Why Presidential Libraries “Work”

George W. BushFor another project, I’ve been reading a lot of books about Ronald Reagan. And you may remember that I wrote, Democrats Must Stop Believing the Reagan Myth. It was a reflection on Will Bunch’s Tear Down This Myth. I was arguing that the big problem was not so much that Republicans believed the myth but that Democrats did. In particular, our last two Democratic presidents have had nothing but good things to say about Reagan, even though he had a terrible effect on our country that we are still living with.

In the book, Bunch spends the end of it at the Reagan Presidential Library. And I noted, “It gave me an idea for a documentary. I could go to all of the presidential libraries and scoff at them. It would not be partisan at all, because I think they are all fakers.” Bill ClintonI was quite serious about this. I just hate the whole idea of presidents making a big deal about themselves—especially when so many other people already do. One of my great annoyances with the Democratic Party is how they make a big deal out of Clinton, when he doesn’t deserve credit for the good economy and he deserves an enormous amount of blame for destroying “welfare as we know it,” by which he meant simply, “welfare.”

Anyway, even as I was thinking that, Thomas Frank was more or less doing it. He recently went on a little trip where he visited the presidential libraries of the 41st, 42nd, and 43rd presidents. That’s right: two Bushes and a Clinton. It came with a typically zingy Frank title, The Animatronic Presidency: How Presidential Museums Become Propaganda Palaces, Whitewashing Bush’s Disasters and Clinton’s Failings. The most disturbing aspect of the libraries is how effective they seem to be. Frank noted:

This is closer to advertising than it is to scholarship. It can be persuasive. In fact, all three museums I visited were successful, to a certain degree, at convincing me to admire their subjects. I walked into each as the most skeptical possible visitor, ready to find fault and argue with the text. I didn’t particularly like any of the three presidents in question, although I voted for Bill Clinton and I once gave a lecture at the University of Arkansas’ nearby Clinton School of Public Service. But I left all three of these presidential shrines thinking the same thing of the man in question: Dang, he seems like a good guy. Despite all his screw-ups, he must have meant well.

Sometimes this warm feeling would stick to me all the way back to my hotel room, where I would finally wash it away with a cold six-pack.

And this is coming from Thomas Frank: a man I consider more cynical than I am. But I suspect he’s just doing that for effect. He’s making a point about just how appealingly the presidential libraries present their subjects. But there is something natural about the reaction, “Hell, he’s a good ol’ boy!” That’s especially true coming from a white man. That’s not to say that Frank is especially racist (I believe we are all racist in various ways). It is just that we’ve been trained to be forgiving of rich, educated white men, just as we are critical of poor, uneducated brown people. I’m sure if I had been there, subconsciously, I would have wanted to be merciful even though intellectually I want to be extremely judgmental. These men, above all, deserve it.

I think the presidential libraries are above all else exercises in this kind of propaganda: rich white men can’t be all bad. But Thomas Frank has always been reluctant to call out the essential racial nature of American politics. In What’s the Matter With Kansas? he specifically rejects the idea that white people vote Republican because of racism. But in this way, his analysis is very shallow. Of course the nice white Christian Kansans aren’t explicit racists. But that doesn’t mean that implicit racist appeals aren’t having a big effect on them. And in fact, I have no doubt that they are.

The truth is, I think Frank knows it too. The title of his article refers to an animatronic Lyndon Baines Johnson at his much more low-key presidential library. See if you notice:

See? He’s a good ol’ boy. You wouldn’t take away his welfare. In fact, you’d package his welfare so it doesn’t look like welfare. But above all, you’d assume that this rich white guy had a good heart. You’d assume that he didn’t mean to do any harm. And actually, I think you’d mostly be right. I tend to error on the side of mercy. I think people are mostly good. The problem in our society is the implicit assumption that non-European descendants are suspect until proven otherwise. And that’s why we cut way back on welfare—not because more minorities use them (they don’t), but because we assume more minorities use them.

