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Lecture: The New Millenium and Contemporary America (1992-2018)


The New Millennium

Post-modern America
Presidents and the Media
Digital Revolution movie
The New Home
A Medicated Society
Transgenic Foods
Globalization and global effects
Terrorist Attack and War
National Security

Contemporary America

Recession and A New Hope (2008-12)
A Dangerous World
Trump's America
Equity and social justice
Continuing topics:
    Presidents and the Media
    Cell phones and web culture
    Home, family, and the states
    A Medicated Society, continued
    Globalization and global effects
    Pop Culture
The Midterms 2018

Beginning of Avatar (2009), where the trope of the conquest of nature for the sake of profit is critiqued in the guise of efforts to exploit another planet.

The New Millennium (1992-2008)

Post-modern America

During much of the 1990s and into the early years of the new millennium, much of the country prospered from an expanding economy. Old problems (such as agricultural profitability), however, got worse. Advances in technology would benefit some, but not all equally.

Post-modern philosophy, as it developed in Europe and America, provided a construct for attacking previous knowledge and norms. Modern thinking, as we saw during the 1920s, was based on rationalism and empirical evidence. Despite the traditionalists of that era, modern thinking (which included gender equality, the dominance of science, and the vagaries of mass media) became the foundation of philosophy for much of the 20th century. However, being overly rational and scientific has its drawbacks. In particular, it can conflict with emotions, and with ethics. In the post-World War II era, many thinkers experienced a crisis in confidence regarding empiricism (that is, knowledge based on our five senses). Similar to the post-Great War angst, which wondered how so much modern technology could lead to so many senseless deaths, World War II (and particularly the Holocaust) called these issues even more into question.

There were many post-modern thinkers, but I'll talk briefly about Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher born in  Algeria (which had been a French colony). He "deconstructed" knowledge, noting that everything we think we know is based on language. This language, these words, can be changed, and doing so seems to change meaning. So all knowledge is constructed by human beings, which implies that nothing is really "true", or even "correct". My apologies to philosophy majors, because I  know this is a vast oversimplification of one of the most prolific philosophers of all time. But the impact of post-modern philosophies, regardless of their differences and complexities, was to call into question what most people knew as reality.

Sometimes this could be helpful to various causes. The domination of females in politics and society, the oppression of AfricanAmericans, the disdain with which young people were treated -- these could all be seen as mere social constructions, ready to be destroyed and replaced with a better way to do things. The downside of post-modernism is an emphasis on relativism, the idea that nothing is really true except in its relation to other things that society has created. Although post-modern philosophers might have ways to make that OK by examining ethics more closely, most people don't do that. Instead, they operate as if all things are relative, that there is no truth and no ethical foundation for behavior. We will see this problem play out in both this lecture and the next one.

Presidents and the Media

Consider that there has been a trend throughout the course concerning the government and journalism. Think Jacob Riis, Carey McWilliams...

Since this is a good time to review things anyway, I want to discuss a trend that runs throughout the course regarding Presidents and the media. Before radio, most editorial comments about the Presidency ran in the newspaper, and often these reports were very frank in their criticism. But, as I mentioned in the discussion of Watergate, the criticisms were based on the man's performance in office. Even the lambasting radio speeches of Father Coughlin and Huey Long during the Depression focused on Franklin Delano Rooselvet's economic programs. "FDR on Car"

FDR himself was a good example of how the press didn't cover the President's personal life. FDR was crippled by polio shortly after WWI, in the middle of his bid for vice-presidency. He became governor of New York several years later, and President in 1933. FDR was unable to walk without the use of two canes, and unable to stand without assistance. The press seemed to have a tacit agreement not to photograph him needing assistance; he was always shown seated, leaning on the rail at the back of the train, or standing behind a podium. It's as if the press were trying to preserve the image of FDR as a strong President.

The media was no more concerned about sexual affairs. For many years, FDR visited Warm Springs, Georgia, and attended a spa and doctors there to help with the paralysis. Apparently he met a woman there, and they had an affair that lasted many years, until his death. The press didn't report this either, although certainly anyone hanging out at Warm Springs must have been aware of it. Apparently President Eisenhower also had a long-standing affair, with his female chauffeur from the war years. Kennedy was well-known for his women in the White House, among them Marilyn Monroe.

