 2010 and spread to Egypt, Libya, and Syria. While the idea of democratic overthrow of dictatorships might seem desirable, the results have not been entirely positive, to say the least. Democracy without guaranteed rights for minorities usually becomes a situation where the majority party oppresses minorities.

In Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein led to a civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis, with the Shi'ite now playing the role of the party in power where the Sunnis had been before. In Egypt, the army ended up taking back over the government because the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood began to impose Islamic law on the entire population. In Libya we had the death of Ambassador Stevens at Benghazi in the chaos after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Meanwhile, we are currently watching "democracy" erode the rights of minorities in Turkey.

By the time these revolutions reached Syria, the US was much more hesitant to get too involved, and Russia would soon take the side of the dictator in question, Bashar al-Assad. A stalemate would ensue that created a vacuum into which ISIS began to insert itself. Those inclined to support the jihadist cause flocked to Syria to join in the cause and be trained by ISIS.

Some of these jihadists have returned to Europe, along with the flood of refugees from the Syrian crisis. We have seen recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and France associated with such individuals.

6. ISIS has arguably facilitated the rise of home grown terrorists. Al-Qaeda did not have a fixed geographical location, but it was still strongly located first in Afghanistan and then Pakistan. When it pulled off the 9-11 attacks, it sent people here.

But ISIS has catalyzed lone terrorists who have no direct connection with ISIS and yet are nevertheless following its lead. The recent shootings in San Bernadino and Orlando may have involved multiple factors, but the example of ISIS is surely one of them. We should expect to see more because it is virtually impossible to identify such individuals until they strike or are about to strike. [4]

Something should be said about the rapid development of social media. It featured prominently in the Arab Spring. It may have stopped a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. It has been a key trigger for outrage at police violence and thus the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is playing a significant role in the 2016 election and in world events today. It is having a profound effect on history.

The Great Recession of 2008 
7. If racial and national insecurity have created a climate in which a Donald Trump could become a candidate for president in 2016, the economic crisis of 2008 was the backdrop to the 2010 and 2012 elections in the United States. This economic crisis came on in the last year of Bush's presidency and some of the emergency actions that were taken in late 2008/early 2009 were taken jointly by the outgoing Bush and incoming Obama administrations. TARP, the "Troubled Asset Relief Program," was passed by Congress a month before the 2008 election.

By that time President George W. Bush had become deeply unpopular as a result of the prolonged Iraq War, the longest war in US history (with military action still continuing today). Obama won the 2008 election handily as a result. But the bail out of the auto industry, banks, and "too big to fail" corporations like AIG was seen as unfair by many when some of them had arguably played a role in the origins of the crisis.

The Iraq War, the beginnings of the bail out, and perhaps other features of the Bush era left a 10.6 trillion dollar deficit to Obama the day he took office. Continued bailouts would drive this figure much higher. [5] This economic situation gave rise to a subgroup within the Republican Party called the "Tea Party," for whom fiscal responsibility became the focal concern. They swept Congress in the 2010 election and were a major factor in the nature of the Republican primary in the 2012 election.

8. The idealism of the Tea Party in the face of the veto power of President Obama has resulted in six years of intense gridlock in Washington. One of the most defining features of Obama's administration will likely prove to be the passing of the Affordable Care Act (somewhat derisively known as Obamacare). While some of the individual components of this sweeping health care legislation are popular (no denial on the basis of pre-existing conditions, ability to keep children on a parent's plan till they are 26, 20 million more people insured), it has been widely unpopular in certain circles. Among those who previously had good insurance, it is widely blamed for a significant increase in health care cost.

This act was created during 2009 when Democrats had overwhelming control over both houses. However, it nearly did not make it fully through the system when Ted Kennedy died and was replaced in a special election by a Republican, which made it possible to filibuster any modifications to the legislation. This was ironic because Kennedy had long been one of the strongest proponents of health care reform. Nevertheless, the bill had already gone far enough through the system that it could be passed without modification. For the next six years the repeal of Obamacare would be a major goal of Republicans and a Congress now controlled by Republicans.

The deficit has been a major concern of the Tea Party for the last six years. On more than one occasion, what had been the routine increase of the debt ceiling was blocked by filibuster in protest of an ever increasing deficit. [6] In October 2013, the government actually shutdown for 16 days as this group in Congress refused to authorize the funding of several parts of the Affordable Care Act that were then scheduled to go into effect.

9. Different causes for the global Great Recession are often mentioned. Perhaps there is some truth in all of them. For example, a climate had persisted for some time in which large numbers of housing loans were given to individuals who were not likely to be able to pay them back. Similarly, a "housing bubble" was in play, where loans could be taken out on property that far surpassed the actual value of the property.

More complex was the new practice of bundling bad debt, where banks took collections of debts from bad loans and sold them to each other. This practice continues, leading some to suggest that the economic practices of Wall Street that at least partially caused the recession continue to pose a threat to the global economy. Bernie Sanders' campaign included a call for further regulation of Wall Street in these areas.

The Iraq War of 2003
10. Perhaps the most determinative event for the current world landscape was the war launched in 2003 against Iraq. Is it possible that this war was a greater pivot point in history than 9-11 itself? If we look at this event from a counterfactual point of view, the war arguably dragged on far longer than President Bush had originally anticipated. Indeed, less than two months after the offensive began, he announced that the mission had been accomplished (May 1, 2003) and that major combat operations in Iraq were ended.

