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For our President-elect, history starts now. Except for a slogan referring to some vague, bygone time of American greatness, Trump’s understanding of history appears to be limited only to what has personally happened to him, as he has built casinos and golf courses and hotels here and abroad.
Nowhere has that been more clear as he stepped into foreign affairs this week, clunking and stomping around on an equilibrium of highly nuanced policies on Cuba, on Pakistan and India, and on China and Taiwan. Our relations with these nations have run a course of balancing inconsistencies and quasi-fictitious arrangements that have led to a calm, stable, even muddle-through status quo. As a result, potential areas of distrust, resistance to U.S. interests, and even conflict have been avoided.
With a Twitter threat to Cuba following the death of Fidel Castro, Trump vows to break the recently restored diplomatic relations. As if the Obama administration’s overture to Cuba in 2014 were a real estate sale, Trump wrote “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” Prior to the normalization of relations, 55 years of policies that sought to overthrow Castro, even kill him, isolate the country and penalize its people economically fed Castro’s iconic reputation as the man who stood up to the United States. After the Cuban missile crisis and Castro’s forays into the proxy wars in Africa and Latin America, Cuba became a symbolic talking point in U.S. politics, an easy throw-away line to garner a small, but influential voting block in the state of Florida.
What Obama accomplished in his overture to Cuba extended beyond the island nation and advanced U.S. interests in the rest of the hemisphere that was tired of American views toward Latin America that focused on a small island nation. Obama’s breakthrough allowed the U.S. to approach the region with a clear understanding of where our interests truly lie: in large trading partners such as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Chile or in states threatened by criminal organizations whose populations are fleeing to the U.S. to seek refuge.
In taking the phone call from the leader of Taiwan, Trump stepped into another untidy region with a complex history. With one simple tweet, “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency,” Trump upended 35 years of a one-China policy balancing act that gave our diplomatic recognition to the Beijing China government, but also, according to the Taiwan Relations Act, “promote(s) extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, as well as the people on the China mainland…” That law passed in 1979 commits the U.S. to support Taiwan’s self-defense. It’s not “interesting” that the U.S. sells Taiwan military equipment, as Trump defended his call in a subsequent tweet, it’s the law. The U.S. doesn’t refer to the Taiwan leader as President, because, in the law the U.S. doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a country.
The Taiwan-China relationship is a third-rail, highly potent issue for both the island and the mainland. For the past 35 years, the U.S. has been careful not to touch it. Until now.
The call raised all kinds of questions whether the President-elect received any prior briefing where these issues might come up. Trump’s communications advisor, Kellyanne Conway, insisted on CNN that Trump receives briefings prior to these foreign calls. That implies that his actions and statements were not errors, but part of a conscious strategy.
However, in the one transcript released from a call – with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – the nature of those briefings raises further questions. The transcript read: “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people.” Is it remotely possible that one of his advisors actually briefed the President-elect and told him to say those things, or that it might be advantageous to say “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems?” What exactly might those outstanding problems be?
It has been widely reported that Trump is not attending the daily intelligence briefings, delegating that responsibility to his Vice President-elect. However, if there were in fact briefings by members of his new foreign affairs team, one must wonder what the strategy behind the calls might be. Conversations with foreign leaders are opportunities to advance U.S. interests, to push for a specific point. Of course, he is only the President-elect, and of course it is natural for foreign leaders to make congratulatory calls. If he claims that he doesn’t require a strategy since he is not yet President, then he must surely be aware that these foreign leaders are pursuing their own strategies. Why, otherwise, would Pakistan be so eager to release a transcript from the call, except perhaps to send a message to its rival India? Or to embarrass Trump and the United States in front of the rest of the world?
History didn’t start on November 8. The candidate whose supporters overlooked egregious views and activities is soon to be our next President, interacting with peoples who may not be so forgiving. He will have no choice but to engage in corners of the world with long, untidy, complicated histories, with us and with their neighbors. A President Trump will not be rewriting history from January 20, 2017 on; he will enter the stage well into the play. And if he doesn’t take these complicated pasts into account, he runs the risk of getting outmaneuvered and manipulated by other countries for their own interests, rather than defining and advancing our own.