Perhaps the desire of the media not to cover these things reflected the desire of Americans not to know about them, or perhaps there was just a feeling of "boys will be boys". If it's because of this belief, that men in power should be permitted some leeway in this area, it enforced the long-standing perception that married men can have affairs, but married women cannot. Even after Kennedy was assassinated, the press was happy to cover Jacqueline Kennedy's affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, and to criticize her for it. The double standard held for celebrities, too; male stars were expected to sleep around, but Ingrid Bergman was run out of Hollywood on a rail for her affair with Roberto Rosselini.

Cartoon of President Clinton wearing t-shirt saying "I'm with stupid" and a hand pointing downwardIn the late 70's, Americans were shocked to hear that President Carter, in an interview with Playboy, admitted to "lusting in his heart" about women other than his wife. During the Reagan presidency, the behavior of the President in his official capacities occupied the press (especially Iran-Contra), as did the fact that the First Lady liked to consult a psychic. With Bush the Elder, everyone was tied up with the War for Kuwait. But with Clinton, the subject of the President's personal life emerged full-force in 1999 with the Paula Jones case, based on the accusations of a woman who claimed she was indecently propositioned by Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. Then his sexual indiscretions with White House intern Monica Lewinsky became front-page news, in excruciating detail. The issue was treated as a major national concern as American sexuality became more restrictive and Republicans desperately sought the moral high ground. The media was glad to help, because it sold.

The media has also been influential during war time. The Hearst's Yellow Press is seen as a cause of the Spanish-American War, and that was during a time when newspapers were the media. In World War II, new film technologies made war coverage more vivid, but the newsreels seen in movie houses were carefully tailored in cooperation with the government. The U.S. was never seen retreating; there was no blood. Television changed that with its coverage of the Vietnam War, on-the-spot footage which helped change America's view of the war. Much Vietnam War footage was uncensored, because the government was not yet prepared to deal with the immediacy of television. In 1991, coverage of the Gulf War was carefully controlled by the Pentagon, and the military forbade reporters in the field. The result was a sanitized video game watched on CNN. Capitulating to media demands, the military has now created the "embedded" reporter, a journalist who travels with and is thus dependent on the U.S. military. Many un-embedded journalists regard this as government censorship.

So at the same time as media outlets sold stories about the president's sexual activities, they were prevented from reporting fully on a war. In a post-modern world, the ethical implications of this are interesting.

The Digital Revolution

Consider that there have been themes about technology since 1865. Think Henry Ford, radio, canned food.

The name "The Digital Revolution" is used to describe the commonplace use of computer technology. Computers during the 1950s and 60s were used only by large businesses, and the machines had taken up entire rooms for processing data using tape storage. It was only in the 1980s, with the IBM PC and the Apple computer that the consumer could afford a "personal computer", a device intended for home record-keeping and entertainment, but not connected to the outside world. But by the 1990s, homes, businesses and libraries became better connected to the world. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, home ownership of computers connected to the internet was 68% by 2009.

Although originally designed by the military and universities as a way to store and share information over wired connections, the Internet (which includes the web, email, and other digital transfers) evolved to become the common gateway of shared resources and interchange. Early on, Vice President Al Gore spoke about the government's perspective, which permitted the Internet to be created as a mostly unregulated medium. Note Gore's references to the communications achievements in the past, and you may want to call it The Communication Revolution.

Document: Al Gore: Remarks on the Digital Revolution (1994)

 Click here to open document in a new window

"Computer"This electronic repository of information caused a questioning of what constitutes good research. When a student went into a library in the 1960s to do a research paper, she would use long-standing and respected books, journals, etc. from which to gather her facts. She would read the interpretations of others in "refereed" journals (that is, journals where other experts from the same discipline evaluate each others work). But when a student got on the Internet to do research in the 1990s, a search engine would bring up everything that linked to the topic according to that particular search engine's specifications. Much that was outside of those parameters was missed, and what did come up is unrefereed, disordered, and often created by people who were not specialists, and whose opinion on an issue had no substantiation. It was like asking your neighbor, a nuclear physicist, to give an opinion on the stock market.

The research problem was complicated in 2007 by the popularization of "Web 2.0", also called the "Read-Write Web". The popular use of cheap private websites and social media (such as Facebook and MySpace), and the advent of inexpensive GPS (geographic positioning systems) devices, created enormous social possibilities. People could connect through mobile devices. Movements could be tracked. And ones electronic contacts could become more "real" than ones "real world" communities. This was an expansion of a trend begun with cellular phone communications in the 1990s, although media historians could argue that such distancing began with the telegraph and telephone.

The movie clip I've chosen for this lecture is from Clueless. Although adapted from the Jane Austen novel, Emma, it reflects turn-of-the-millennium topics like disconnected families, cell phone friendships, the ubiquity of technology and work-obsessed adults.

