Resuscitating Lyndon Baines Johnson
August 8, 2016 § 3 Comments
Last week, I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I hadn’t read a Stephen King novel since I was around 16 and I discovered his early horror work: Dead Zone, Christine, Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and Cujo. I read and devoured them, then moved on to other things. But my buddy, J-S, raved about this book. So, I humoured him, bought it, and read it. It was pretty phenomenal. I’m not really a fan of either sci-fi or alt.history, but this book was both. Time travel and a re-imagined history of the world since 1958.
The basic synopsis is that a dying Maine restaurateur, Al Templeton, convinces 35-year old, and lonely, high school English teacher, Jake Epping, to go back in time. See, Templeton discovered a rabbit hole to 1958 in his stock room. He’s been buying the same ground beef since the 1980s to serve his customers, hence his ridiculously low-priced greasy fare. Templeton went back in time repeatedly, until it dawned on him he could prevent the assassination of JFK. Templeton figures if he prevents JFK from dying, he’ll prevent Lyndon Baines Johnson from becoming president. And thus, he will save all those American and Vietnamese lives. So he spent all this time shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald, and plotting how to stop him. But then he contracted lung cancer. His time was almost up. So, he got Epping involved.
After a couple of test runs, Epping agrees. So back to 1958 in Maine he goes again, spends five years in the Land of Ago, as he calls it, under the name George Amberson. I’ll spare you the details. But, he is, ultimately successful in preventing the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on 22 November 1963.
But when he returns to Maine in 2011, he returns to a dystopian wasteland. Before entering the rabbit hole back to the future, Epping/Amberson talks to the gatekeeper, a rummy. The rummy explains that there are only so many strands that can be kept straight with each trip back and each re-setting of time.
Anyway. Read it. You won’t be disappointed. I cannot speak to the series on Hulu, though. Haven’t seen it.
I found myself fascinated with this idea of preventing LBJ from becoming president. See, I’m one of the few people who think that LBJ wasn’t a total waste as president. This is not to excuse his massive blunder in Vietnam. Over 1,300,000 Americans, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians died in that war. And the war left a long hangover on the United States that only really went away in time for the Iraq War hangover we’re currently living in.
But. LBJ wasn’t a total disaster. Domestically, he was a rather good president. He was, of course, the brain behind The Great Society. LBJ wanted to eliminate racial injustice and poverty in the United States. This led to the rush of legislation to set the record straight on these issues. We got the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and a whole host of other initiatives in the fight against poverty in inner cities and rural areas. We got the birth of public television that ultimately led to the birth of PBS in 1970. Borrowing some from JFK’s Frontier ideas, the Great Society was envisioned as nothing less than a total re-making of American society. In short, LBJ was of the opinion that no American should be left behind due to discrimination. It was a lofty goal.
LBJ’s Great Society, moreover, was incorporated into the presidencies of his Republican successors, Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford. In other words, the Great Society met with approval from both Republicans and Democrats, to a degree anyway.
Of course, the Great Society failed. In part it failed because LBJ’s other pet project, the Vietnam War, took so much money from it. It did cause massive change, but not enough. In many ways, the rise of Donald Trump as the GOP nominee can be seen as long-term response to the Great Society. Trump has the most support from non-college-educated white people, the ones who feel they’ve been victimized by the liberal agenda. And, as the New York Times pointed out this week, Trump is really the benefactor of this alienation and anger, not the cause of it.
Nevertheless, I do take exception to the dismissal of LBJ as a horrible president based on the one glaring item on his resumé. No president is perfect, every president has massive blemishes on his record. Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order for Japanese Internment. Abraham Lincoln only slowly came to the realization that slavery had to end, and he did not really believe in the equality between black and white. I could go on.
King also makes an interesting point in 11/22/63: when Epping/Amberson returns to 2011 after preventing JFK’s assassination, he learns that the Vietnam War still happened. JFK, after all, was the first president to escalate American involvement in great numbers. And worse, the Great Society did not happen. There was no Civil Rights Act, no War on Poverty, etc. JFK, as King notes, was not exactly a champion of equal and civil rights.