This, my friends, is why people will shell out $17 to visit the George W Bush Presidential Library for a day’s worth of chicanery and mendacity. But will be outraged at the idea of the top marginal tax rate going up a couple of percentage points or of spending a couple of bucks per day to care for child refuges. It’s all about the right kind of people and the wrong kind of people. If we all thought about it, we would rebel against the very idea. But in general, we don’t think about it. And that’s why our nation is in the bad state it is in.


For reference, the Elder Bush’s library costs $9 and the Clinton library costs only $7. Of course, you always knew it was cheaper to buy Democrats.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria Helps Theists and Atheists

Religion vs SpiritualismNon-overlapping magisteria (strangely given the acronym NOMA) is the idea that there is no conflict between science and religion—they exist in different realms that do not overlap at all. This is an idea that is most associated with Stephen Jay Gould. And to me, it’s always seemed rather obvious. The problem is that most religions do in fact make scientific claims. What’s more, many atheists like to pretend that there is nothing outside of science. But by my definition of religion and science, Gould is completely right.

The biggest problem that I run into with Christians is that there are certain statements in the Bible that are factual claims. And if they see the Bible as literally true, we get into all kinds of problems. The most bizarre is the claim that the world has four corners and thus is flat. This brings about things like the actual Flat Earth Society. But Creationism is no more reasonable a position.

What most bugs me about this kind of stuff is that these people are clearly missing the point of having a religion at all. At one time, it might have been comforting to believe that thunder was the sound of Thor’s hammer. But it was never really useful and it never addressed actual theological questions. So such religious thought not only soils science, but it blinds believers from any theological insights they might gain from their religion.

On the other side, we have atheists who I really think are just trying to annoy me by claiming that they don’t understand basic theology. My favorite example of this was an article I saw in an astronomy magazine. It expressed amazement that people didn’t accept the big bang theory the way they did evolution by natural selection, even though the theory was as well established. The article did an excellent job of explaining why the big bang theory was correct. But the author clearly didn’t understand that it wasn’t that people didn’t accept the theory, but that they found it useless.

Too often, scientists present the big bang theory as an explanation for why the universe exists. In a certain technical sense, the theory does just that. But it is not a complete explanation. It suffers from the very same problem as the explanation that God created the universe. A child of five knows how far this gets you, “Then what created God?” Just the same, “Then what created the big bang?” And it is here that we get into theology.

I think there is only one fundamental theological question, “Why does anything exist?” And I don’t see how this is a question that science can ever address. There is now Lawrence Krauss’ feeble explanation that, “Nothingness is unstable.” And even after 200 pages of A Universe from Nothing, he still can’t see that the instability of “nothingness” means it isn’t nothingness: it has a characteristic; it is “unstable”; it has the remarkable property that allows it to spit out universes now and then.

Now I’m fine with people saying that this theological question makes no sense and there is no answer to it so it’s all rubbish. That’s fine. That is the same as saying that religion is not interesting to you. But to say that such questions don’t exist is simply wrong.

About a year ago, I heard a man I think very highly of, Richard Carrier, say that he didn’t accept NOMA. That surprised me because I have always thought him a deeper thinker than that. But maybe he has an argument I haven’t heard. The standard arguments against NOMA are all straw man arguments. They mostly come down to attacking the fact that as a practical matter, religions make all kinds of falsifiable (and thus scientific) claims. And while this is true, the atheists should be debating Denys Turner and not Pat Robertson.

What’s more, when someone is using a term as pretentious as “non-overlapping magisteria,” one is not making a practical case about what people think religion is. It is rather making a theoretical case for what science and religion both are and are not. It seems to me that atheists would want to use NOMA to convince religious people to at least stop soiling the science ground and to stay on their own very theoretical ground. But alas, they do not. Increasingly, I find the atheist community as ignorant and dogmatic as the religious community.

Fixing the Economy Is Only Hard When a Democrat Is in the White House

Paul KrugmanI remember at college taking Introduction to Economics. It was one of the best courses I ever took. For one thing, I had a great professor. But also, I knew nothing about macroeconomics. So I learned a whole lot.