In a sense, then, post-modernism was reflected in these new activities. While on the one had, online and cell phone communications could be seen as just a continuation of communications via letter, telegraph, or newspaper, their participatory nature also created a larger opportunity for deconstructing previous knowledge.

Home and Family

Consider themes about how people live at home. Think Victorian and Craftsman homes, Benjamin Spock, the ads from the 1950s, Betty Friedan.

Ever the retreat of the middle class, the home began to take on new importance in the 1990s and 2000s. While the Moral Majority of the 1980s had emphasized the home as the location for women's work and the foundations of morality in children, the 1990s expanded it into the center of culture.

modern kitchenAs usual, marketing provides insight into cultural trends.

Home Depot, founded in 1979, is a good example. Catering to do-it-yourself homeowners as well as contractors, the home improvement building center company had 1,100 stores nationwide by 2000. These stores, like the merchant giants at the turn of the century, were able to run out competition (in this case, small hardware stores) through volume pricing. Home improvement and decorating trends were represented on TV as well, with the increasing popularity of shows like This Old House , sit-coms like Home Improvement, and the advent of "Home and Garden Network". The 1950s trend of "keeping up with the Joneses" was reborn as people began to value home again as not only a retreat, but often a place from which to combine the responsibilities of family and work. The "home office" became more commonplace. The events of September 11, 2001 (see below) strengthened the trend toward emphasizing the home as a safe and central location in the lives of Americans.

Home schooling became more popular and acceptable in the 90's and early 21st century, although it had its origins in both the 70's continuation of communal living and the 80's Christian homeschooling movement. As studies showed that children who are homeschooled have as good or better test scores and social skills, there was less resistance and more public support, which meant government support. This included public schools offering homeschooling information and waivers. At the same time, chartered public schools and campaigns for school vouchers (where tax money pays for private schools) reflected a growing concern for alternatives in children's education.

Home birthing also became more acceptable as an alternative to hospital births. The obstetrical house call had disappeared during World War II, and that combined with the medical community's insistance on hospital conditions (sterility, convenience for doctors over the comfort of women in labor) had led to a cultural disdain of midwives and home birth. As part of a general trend toward alternative medicine, midwives gained cultural acceptance, although in most states the conventional medical community dominates laws and procedures.

Home schooling and home birthings were not the only domestic changes to raise eyebrows. The 90s also saw a change in home management and perceptions. In families based on the male-female couple with kids, the effort to combine home and work could mean a reversal of conventional gender roles. In the early 90s, the number of middle class two-income families increased. Children often went to day-care centers while both parents worked. By the late 90s, some of these families were considering returning to one income, with one adult taking care of the kids. In situations where the woman was earning more, or the man wanted to be intimately involved in child-rearing, some men became SAH (stay-at-home) dads. However, such men were often treated with derision, assumed to be babysitting or not fully competent as the main parent. gay marriage map

Even the definition of "family" underwent change in the 90s and early 21st century. For many years, gay people had referred to all other gays as family, and certainly gay couples raising children had to be considered as such. Also, because of the high divorce and remarriage rate, many families were "combined", with children from different marriages and relationships. Some families began sharing roles and tasks with other families very closely, creating extended families in an effort to make life more manageable or enjoyable. Some researchers (for example, those studying AfricanAmerican families in the ghetto) found that they had to redefine "family" in order to ask the right questions and make accurate observations. A family could be mom-dad-kids, or it could be grandparents and children, or a kinship group, or a more diverse entity including anyone with whom the subjects of the study had an interdependent relationship. Hillary Clinton's popularization of the phrase "it takes a village to raise a child" reflected this growing awareness of the changing home and family networks.

Marriage became a controversial topic during this era, also, with the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) defining marriage as between one man and one woman. This led to civil rights activities to promote gay marriage as a right enshrined in the Constitution.

A Medicated Society

Consider that this class had had themes about medicine or health care. Think settlement houses, Margaret Sanger, Jonas Salk.

The government declared "War on Drugs" during the 1980s. But that was only on illegal items. The FDA approved many medications, and the number of medical patents increased in the 90s as the society came to depend more and more on pharmaceuticals.

ad: Are you ready for Prozac weekly?The development of new drugs for mood disorders led to the creation of the hallmark anti-depressant Prozac, which was first marketed in 1988. The next year, annual sales topped $350 million. Although most forms of clinical depression (in which synapses of the brain fail to correctly process neurotransmitters like serotonin) had been treated since the 1950s, nothing had seen the popularity of Prozac. Unlike tranquilizers and earlier anti-depressants, Prozac could improve mood without altering personality or making the user sleepy. It was prescribed for everything from grieving to personal unfulfillment to post-feminist anxiety.