Every year for the past 40 years, the State Department has issued annual human rights reports as mandated by Congress. It falls to each U.S. Embassy to prepare the draft country report, based on news clippings collected and interviews and meetings held throughout the year.
Each country report follows a standard format with sections that address topics ranging from protection of individual liberties, arbitrary arrest, freedom of the press, and elections and political participation.
These reports invariably generate controversy, from foreign governments that chafe over the criticism and from human rights organizations who complain that friendly or strategically important countries are not criticized enough. Most object to the U.S. setting itself up as the arbiter of human rights practices around the world, and a few, including China, have started preparing their own reports on human rights in the United States.
We don’t need reports from other countries, though, to appreciate the flaws in our political system or to understand that we now have a minority run government, in all branches.
The evidence is clear.
Popular vote. At the executive level of government, for the second time in five elections, the candidate that lost the popular vote has won the election, thanks to the archaic apparatus of the Electoral College. The original framers of the Constitution were nervous about direct democracy and set up mechanisms to limit the vote to white men owning property and to create indirect elections for both Senators and the President. Only once since 1992 have the Republican candidates for President won the popular vote, but by the end of Donald Trump’s term they will have run the Executive branch for 12 years.
Redistricting. In the legislative branch, redistricting has allowed the Republicans to put themselves in a near-permanent majority. New census data each ten years requires legislatures in states with changing populations to re-draw districts. The result has been a patchwork of districts drawn to protect incumbency and isolate racial and ethnic minorities. Justin Lewitt from Loyola Law School who tracks redistricting has identified which party controls the process in each district. He estimates that Republicans “unilaterally control the process” for 210 congressional seats in 18 states, while Democrats have primacy in 44 congressional seats in 6 states.
This resulted in an election where a total of 380 incumbents were re-elected to the House of Representatives out of 393 who ran, for the highest percentage of incumbency since 2004.
Voter suppression. Redistricting is just one factor in a minority maintaining political control. This year was the first Presidential election since 1968 held without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. In the last six years, 20 states have enacted new voter requirements that effectively suppressed the vote by requiring photo IDs, by curbing voter registration efforts or by limiting early voting. The lower turnout in 2016 than in 2012, particularly among racial and ethnic minorities, helped ensure a Trump victory and the retention of a Republican majority in the Senate.
Take the case of Wisconsin. With a new voter ID requirement, voter turnout was its lowest in 20 years, with a 13% drop in Milwaukee. More than 300,000 people who voted in the last Presidential election could not vote, in a state that was decided by a margin of less than 20,000.
Supreme Court. Before the election, the New York Times referred to the Senate Republican failure to act on President Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court as a “coup against the Supreme Court. The Constitution provides the President with the authority to make appointments with the advice and consent of the Senate. Prior to the election, when Senate Republicans were convinced of a Clinton victory, they indicated that they would reject any of her nominees, for the duration of her term. With a Trump minority victory, Republicans can now protect a solid conservative majority on the bench that can sustain these efforts to maintain minority control by suppressing voting rights further or preventing curbs against unlimited financing in campaigns by businesses and political action committees.
Even more egregious than the redistricting or suppressing votes or failing to act on the Supreme Court nomination were the separate, unprecedented interventions in U.S. electoral politics by two entities: the FBI and the Russian government. To the clear advantage of the Republican party, both influenced the outcome of the election more than a Watergate break-in intended to find out campaign strategies of the opposition. That we were powerless to prevent either of these from influencing our elections does not mean that both should not be fully investigated, especially since Rudolph Guiliani, a prominent Trump supporter, boasted that he had inside information that the FBI was going to announce its re-opening of the e-mail investigation.
These are systemic flaws which, if they occurred in another country, would find their way into the human rights report and raise questions as to the integrity of the political process.
Since the election, the political discussion has moved away from these systemic issues, reviewing the real and repeated mistakes of the polls, the media and the campaigns. We are reminded of the need to unite the country behind the winner and are deep into the machinations of a transition and a parlor game on appointments to the new administration.
An annual human rights report gets away from the daily news and focuses on broader systemic issues. Even though there is no provision to write a report on our own country, it is obvious we need a longer term review of our flawed electoral processes.
