Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Historical precedents

Anyone interested in the debt crisis should read a series of posts by Peter Lewis at "Words and Ideas," including "The 'I was misquoted' defense," "Why this stuff matters" and "The Dunning-Kruger Effext and Fremdschan."

I wish Lewis would open comments, but he hasn't.

He is not the first person to locate the rightwing of the controversy in Southern sentiments. Colbert King in the Washington Post touched a nerve Friday with "The rise of the New Confederacy." But Lewis's look at the actual words and ideas of the last existential crisis of the American republic is far better grounded than King's.

We have been this way once before.

This morning on NPR's "Morning Edition," Shankar Vedantam analyzed the crisis with the help of game theorists. He reaches bleak conclusions, likening it to a game of chicken in which irrational gestures are "rewarded," at least up to the point of impact.

I was reminded of what I consider one of the most dangerous rightwing books ever pushed on America's young people (it is used as a text in many supposedly liberal schools), Bruce Patton, William Ury and Roger Fisher's "Getting to Yes."

This book was heavily promoted by the Wall Street Journal when it came out several decades ago, and why not: Its premise is that no dispute cannot be compromised in the "middle." Obviously power and money holders love that: the middle is always over near them.

Abraham Lincoln, a great compromiser in most instances, knew better. Perhaps he learned that when he was attorney for the Illinois Central (at the time, the biggest, most powerful American corporation). He won a case in which the railroad wanted to build a bridge over the Mississippi. If it did, then river traffic would be blocked. It was.

Lincoln was a man who gained wisdom from experience. Lewis quotes from a letter he wrote that fits today's situation perfectly:

“We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union…”

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