The 90s also saw the introduction of Viagra, a pill to help male impotence. Since it also tended to increase sexual desire, it was soon marketed and prescribed as a sexual "pick-me-up", with ads emphasizing women grateful that their men were taking it.

Ritalin was a drug designed to treat ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), and it was prescribed primarily for children marked the decade before as "hyperactive". The drug, a stimulant, became over-prescribed very quickly for basic behavioral problems. A revolt began, which is still gaining steam, against the over-medicating of children, some of whom need help but most of whom were simply being kids. In December 2000, Fred A. Baughman Jr., M.D , reported a

Dramatic escalation in child psychiatric drug prescriptions. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that the use of psychoactive medicines by children ages 2 to 4 tripled from 1991 to 1995. Ritalin is at the top of the list, according to insurance and Medicaid figures compiled by epidemiologist Julie Zito (University of Maryland, Baltimore). SCIENCE states that as many as 150,000 to 200,000 US children in this age group may now be taking Ritalin.

This was despite the fact that Ritalin was tested only on children over the age of six.

Tried-and-true 20th century pharmaceuticals also underwent a change in usage. Labs had to produce stronger antibiotics in reaction to improperly administered (i.e. the patient only took 3 days of a 10-day course of treatment) and overused prescriptions. Up until the mid-1990s, doctors routinely wrote prescriptions for antibiotics to treat viruses like the common cold. The justification was that antibiotics would prevent a bacterial "super-infection", but the result was widespread restistance to antibiotics that had previously been deemed safe and effective, like penicillin. Antibiotics were also introduced into "antibacterial" soaps and toys, further increasing resistance and necessitating the development of ever-stronger and less tested antibiotics which entered the marketplace very quickly. As each old antibiotic failed to work on a particular germ, patients had to be prescribed different antibiotics and combination antibiotics, sometimes trying two or three before one worked. Diseases like tuberculosis (TB), thought to be on its way toward eradication, have made a frightening comeback as a result of strong antibiotic resistance. As the 90s came to a close, more and more doctors began to refuse antibiotics to patients with viruses, and insist that those who needed them finish the full course of treatment.

One of the reasons that medication was hastily prescribed beginning in the 1980s was that it was often prescribed without lab work to confirm which pathogens were being fought. The increasing dominance of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), and their associated insurance companies, led to a focus on costs rather than care. Pharmaceuticals were often cheaper to both patient and HMO than blood tests, sputum cultures, psychological testing, or other diagnostic procedures. In the absence of a life-threatening illness, prescribing medication became the easiest way for doctors to satisfy both patients' expectations and the HMO guidelines which increasingly controlled medical practices.

Transgenic Foods

Consider that we have had themes about the role of farming, environment and science. Think John Muir, Victory gardens, Love Canal.

During the 70s and 80s, with the use of DDT banned across the country, chemical companies had developed other toxic substances for dealing with insect pests and diseases. You may recall from our discussion about the Dust Bowl that the main reason we needed all these chemicals is because of soil erosion and depletion of nutrients (soil exhaustion). Certainly, many people had been made aware of the dangers of chemical insecticides after Silent Spring, and environmental biologists felt they had an age-old solution: biological controls.

If you have a problem with a certain insect, why not import something that eats that insect? Get the natural enemies of those pests to destroy them. This was, as I said, not a new idea. In the 1880s in Hawaii, the mongoose (which eats rats) was introduced to control rats in sugar cane fields. Unfortunately, the mongoose hunts in the day, and Hawaiian rats come out at night. So instead the mongoose ate most of the native birds of Hawaii. This problem, of the introduced non-native species causing more harm than good, has been repeated many times. Australia has had the worst problems, importing rabbits for food (now they're trying to kill them with deadly viruses because they eat all the crops) and cane toads to eat sugar cane grubs (they don't eat the grubs but have bred so prolifically they're all over the roadways of Queensland). In 1992, ladybugs sold to eat aphids in people's gardens on the east coast of the U.S. bred with Japanese ladybugs and proliferated. They got into people's closets, kitchens, everything. All the introduced species run out native species, causing ecological imbalance.