Fifty years from now, historians will not be reviewing the transition and appointments. They may, though, be reviewing this election as one of the steps on the way to the erosion of our democracy.
Two summers ago, as part of a volunteer project for the Berkshire Historical Society, I created a virtual driving tour of some of Pittsfield’s old mills (milltour.org). The site and tour highlights these majestic 19th century buildings that shaped Pittsfield as an industrial city, a city of immigrants and a national leader in the production of wool, silk, paper and even clocks. These buildings still dominate our landscape. We drive by them, mostly unaware of the stories they tell of our ancestors – men, women and children who heeded their bells and put in their 60-hour work-weeks and make a living. Some of these structures have a new lives as residential housing or office space for businesses like the Berkshire Eagle.
Cafua Realty, which owns over 200 Dunkin Donuts franchises, recently presented its plans to the zoning board for a new one where St. Mary’s stands on Tyler Street. I fast forwarded to the year 2066 or 2116 and imagined the historian’s task in creating a virtual tour to depict life back in 2016. That tour might be called doughnuttour.org.
The doughnut tour could start with the Dunkin Donuts on First Street, a good model that would explain the concept of a drive-through, and show how, here, the space was so small that rush-hour traffic was often blocked.
Then, we would proceed less than a block away, and stop at the site of the old Plunkett School that Cafua opted to tear down for another Dunkin Donuts franchise. Our passengers could learn that the lot lay vacant for years, since Cafua razed the 100 year-old building before they could get their drive-through plan approved. What motivated Cafua to tear down the school would remain unmentioned since there was no record of an explanation. Perhaps there would be an interpretive panel explaining that the school was named after a leading 19th century businessman who ran a mill and a bank but also found time to give back to the city through his leadership of the Berkshire Athenaeum. The inquiring future reader might be able to find out why a second Dunkin Donuts was needed less than a block away.
The map would direct the tour-taker north on First Street before turning on Tyler Street. Perhaps there would be a photo of the stately brick and stone church that was the center of community life, torn down for the smart brown, pink and orange of the new “religion.” The map would once again show two Dunkin Donut restaurants within walking distance. Our grandchildren might wonder how many people actually stopped at each doughnut shop in the same outing.
We could then head further north to the edge of the city and take in The Donut Man shop on the shore of Pontoosuc Lake. Plaques might tell how this actually was a Dunkin Donuts at one time, before the franchise owner broke with the company and started his own business. Our tourists who might wonder about the logic of spoiling the view of the lake with a doughnut shop would learn that patrons could take their coffee and pastry to a gazebo behind the shop to eat and gaze at the water and the hills above.
Many historic tourists at this point might want to jump off of the doughnut tour, but they will be happy to know there’s more. They can head down to East Street, and read about this Dunkin Donuts catering to high school students on their lunch breaks and for after-school munchies, creating a life-long habit of unhealthy-eating. If future historians would want to get out and walk, they could find that the high school is actually equidistant between this Dunkin Donuts and its sister shop that was our initial stop on First Street. Students starving after a morning of classes had doughnut choices!
The tour would then proceed down Elm Street where our inquisitive participants would check out the three different establishments selling coffee and pastries within two blocks. But, they would marvel that not one of them is a Dunkin Donuts, but are all locally owned and operated. The map would then direct the drivers to gas stations on South Street and West Housatonic Street where Dunkin Donuts has set up shop inside the convenience stores, a heads-up model where patrons could fill up on gas and doughnuts.
At different stops, there might be recorded oral interviews with employees who could talk about their wages that start (on average) at $8.39 an hour but could go all the way up to $11.06 as an assistant manager. Next to that, there could be the text of the Boston Globe article on the Cafuas, who owned 215 stores, some of which were pulling in $40,000 a week. 
Perhaps the tour might end with photos of other towns that seem to have convinced Dunkin Donuts to adopt designs that are more attractive, and conform to the surroundings better, like New London, New Hampshire (courtesy Googlemaps).