Thus, as maligned as the Big Texan is by historians and commentators in general, I think it is at least partially unfair. LBJ had ideas, at least. And he was a visionary.
The Problem with Being Canadian
March 20, 2015 § 7 Comments
Tony Judt is one of my intellectual heroes. A brilliant mind, and a great writer, he was rare for an historian. An Englishman, he lived in New York and taught at New York University. The Guardian called him the ‘greatest mind in New York,’ which I always took as a play on the Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Judt died of ALS in July 2010 at the age of 62, and I feel like we were robbed. I am currently reading his last work of non-fiction, Ill Fares the Land (a collaboration with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, was published in 2012).
In Ill Fares the Land, Judt takes on the growing meanness of our society and culture, on both sides of the Atlantic. He argues that we have lost our way in the blind pursuit of money and profit, signalling the 1980s as the period where Western culture shifted from one of trust and compassion for our fellow human beings to this individualistic focus on money. He criticizes us for having lost our way, for descending back into 19th century laissez-faire beliefs.
In one section, however, he focuses on the consensus that arose in Western society after the Second World War, when collectively we decided that we did not wish to experience the 1914-45 period ever again, and Europeans and North Americans began to build better societies, with a social safety net, seeking to eradicate the gross inequality of the 19th century, which led to the rise of dictatorships of both the left and the right in the 1920s and 30s.
Judt notes that trust is necessary to the proper functioning of society. And he is right. Trust is essential at all levels of society,and it is essential for the proper functioning of the capitalist system. Indeed, this was the trust violated in the 1980s, and again in the lead-up to the 2008 Recession: economic actors essentially got greedy and corrupt and brought us down with them. At any rate, Judt looks at what makes for a trusting society and, not surprisingly, he looks approvingly at the Scandinavian and Northern European countries. These are places where income inequality is almost (note, I said almost) non-existant, where education is free or close to it, and there is a common, collective belief in the common good, broadly defined.
What makes these societies work? What causes the trust to exist? Judt notes that Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark are remarkably homogenous societies, in terms of ethnicity, religion, etc. (He also notes that Scandinavians are not so excited about the influx of impoverished refugees and immigrants in recent years, to be fair.) He then focuses on his two primary countries: The United States and the United Kingdom.
In the period of consensus from 1945 to the 1970s, both the US and the UK were a lot more homogenous than they are now. Both were majoritarian white, Anglo-Protestant nations, though with sizeable Catholic minorities. But, Protestants and Catholics are both Christians, of course. Today, however, both the US and the UK are larger, much more diverse nations. And so trust has broken down.
As a good Canadian, I was practically yelling “CANADA!” at this point of the book. To be fair to Judt, he DOES notice The Great White North. Frankly, it’s hard not to. It’s this big country just to the north of New York state. He writes:
The crossover case might be Canada: a mid-sized country (33 million people) with no dominant religion and a mere 66% of the population declaring themselves of European origin, but where trust and its accompanying social institutions seem to have taken root.
But then he dismisses the Canadian crossover case because it’s not conducive to his argument. He immediately goes onto return to his arguments pertaining to the US and the UK. This makes no sense. Canada is a fine comparative point to both the US and the UK. It is geographically large, it has a sizeable population, it is incredibly diverse (more diverse, in fact, than either the US and the UK), and takes in more immigrants per capita than any other nation (the US, of course, takes in the most immigrants in absolute numbers). And yet, “trust and its accompanying institutions” are deeply-embedded in the country, as our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper (who is otherwise hell-bent on tearing down the Canada most Canadians want), has learned.
Judt’s myopia regarding Canada is nothing new, frankly. It is common for Americans and, especially, the British, to overlook the country. But that does not make it any less infuriating.
I am reminded of Trainspotting, and the rant of the central character, Mark Renton, on why it sucks being Scottish.