Another solution, developed in the 90s, was transgenic foods. The original idea is also based on an old concept: plant breeding to select for beneficial characteristics. Let's say you find a corn that grows fairly well in Kansas, but only about 20% of the crop survives the frosts and droughts. You take the seed from that 20%, and plant it again, saving seeds and replanting each generation. Or you take that 20% of seed and cross it (hybridize) it with another corn that withstands heat well, but doesn't taste quite as good. This kind of farming has been going on for millenia; you select out and hybridize to get a certain kind of plant.

"Organic Tomatoes"

But transgenic foods take this to the cellular level. Instead of selective breeding, bioengineers genetically altered the crop by selecting out DNA from different plant or animal species to obtain certain characteristics. Not surprisingly, American chemical companies led the way, both to regain market losses from decreased pesticide use and to find another use for their chemicals. Calgene created the FlavrSavr tomato through gene splicing; it lasted on the shelf up to four months. By the time you got it, it had little flavor and almost no vitamins, but you could have a tomato on your sub sandwich in February in New York, and that's what Americans wanted. In mid-1996 this tomato was removed from production due to "genetic glitches", but Calgene was bought by Monsanto anyway. Monsanto had created Roundup-Ready Soybeans. Roundup (glyphosate) was an herbicide made by Monsanto to kill weeds. When you used it on soybeans, it also killed the soybeans. But by crossing a gene from a herbicide-resistant plant with the soybean, Monsanto created a soybean that you coud spray with Roundup and it was OK.

The problems with transgenic foods were several. The product was completely unpredictable; there was no way of knowing what product you'll end up with when you worked with molecular genetics. In 1989, genetically-engineered Tryptophan (an amino acid used to treat depression and insomnia) went toxic, killing several people and prompting the unjustified removal of all Tryptophan from the market. A soybean containing a brazil nut gene was highly allergenic. The soybeans (unidentified as transgenic because no law covered labeling) were used in baby formulas. Many babies allergic to milk were fed soy formula, and many babies allergic to other things were allergic to nuts, so this made massive amounts of soy formula that allergic babies couldn't drink, leaving them with nothing if they couldn't have breastmilk. A genetically engineered corn used for a non-petroleum fuel, ethanol, made the land infertile everywhere it was grown, and was later banned.

Avoiding transgenic foods became increasingly impossible as they entered the food chain in the 1990s, because the "drift" of pollens created transgenic species even where they weren't wanted. The solution, naturally, was organic diversity, but even organic corn can be pollinated by a transgenic corn on the next farm. In 2000, genetically-altered Starlink corn, deemed unfit for human consumption due to a high content of allergens, accidentally entered human food products. Although many nations around the globe banned them, when individual states tried to pass measures prohibiting genetically-modified foods, megacorporations like Monsanto put millions into defeating the measures, threatening skyrocketing food prices if these measures were approved.

Globalization and Global Effects

Consider themes on the U.S. role in the world, including the 19th century imperial expansion, the Versailles Treaty and the Cold War. Also themes about political public protest, such as women's peace parties during the Great War, Ban the Bomb groups after second World War, and King's march on Washington.

On a broad scale, American capitalism and consumerism expanded world-wide. This included US dominance of organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. During the Clinton administration, this modeling of the world, either in the American image or to suit the goals of the U.S. (depending on ones point of view) caused negative responses in many nations. Protestors at the WTO conference in Seattle, 1999, were an example of this.

Document: Paul Reynolds: The Battle of Seattle (1999)

 Click here to open document in a new window

There were also, however, international efforts for the betterment of the world. Around the globe, other nations were trying to build on the international successes regarding the environment. The new European Union, created during the 1990s, began to codify European standards regarding the environment, standards which included the labelling of genetically modified products in excess of .9% in food, the prohibition of hormone use in feed animals, limits on particle emissions into the air, and measures on sustainable development. On a broader scale, increasing scientific evidence of global warming led to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, which developed a protocol at Kyoto for setting voluntary carbon emissions limits. By 2009, 192 nations had signed on to the protocol. The United States ratified it under President Bush I, but in March 2001 President George W. Bush (Bush the Younger) withdrew the U.S. from the Protocol.

Document: The Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. on Climate Change (1997/2005)

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The US remained the only developed country that hadn't ratified the agreement.

Terrorism and War: 9/11

Consider that there has been a trend throughout this class on war and fear since 1865. Think both Red Scares and all four wars.

Cover of New Yorker showing twin towers in shadowOn September 11, 2001, two airplanes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center. Another was crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C, and another crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. At the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, which were built to withstand the impact of an airliner, the fires from the planes melted the steel cores of the buildings. The towers collapsed, killing thousands.