I have to confess, somewhat shamefacedly, that I personally know each of these doughnut establishments, including the one in New London. I even enjoy the 77-year tradition of National Doughnut Day (June 3). My own waistline shows it, as does my frequent doughnut card. I’m not against doughnuts and coffee, nor am I against people making money or people working hard to earn cash when there are not enough alternatives. That’s what the 19th century mill owners and workers did – make money and eke out a living. The one exception is that those mill owners displayed a sense of civic responsibility and left the city a museum, a library, a town hall, a hospital, churches and schools.
While not anti-doughnut, I am convinced that one very obvious attraction that this city holds for its residents and visitors lies in the beauty of the 19th century brick and stone buildings on Park Square, and on the streets and lanes spreading out in all four directions. We owe it to the next generations to leave them this heritage and history – not one of doughnut shops.
This story originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.
My first Moby Dick Marathon. It had been several years since I learned of this event where the book is read aloud from cover to cover each year at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. After conflicts ruled out prior attendance, my wife and I finally resolved to participate this year, the 20th anniversary of the marathon.
And it was worth it, in so many ways.
No, I did not listen to every word, in fact only about four or five hours. But, when the museum handed out certificates to those who did sit through all 25 hours, the line looked to be easily over 50 people.
While not reading, we attended two sessions to chat with Melville scholars who covered a wide ranging array of subjects from the many-layered and evolving interpretations of the novel to their own personal accounts of encountering Melvlle and how their study has shaped their lives. Of interest to those of us at Arrowhead was the discussion on how Melville spent his first year in Pittsfield re-working his book. In his letters, we were told, he anticipated finishing his book about the whale by the fall of 1850, but after meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne and moving to Pittsfield, he spent another year working on the book. One scholar told us that were it not for that year at Arrowhead, we would not have been attending the marathon, for it would have likely been another of the books Melville turned out to help finance the expenses of his growing family. We also spent a fair amount of discussion time on the difficulty of the book, and how students today react to it.
The reading shifted away from the exhibit hall twice. First, we moved across the street to read (and sing) the chapters that took place in the Seamen’s Bethel. Melville includes the words of a hymn in Chapter 7, so we all sang it, and then listened to Father Mapple read his sermon on Jonah.
The second time, we moved to the auditorium to watch a dramatic presentation of Chapter 40, Melville’s play within his novel of life on the deck of the Pequod.
My own ten minutes of reading took place at the civilized time of 7:50 on Sunday morning, almost 20 hours since they started reading. To my surprise there were quite a number of people present. The organizers had written saying this time would put my reading in or about Chapter 104, one on Melville’s description of whale size. The references to Barbary travelers and Egyptian temples caused me to trip over the words, but one quote reminded me of why Melville may have included such details as the size of the whales: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”
Many of the people present seemed to be teachers, but there were also people like Amalia, a Venezuelan who we sat with at lunch and who read her ten minutes in Spanish. Amalia had fallen in love with Melville after coming to the U.S.. She visited Arrowhead this past fall on her quest to know more about the author and the book she had read many times. In fact, others read in French, Japanese, Chinese, German, Dutch, Swedish and too many more to remember. For the first time, five hours in a parallel session was set aside for Portuguese reading. Other readers included Nathaniel Philbrick who kicked off the event and several descendants of Melville. I met many people who go every year.
The hall was packed for the final chapters, and the applause when the Epilogue concluded seemed to never end.
What sticks most in my mind from the weekend was the sense that there’s always something new in Melville. One university teacher said there’s a lot of repetition in academia, and scholars enjoy teaching Melville because each time they read him they discover a new layer, a new way to “enter the book,” whether through the environment, through race or gender, or politics. He seems to reach across the generations and speak to current concerns.
The apology that a U.S. sailor gave after being detained by Iranian security forces in Iranian waters has set off a firestorm of criticism over the humiliation of our military. The video that was taken by Iranian soldiers saw the man identified as the commander of the U.S. vessel as saying, “It was a mistake that was our fault and we apologize for our mistake. It was a misunderstanding. We did not mean to go into Iranian territorial water. The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here. We thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance.”
