Norman Birnbaum's lyrical sketch of our country's changing times appeared in the April 18 2009 edition of El País (Madrid).
Nobody Knows The Epochs I Have Seen
“Nobody knows the troubles I have seen” is one of those Afro-American hymns which made immortal the courage of the oppressed. Now the entire nation faces troubles the like of which most of the present generation have not seen. Indeed, much of our political argument has become historical. How shall we deal with the economic crisis, with its obvious negation of the views of the American model so triumphantly advanced so recently? What place will the US occupy in a world changing far faster than our capacity to master or even understand it? The problem of a national historical path is especially troubling, since there is no agreement on much of the past in both high and popular culture. A revival of interest in The New Deal has become a bitter debate on the relationship of market and state, and judgments on Franklin Roosevelt’s policies are almost as divided now as I recall them from the 1930s.
American majorities are prepared to accept a large role for state intervention in the economy to achieve substantial minima of equality in education, health care, old age provision and life chances generally.The Democrats face a Republican Party repeating the economic incantations it has uttered since 1920. The Republicans are equally retrograde in matters cultural, obsessively patriarchal and sexually repressive, indifferent or hostile to science, and complacent about the environment.
In foreign and military policy, American unilateralists have accused Obama of paying too much attention to the opinions and interests of other nations. . Substantial numbers of Democratic leaders share these views, which fuse national self-righteousness with over- estimation of American power: witness our unending catastrophes.
Still, the President is largely supported by the public, which viewed his trip abroad as a success and now expects decisive economic action from him. Resistance to his policies is due to the systematic manipulation of anxiety and interest by powerful and wealthy groups who have much to loose. The Democrats have had to reverse course---to become New Dealers again after (a vocal minority excepted) under Bill Clinton having become a party of the market. The era of educated and militant mass memberships in European Socialist and Social Democratic parties is over. We never quite had that and the American advocates of change are divided into single issue groups with no common project.
Something essential is missing in this familiar progressive account of the situation. Max Weber, in his furious argument with Marx, declared that interests alone do not determine ideologies: world views set the switches on the tracks of history. One source of American exceptionalism is our continuous conflict of ideas of historical time. The white South lived for one hundred years as if the Civil War had just ended. The overlapping waves of immigrant groups joined ethnocentric readings of their fates to very different experiences in the new nation. The descendants of the New England Puritans and southern planters have tired of increasingly unsuccessful efforts to maintain their proprietary claims on our society. They have become self-consciously antiquarian. The Spaniards who originally settled the southwest profit almost as little from their longevity as the Indians do from having been here first.
Meanwhile, modernists and traditionalists battle in the churches. The boundaries between religious and secular America are in constant movement. Fluctuations in the number of those terming themselves believers are less important when beliefs are so unfixed. To all of these differences, the cultural constraints of class and generation similar to those in Europe are added.
Obama is criticised for being in perpetual ideological motion, for moving from problem to problem with no larger plan. Our extremely intelligent President knows what he is doing. He considers his election due to the supersession of a politics in which shallow ideologies and rigidified interests did not reflect the new contours of national existence. He is struggling to define a new and more inclusive sense of the substance of American history. However economical he has been with references to his own mixed origins, his journey through the world and the society is as important to his sense of mission as his reliance on the technocrats who staff his government. Indeed some (Hillary Clinton possibly) are drawn again to the newer frontiers they explored when young. Along with the veterans of a routinized politics, quite a few graduates of once marginal social movements are now slowly filling the middle ranks of government.
They bring with them a conviction of historical possibility like that of the younger Obama. They do not think of it as just one idea of our history to set against the others, but as a recognition of a new epoch. Obama’s own approach relies on allusion, gesture, and symbol---as if he were consulting not electoral strategists but cultural historians. “Nobody knows the epochs I’ve seen,” however, is as good a theme for a refoundation of our history as any, and better than most.