The political response was immediate. The George W. Bush administration declared "war on terrorism", and pushed Congress to award unprecedented power to the President to fight any threats. Barbara Lee, Democratic representative from California, cast the single vote against permitting President George W. Bush to use force against "those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks" [House Joint Resolution 64]. It was rather startling that Congress essentially ceded its responsibility for declaring war, permitting military activities in several countries without Congressional debate.

photo showing fireman with flag in rescueFollowing evidence linking the attacks to the international al-Q'aeda terrorist organization, the U.S. attacked Afghanistan, where the repressive Taliban government provided haven for the group. But the U.S. was not alone -- the original partner was the UK, and by December the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan included 17 European countries, South Korea and Australia. Given plenty of warning of impending attack, the al-Q'aeda members fled, and the Taliban were temporarily removed from power. The peace movement in the U.S. was played down by the media. The government had tightly controlled access to information by the press.

There are other questions too that were ignored by the mainstream Western media. One concerned the collapse of the Twin Towers, which killed more people than the impact of the planes. A plane had before crashed into the Empire State Building, which had prompted changes in building. But a 1968 fire that melted the steel core of a building in Britain had led to a recommendation for steel cores to be surrounded by concrete rather than fireproofing spray, a recommendation that was ignored in New York because it was expensive and inconvenient.

By fall of 2002, the Bush Administration's focus had turned to Iraq, although the war continued in Afghanistan. Historians will probably note combined Cartoon of Bush on "War" surfboard heading into wave of World Opinionmotives of oil, neo-Christianity, father-son psychology, neo-imperialism, and frustration with the "war on terror". When it became apparent that some members of the U.N. Security Council (and most of world opinion) did not favor war, the U.S. combined with Britain and Spain to attack Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein in what is now called the Second Gulf War. This revived a scholarly interest in America's previous experience with imperialism, as well as studies of the perils and successes of the British Empire. There were also attempts to repeal the unprecedented authority that Congress gave to the President in the year following 9/11, but none have been successful so far.

Both an anti-war and pro-war response emerged with Afghanistan and Iraq. I'm going to use country music to show the deep divide that split the U.S. people in these responses.

Document: Jim Morin: Gas Station Cartoon (2001)

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click here for audio song: Toby Keith Country Toby Keith created a song in support of a violent response as being in the American tradition. It was called "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue". Lyrics
Country The Dixie Chicks focused on a more individual experience of war in "Travelin' Soldier". This group caught hell for saying they were sorry that President Bush was from Texas. Lyrics

Rock musicians weren't nearly as subtle. Here's System of a Down with their anti-war song "Boom!" Released in November 2002, the song played before the video was made. The video was filmed at the international war protests of February 15, 2003. In response to Bush's declaration that certain countries constituted an "Axis of Evil", Serj Tankian from System Of A Down and Tom Morello from Audioslave formed the "Axis of Justice" to act as muckrakers exposing the injustices in the American response and the American system. Lyrics


National Security after 9/11

There are themes here about measures to protect the nation and their effects.

Following 9/11, the federal government began to centralize its authority, through the passing of bills such as U.S.A. Patriot Act and the establishment of a Department of Homeland Security. The Bush administration pursued its war on terrorism in Afghanistan and into Iraq, naming this nation as one of an "axis of evil" perpetrating wicked deeds. Some security experts criticized the approach, noting that a centralized, nationalistic response to a decentralized, international enemy (these terrorists operate in independent "cells" or units around the world) could lead to serious problems.

These events were reminiscent of the Red Scares. Membership in the American Civil Liberties Union jumped in 2001-2, a good indicator of the concerns of many Americans.

Document: Anthony Romero: In Defense of Liberty in a Time of National Emergency (2002)

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By 2008, the end of Bush's second term, many Americans had tired of an endless war and an administration that did much of its governing in secret under the umbrella of national security.

Contemporary America (2008-2018)

Keep in mind that this lecture cannot really be "history", since not enough time has elapsed for proper analysis. What's here is essentially my interpretation of contemporary and current events, so I've tried to point to trends and themes.

Recession and A New Hope 2008-2012

We have themes about leadership, the presidency, war and the economy.

Obama Hope Poster

There was much talk during the Democratic primaries of 2008 about doing something "historic". This was because the two front runners were a female Senator, Hillary Clinton, and a mixed-race black Senator, Barack Obama. By 2008, the Republican party was split and unable to coordinate against a persistent errors of the Bush II administration. But because the several previous elections had been so close, the Democratic nominee was crucial. Following the victory of Barack Obama, the Democratic party closed ranks quickly. Young people were an important factor, supporting the candidate in record numbers.