Cries of a “disgrace” and “humiliating” were heard by those who could not bring themselves to credit the diplomats with the sailors’ release and the avoidance of an international incident that could have derailed not only the nuclear deal with Iran, but also, we have since learned, an exchange of prisoners that had been the subject of negotiations for well over a year. One Congressman, Tom Rooney, from Florida and a member of the House Select Permanent Intelligence Committee, implied that the State Department had instructed the sailors to “make that kind of statement.” The State Department was vigorous in its denial that an apology had been issued in order to obtain the release of the sailors.
Absent from the back and forth of accusation and denial is any discussion of the merits of apology, either as national policy or behavior, towards foreign or domestic parties.
The rush to reject apology makes one wonder what happens to the approach to family disputes. Is an apology under those circumstances a sign of weakness, or is it a recognition that the path towards resolution might require an apology?
For sure, foreign policy is not marital reconciliation. Yet, history shows apologies have been an element of U.S. behavior, at home and abroad.
Coincidentally, the sailor’s apology came within days of the anniversary of the U.S. overthrow of the legitimate ruling monarchy of Hawaii. On the 100th anniversary of that event, a bipartisan majority in Congress issued a resolution apologizing to “to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom on January 17, 1893” and for the “deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination.”
Other examples spring readily to mind: the issuance of apology to and even compensation paid to the Japanese-Americans sent to detention camps during World War II (an event that Donald Trump cited as justification to ban the entry of all Muslims into the U.S.)
Less well known was the first visit to Mexico by a sitting U.S. President, Harry Truman, in 1947. Truman did not have to utter the precise words of apology as he laid a wreath at the Mexican monument to their Niños Héroes on the eve of the centennial of the war with Mexico which saw the loss of nearly half of its territory. Mexicans not only took the gesture as an apology, but, instead of seeing it as weakness, they received it in the way it was offered. They enthusiastically embraced Truman as a “new champion of American solidarity and understanding,” in the words of Mexican Foreign Minister Ramon Beteta. Others went further, as one eyewitness was quoted as saying, “one hundred years of misunderstanding and bitterness wiped out by one man in one minute.” The response led President Clinton to repeat the gesture in 1997 when he visited Mexico City.
U.S. allies around the world are less reluctant to abjure apology as a component in their foreign relations. In 2007, the British government expressed regret and authorized payments of £20 million to compensate victims tortured by its forces during the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in Kenya in the 1950s. Just last month, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered “apologies and remorse” for the “immeasurable and painful experiences” suffered by women in Korea forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during the World War II. As part of a settlement with the government of South Korea, Japan agreed to make payments to a fund for victims. Other examples include Canada’s apology in 2008 to First Nations peoples for the system of Indian Residential Schools and Australia’s apology in 2014 to Indonesia for naval ships straying into Indonesian waters without permission.
The apology last week in the Persian Gulf differed from other examples in that it was likely a spur-of-the-moment decision by the commander, as opposed to national policy arrived at after considerable discussion, and in the Hawaii and Mexico examples, after 100 years has lapsed. More recently, though, we have the cases of the U.S. and NATO forces who apologized for military operations in Afghanistan that result in civilian deaths.
Presidential politics make the issue of apology harder. Taking a cue from Mitt Romney’s 2010 campaign book titled, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, candidates and pundits on the eve of the Iowa caucuses rushed to criticize weakness, claiming as well that the Iranians violated the Geneva Convention and its clauses related to treatment of prisoners in wartime. Such short memories. Less than ten years ago, these same individuals were trying to back away from and even rewrite that convention to suit U.S. methods of interrogation.
A refusal to accept any measure of accountability for U.S. behavior implies that no actions have been taken that have been either mistaken or misguided or immoral. Or that they were justified to make America great.
In discussing the negotiations that Secretary Kerry and his team had with Iran over the prisoner exchange, he recalled that the Iranians repeatedly raised the 1953 coup organized by U.S. intelligence to overthrow the legitimately elected Mohammad Mossadegh as President of Iran. The Iranians remember, and we deny.
I do subscribe to the notion of greatness for my country that I served for almost 30 years. It is a greatness, though, that has the strength, confidence and wisdom to hold itself accountable for its errors and to aspire to do better.
This post originally appeared on History News Network.