What I most remember about the course, however, was the idea of fiscal and monetary stimulus. I remember thinking, “That’s great! At least we will never have to live through another Great Depression.” This was sometime in the middle of the 1980s. There is an important lesson here: never extrapolate how Democrats will work with a Republican President to times when there is a Democratic President.

Alberto AlesinaPaul Krugman’s column today is, Knowledge Isn’t Power. As it’s starting point, it takes a recent University of Chicago survey of economists which found that when asked if the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—”the stimulus”—helped the economy, 36 said yes and only one (our old ideologue Alberto Alesina) said it didn’t. So unlike what one hears in the press, there isn’t any disagreement about the nature of our economic trouble. The problem is that the politicians just refuse to do what the economists know is correct.

Krugman even says what I had thought all those years ago, sitting in class:

Economists used to assert confidently that nothing like the Great Depression could happen again. After all, we know far more than our great-grandfathers did about the causes of and cures for slumps, so how could we fail to do better? When crises struck, however, much of what we’ve learned over the past 80 years was simply tossed aside.

Of course, the crux of the matter is more partisan than this. If we had inaugurated President McCain in 2009, there would have been lots and lots of stimulus: not just the under-sized and poorly structured ARRA. Sure, there would have been some Democrats complaining about the budget deficit, but bills would have passed and we would now have a far better economy.

So we know what to do to help the economy. And the politicians are willing to do what needs to be done. But the Republicans won’t do it if a Democratic President will get credit for it. And that means that the Republican Party has sunk so low that its only interests are those of the party. They have no interest in doing what is best for all Americans. This isn’t supposed to be able to happen. Normally, such a party would parish or reform. But in a world where corporations “speak” with money and discriminate with their “religious beliefs,” it is no wonder. The Republican Party is a symptom, not a cause, of our broken democratic system.

All Told a Nice Emperor Claudius

ClaudiusOn this day in 10 BC, the Roman Emperor Claudius was born. Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Well, 80% of Claudius’ life was just surviving. We all know Claudius from the BBC television show I, Claudius where he was portrayed as a smart, learned, and decent man who stuttered—played by Derek Jacobi. (Side note: Jacobi believes that the books were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford rather than Robert Graves.) By modern standards, Claudius was not quite as nice a guy, but by the standards of Roman Emperors of his time, he was above average.

According to Wikipedia, Claudius’ ailments were not confined to his stutter:

The historian Suetonius describes the physical manifestations of Claudius’ affliction in relatively good detail. His knees were weak and gave way under him and his head shook. He stammered and his speech was confused. He slobbered and his nose ran when he was excited. The Stoic Seneca states in his Apocolocyntosis that Claudius’ voice belonged to no land animal, and that his hands were weak as well.

No one actually knows what was wrong with Claudius. Graves (Edward de Vere) thought he had Polio. Since then, people have suggested cerebral palsy and even Tourette syndrome. None of those are especially compelling. The cerebral palsy combined with a generally sickly nature makes a certain amount of sense. But if you look at representations of him, you don’t see any of the look of palsy in his lips.

There is an interesting disconnect between Claudius’ writing and what many contemporaries said about him. He was described as cruel, for example. I can’t really imagine an Emperor of that time not doing some things to get that label. And he certainly had a lot of enemies. The Senate did not want him as the new emperor. But they were just fighting to see ought to be in charge. Claudius was really the only person with a good claim to be emperor, plus he had the army behind him. Nonetheless, he spent a long time trying to appease the Senate. Still, he retained many enemies. And various factions in the Senate tried to take him out of power over the years. So I tend to think Claudius just had bad press.

Regardless of his personality, he was a smart guy and a quick study. He administered the empire quite well. This is especially notable considering that throughout his rule he had something of a tenuous grip on power. Of course, his personal life was a bit of mess. He was married four times. And his last wife was Agrippina the Younger, whose son from a previous marriage would become Nero, Claudius’ successor. The main thing about Agrippina is that she has always been suspected of poisoning Claudius. I’m not so sure. Claudius was 63 when he died, with a 13 year reign. Both those numbers are on the high side for Roman Emperors.

So happy birthday Claudius, you slobbering, stuttering, magnificent bastard!