Instead, the US would get mired in the middle of Iraqi infighting and insurgencies for almost nine years, with December 31, 2011 considered the final withdrawal. It is hard to imagine the profound effect this invasion has had on the world. More than 4500 soldiers lost their lives in Iraq and over 100,000 Iraqis. More than 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq during the almost nine year war. The impact of this service on families and on the soldiers themselves has been profound. It is easy to doubt if President Bush would have made the decision to go to war if he had known the way it would play out.

11. Again, it seems hard to underestimate the amount of hostility this invasion created in the Muslim world toward the United States. Most experts on the Middle East would argue that it is directly responsible for the exponential rise of terrorism in the last decade, creating a generation of potential enemies who would like nothing more than to destroy us. This is arguably the war with the West that Osama bin Laden had set out to ignite on 9-11. Without the Iraq War, there would have been no ISIS. Without the Iraq War, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would arguably not have been elected as president in Iran in 2005.

In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, the entire world seemed united behind the United States, including the countries of the Arab world. There was wide UN support for the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The situation was quite different in the lead up to the Iraq War. Few major powers backed the US, and the case for war was thin, even though most of the world did believe Saddam Hussein had WMD (weapons of mass destruction).

It would turn out of course that Iraq did not have such weapons. But in the climate after 9-11, it would have arguably been suicide for anyone in Congress to vote against the war. Only those in the most liberal of districts or states could have voted no and hoped to be reelected. The Bush administration seems to have had a noble but naive hope that they could "liberate" Iraq and that the Iraqi people would flock to democracy, greeting Americans as liberators. Then, with an ally in the Middle East, the entire landscape of the region could be changed for the better.

Alas, it did not turn out that way. The culture of the Middle East turned out to be quite different than such Western expectations.

12. The attacks on 9-11 punctured the psyche of America. There had been no attack comparable to it since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was almost unimaginable. Some insignificant figure from the Middle East had somehow managed to take down the most prominent feature of the New York City landscape.

Before 9-11, security at airports was generally casual. You used to be able to walk back to the gate and see your family board the airplane. There was no Department of Homeland Security to coordinate the security organizations of the government.

After 9-11, everyone was paranoid. Where was a terrorist going to jump out next? The then mayor of Marion, Indiana actually barricaded the courthouse after 9-11, as if the Middle East cared about some obscure town in Indiana that no one has ever heard of. Air marshals were put on planes, and paranoid people like me were on constant look out for someone to try to take over the plane. We watched the video of planes flying into the towers over and over again in disbelief.

The sense that the world was a safe place was gone. There was a twinge of doubt that America was invincible. Someone needed to pay.

13. 9-11 interrupted what was arguably a lazy but steady progressive trajectory of American history. An event of this kind inevitably causes a surge of conservatism, for conservatism by its very nature is a protective stance. Christian college students at the turn of the millennium tended to be very interested in social justice and not particularly interested in the theological debates that evangelicals of earlier decades had conducted. In 2002, Robert Webber wrote The Younger Evangelicals, highlighting a generation of evangelicals who were quite different from their forebears in these ways.

9-11 did not eliminate that trajectory. There remains a strong strand of Christians under 40 who are committed to social justice and progressive causes. Many of them supported Bernie Sanders in the recent primary. Some of that age demographic also, disgusted by a surge of Christian fundamentalism, have become "nones," young people with no religious affiliation whatsoever. This is currently the fastest growing religious demographic in America.

But 9-11 also naturally caused a resurgence of Christian fundamentalism in various forms. The strong rise of hyper-Calvinism ("young, restless, and Reformed") in some circles is one example of a conservative backlash no doubt fostered in part by the impact of 9-11. Several Christian colleges have undergone theological purges of sorts in the last decade. The Christian classroom of 2016 includes not only the progressives I mentioned above, but zealous neo-fundamentalists as well. These are students who were only three or four when 9-11 took place, students whose psyche was arguably formed in the zeal of the post-9-11 decade.

Next week: History 3: World War II to the Millennium

Major Take-Aways
  • There are often temporary reversals in the overall trajectories of history.
  • It's best to talk through certain issues long before flash points take place.
  • Democracy is not natural for many cultures. Great care must be taken when moving in that direction.
  • Meddling in the affairs of other nations should be a last resort of action. Trying to fix other countries regularly makes things worse.
  • Don't start a war as a strategy, only as a last resort.
  • Deregulation has its limits. Unbridled capitalism does almost always lead eventually to economic crises.
  • Don't over-react to terrorists. Over-reaction tends to play into their hands.
[1] I decided to call it a "pivot point" rather than a "turning point" because I am not necessarily meaning a change in direction. In fact, in some cases the event might have meant a change of direction if it had played out differently! As a pivot point, I merely mean that history would have looked quite different if the event had not played out as it did. A "turning point" usually assumes a change of direction.

[2] Marian Tupy suggests a more accurate term for Sanders would be a "social democrat."

[3] For example, when he suggested that a judge was being unfair to him because the judge was of Mexican descent or when he insulted the parents of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq.

[4] The Constitution would prohibit any blanket action toward the Muslim community as Muslims and, in fact, the best way to stop such acts over time is for the Muslim community itself to identify such individuals among them. In the end, blanket targeting of the Muslim community is more likely to increase the number of future home grown terrorists rather than to diminish it.

[5] The federal deficit is 19.4 trillion dollars as I write this post.

[6] Filibuster can take place if the House does not have a supermajority of 60. It can thus keep a bill from even being voted on. The use of the filibuster by the Tea Party in Congress to prevent votes in the last six years is unprecented in US history. Increases of the debt ceiling are necessary in order to pay for budgets that Congress has already approved. In that sense, refusing to increase the debt ceiling prevents the government from paying its existing debts and commitments. It does not involve any new budgetary items.

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