Within the first few days, the new president began an amibitious program of stimulating the sagging economy with government money, contacting Muslim leaders worldwide, signing a measure to close controversial military prisons, and voicing opposition to previous policies on everything from medical marijuana to "don't ask, don't tell" for gays in the military. He then went on to health care (actually health insurance) reform. Because many of his measures met strict opposition and ended in compromise, the honeymoon seemed to be quickly over, but at the same time the response internationally held fast. Seen as isolationist in many ways, the United States under Obama began to gain back some of its moral leadership outside the country, despite the continuation of the war in Afghanistan. On May 1, 2011 officials announced that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was dead, killed in a raid.

The emergence of the Tea Party during this era can also be noted in the victories of certain Republican candidates in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. Their protests concerning taxation, constitutionality and spending would make for excellent themes! On the opposite side of the political spectrum, protesters from Occupy Wall Street (and other "Occupy" protests) sought to open the dialogue and create participatory democracy (similar to the protests of the 1960s and the Arab Spring revolts) in response to environmental degradation, years of expensive warfare, and loss of opportunity and the American dream. The difference between the OCW and the Tea Party movements is that the former wanted more responsible government to handle the country's broken system, which was being dominated by corporate interests, while the Tea Party wanted lower taxes and less governmental interference.

Image comparing tea party and ows

copyright Bloomberg Business Week, 2011

Given the split in American sentiments indicated by the influence of both the far right and far left, Obama's re-election in 2012 was a surprise to many. It was followed by increasing political divisions, with polarized parties in Congress refusing to work with each other. American government became a global embarrassment.

A Dangerous World

The Obama administration removed many US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2013. At the same time, support for rebels against the Syrian government, and continued instability in Iraq, created conditions for the rise of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and other groups whose goal was an apocalyptic road to a caliphate. Their military successes, use of YouTube to show executions of Westerners, and financial connections made the world seem much less stable once again. Elsewhere, Vladimir Putin solidified his power in Russia and began trying to recreate the Soviet Union with a combination of military actions in Crimea and Ukraine.

Domestically, other patterns became apparent. Although in general violent crime was on the decline, mass killings captured media attention. It is possible that the media focus on the killers (their family, upbringing, mental problems) helped create copy-cat killings. Gun control, ignored since the Brady Bill of 1993, became an issue again following multiple school shootings, beginning with high school in 1999 but escalating through the 2010s. Cities went bankrupt as the Midwest factories and mines closed down. Racial divides began to open further, and college students began demanding hate speech protection through trigger warnings and other restrictions on free speech (see below). Environmental protection declined as oil became once again less expensive. The Citizens United v FEC Supreme Court case (2010) allowed corporations and others to contribute as much as they wanted to political advertising, on the premise that money qualifies as free speech, which had been practiced by media corporations anyway.

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Outrage became the acceptable response to many of America's problems. This tendency was magnified by the immediacy and pervasiveness of the internet. Media outlets vied for attention by becoming more sensationalist, which encouraged the trend of low-level discourse, which encouraged the polarization of views. At a time when the country most needed an intelligent, cogent defense of democracy, it was unable to create one. The presidential campaign of 2016 would show a four-part political division, each party with a radical wing. And yet what all had in common was fear and anger.

Trump's America

When Donald Trump won the presidential election in November 2016, many were surprised. But they shouldn't have been. A few months before, similar elements in Britain had voted for that country to leave the European Union. There too the forces for change were based on anti-liberal, anti-global, anti-immigrant ideas — and both the "Brexiteers" and Trump supporters saw their current governments as being out of touch. Liberal democracies, including that of this country, had become complacent, assuming a rational understanding of long-term economic and political goals, including the Obama administration's foreign policy. And few understood history, the lessons of what happens when authoritarian rulers come into office to "fix" things. The American election was just the latest of a trend in anti-liberal elections and support throughout the world.

The approaches of the Trump administration have mystified far more experienced historians and analysts than me, of course. But there have been a few distinct trends.

One was deregulation. Normally, this word is used to mean private takeover of things previously provided publicly (like food stamps, welfare, federal roads, prisons). And yes, that has been happening, but it precedes the election of 2016. Other deregulation presented itself, ironically, in the takeover of regulatory agencies by business leaders who supported President Trump's election. While there have certainly been other presidents who have done this quietly, putting friends and supporters into positions of power, this president gloried in it. Thus, in a way that echoed George Orwell's 1984, the very departments in charge of regulations were dismantling them. The foxes, it was said, were in charge of the henhouse.

