Tag: progress

The Way We Were

Conservatives and even libertarians often view history through the prism of “the road to serfdom,” believing that there was some golden age of liberty in the past that is progressively being eroded. Two recent articles remind us of some of the problems with that thesis.

An obituary in today’s Washington Post told of what happened to American-born May Asaki and her family after the outbreak of war between the United States and her parents’ home country of Japan:

On May 8, 1942 – May Asaki’s 23rd birthday – she and her family were loaded into the back of an Army truck and sent to a detention center. They were allotted one suitcase each.

May, who was the second oldest of 11 children, spoke only rudimentary Japanese and had known no home but California. Her older brother volunteered for the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, but his patriotism didn’t help her family. U.S. authorities considered Americans of Japanese descent to be potential enemies during World War II, and the Asaki family eventually ended up at an internment camp in a snake-infested swamp in Arkansas. Within six months, May’s mother was dead at 48.

“My older brother was serving in the U.S. Army while our family was incarcerated as criminals,” May wrote in her memoir, “the stress of which was too great for our mother to bear.”

The only good thing to be said for May’s two years of captivity was that she met Paul Ishimoto, whom she married in April 1944. Three months later, when their internment camp was closed, they moved to Washington. The federal government gave them $25 apiece to start a new life.

We can only hope that census data will never again be used to round up American citizens and imprison them on the basis of their race. Meanwhile, at the Independent Gay Forum, David Link writes about a historian who was frustrated in trying to find stories in the Los Angeles Times archives about homosexuality in L.A. during the mid-20th century. His searches kept coming up empty. Had they simply never covered such stories?

Then he realized that he was searching for words and phrases he was used to using: “homosexual” and “gay” and “sexual orientation.”  But those were not the words journalists would have used prior to our own time.

Try it for yourself.  If you have access to any database of news stories up to about the 1960s, see how many articles you can find about homosexuality using the words you know to describe sexual orientation.

Than try using these: “deviant;” “degenerate;” “pervert.”

That is the way homosexuality was both understood and reported (when it was reported at all) in days gone by.

Those are the words, and the preconceptions, that would have been dominant, if not exclusive in the minds of the single demographic we can most reliably count on to vote against us today – seniors.  Those who grew up in the 1930s and 40s and 50s would have, first, avoided any possible discussion of such an unpleasant and impolite subject as homosexuality.  That is how the closet – the don’t ask, don’t tell of its day – accommodated the times.

But denial on such a wide scale has to begin fraying at the edges.  And when homosexuality did come up, as Chauncey so vividly described – in criminal trials, bar raids, and mass arrests – the reporting had a condemnatory force built-in.  The police arrested a dozen sexual perverts; a high-profile degenerate was found in a love nest; a bar owner lost his license because his business catered to deviants.

Taxes may have been lower in the 1950s (though come to think of it, the marginal rate was 91 percent). Regulation may been less burdensome (except for the New Deal-derived microregulation of finance, transportation, and communications). The labor market may have been freer (unless you got drafted into the armed services, like Elvis and millions of other young men). But stories like this remind us of how many people were excluded from the promises of the Declaration of Independence – the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – throughout American history. Liberalism has always campaigned for a society of merit, not of status. That meant in the first place the dismantling of the privileges of nobility and aristocracy. Over the centuries it has also meant extending liberty and equality to people of other races and creeds, to women, to Jews, to gays and lesbians. And current historical trends are certainly more complicated than worries about a road to serfdom, or nostalgia for “the world we have lost.”

Monday Links

  • Today marks 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Full round-up of commentary on that historic day, here.
  • The heroes who helped bring down the Wall.

Technology: Debating the Pace of Progress

Last night, thanks to Craigslist and a Web-enabled cell phone, I unloaded two extra tickets to tonight’s World Cup qualifying game between the U.S. and Costa Rica in under an hour. (8:00, ESPN2 “USA! USA! USA!”)

Wanting to avoid the hassle of selling the tickets at RFK, I placed an ad on Craigslist offering them at cost, figuring I might find a taker and arrange to hand them off downtown today or at the stadium tonight. Checking email as I walked to the gym, I found an inquiry about the tickets and phoned the guy, who happened to live 100 feet from where I was walking. A few minutes later, he had the tickets and I had the cash.

This quaint story is a single data point in a trend line—the high-tech version of It’s Getting Better All the Time. Everyone living a connected life enjoys hundreds, or even thousands, of conveniences every day because of information technology. Through billions of transactions across the society, technology improves our lives in ways unimaginable two decades ago.

Before 1995, nobody ever traded spare soccer tickets in under an hour, on a Tuesday night, without even changing his evening routine. If soccer tickets are too trivial (you must not understand the game), the same dynamics deliver incremental, but massive improvements in material wealth, awareness, education, and social and political empowerment to everyone—even those who don’t live “online.”

Sometimes debates about technology regulation are cast in doom and gloom terms like the Malthusian arguments about material wealth. But the benefits we already enjoy thanks to technology are not going away, and they will continue to accrue. We are arguing about the pace of progress, not its existence.

This is no reason to let up in our quest to give technologists and investors the freedom to produce more innovations that enhance everyone’s well-being even more. But it does counsel us to be optimistic and to teach this optimism to our ideological opponents, many of whom seem to look ahead and see only calamity.

“If You’re Not Having Fun Advocating for Freedom, You’re Doing it Wrong!”

The health care debate has catalyzed a wonderful national clash of cultures centering on freedom versus control. Here’s one example that’s both complex and delightful.

Progressive site TalkingPointsMemo ran a story yesterday about a man named “Chris” who carried a rifle outside an event in Phoenix at which President Obama appeared. “We will forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority with a vote,” Chris said.

To many TPM readers, this kind of thing is self-evidently shocking and wrong: Carrying a weapon is inherently threatening, Second Amendment notwithstanding. And vowing to resist the properly expressed will of the majority—isn’t that an outrageous denial of our democratic values?

Well, … No. Our constitution specifically denies force to democratic outcomes that impinge on freedom of speech and religion, on bearing arms, and on the security of our persons, houses, papers, and effects, to name a few. Our constitution also tightly circumscribed the powers of the federal government. Those restrictions were breached without abiding the supermajority requirements of Article V, alas.

There are many nuances in this clash of cultures, and it’s fascinating to watch the battle for credibility. One ugly issue is preempted rather handily by the fact that Chris is African-American.

Next question, taken up by CNN: Was the interview staged? Hell, yeah! says Chris’ interviewer. And they know each other—big deal.

Finally, they were laughing and having a good time. Isn’t this serious? Yes, it is serious, says Chris’ interviewer, but “If you’re not having fun advocating for freedom, you’re doing it wrong!”

It’s a great line—friendly, in-your-face advocacy that might just succeed in familiarizing more Americans with the idea of living as truly free people.

Today Talking Points Memo is charging that the man who interviewed Chris was a prominent defender of a militia group in the 90s, some members of which were convicted of crimes. I know nothing of the truth or falsity of this charge, and I had never heard of the militia group, the interviewer, or his organization before today.

This struggle over credibility is all part of the battle between freedom and control that is playing itself out right now. It’s an exciting time, and a chance for many more Americans to learn about liberty and the people who live it.

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Mises on Obama

I was rereading George Nash’s book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, and I found this ever-more-timely and surprisingly pithy quotation from Ludwig von Mises in his book Bureaucracy:

They promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office.

(Meanwhile, thanks to the continuing progress made by the non-state sector of society, what a wonderful world in which both these brilliant books can be read either in hard copy or on line!)