Much of this reversed the success of acts and departments to regulate business in order to protect the public good. One example would be the Environmental Protection Agency, founded in 1970. Although criticized often for failing to create stringent enough regulations to prevent environmental pollution and global warming, the EPA was the only federal agency dedicated to environmental protection. But once President Trump took office, it was invariably been run by people who want to dismantle, if not the entire agency, then most of the protective, anti-pollution regulations it had created in the past 50 years.

In addition, President Trump defied not only convention in what he said and did, but maintained holdings of his corporation's wealth-producing properties, even when they created a conflict of interest with being president. So what in most democratic countries would be considered corruption became standard procedure, and set new precedents. Much of what was done did not violate any particular law, and it became apparent how much of presidential demeanor and power had been a matter of habit and precedent. There were few guidelines other than what previous presidents had done, and presidential power had been steadily increasing since the early 1990s (some historians say much earlier). Congress had repeatedly ceded their authority to defer to presidential actions (the War for Kuwait is one example), and Trump took advantage of these precedents. His supporters were delighted that he was shaking the tree, and didn't necessarily connect his government's actions to their own problems. The reality for many of his supporters was lives challenged by technological change, the ignorance of elites on both coasts to the problems of the middle, and the perceived lack of traditional moral values. On the far left, identity politics took hold, dividing Americans into groups by gender and ethnicity, denouncing "privilege" and engaging in grievance politics. The edges of each party saw America in completely different ways, with little that provided common ground.

One example was Steve Bannon, an early Trump advisor who saw political differences between conservative and liberal as an epic battle of civilizations.

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Compromise was unlikely with such views. The word "populism" came to mean something quite different in the last decade than it did in the days of the populist parties at the turn of the last century. Although ostensibly based in the lower income sectors of our society, and promoted as being for their benefit, such movements relied on charismatic leaders that could easily become despots. Whether on the right or left, the "populist" movements of the 2010s were based in an anti-intellectual tradition that saw all institutions as repressing individual rights. These institutions were seen as being controlled by "elites". At the turn of the last century, these elites might include millionaire tycoons, but in recent timesmillionaires were exalted for defying a system controlled by educated elites. This perception undermined rational thought and analysis, and the importance of scholarship, and replaced it with emotions, particularly fear and anger.

So it's here where I want to bring us back to the post-modern world. Both extremes value emotion and feeling over facts and scientific rationality, and those in the middle are scarcely heard among the roar of outrage. How strong are our ethics and democratic values if they can be undermined so easily? The response will require a concerted, determined articulation of the values of liberal democracy, which most Americans both assume and treasure.

Equity and social justice

Fearless girlOne of the most powerful symbols of the 2010s arose out of an advertising campaign for State Street Global Advisers. They were advertising a fund that contained a high percentage of female-dominated companies. Kristen Visbal's bronze statue of Fearless Girl, defiantly standing her ground, was installed in March 2017 in front of the 1989 statue of the charging bull, signifying the good markets of Wall Street*. Neither had been installed officially -- both were examples of guerilla art.

The installation was particularly timely given the Women's March two months before, to protest President Trump's election in light of his dismissive (and possibly abusive) treatment of women and minority groups. Millions marched in protests around the world, some wearing "pussy hats" (pink, handmade, with ears) to recall Trump's claim that women allowed him to grab them by their vulva. Some saw in the March the start of the #MeToo movement, where women in larger numbers began publicly revealing themselves as victims of sexual abuse and harassment.

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But "social justice" and "equity" also became larger themes, and were connected to the post-modern rejections of language that could marginalize people. Racism, instead of being seen as something an individual felt or displayed against people of a different color skin, culture, or tradition, was seen as "structural". The academic field of sociology, always associated with studies of race, class, and gender, took the lead in defining acceptable and unacceptable views and speech. The study of institutions was key to demonstrating that the poor treatment of, and lack of agency among, groups of people was engrained in cultural norms, and in spaces like schools, prisons, and government.

"White privilege" prevented other groups from understanding or acknowledging these structural barriers to progress. One of the strongest journalistic voices was Ta-Nehisi Coates, who articulated  his own experiences with cultural racism in his 2015 book Between the World and Me. Episodes of violence against black Americans, particularly police brutality like that in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, disillusioned many that there could be an end to racism. Ultimately, a number of writers and sociologists took the position that white people couldn't even understand their privilege, and there was no point talking to white culture at all.

At the same time, appreciation for the hardships of black experience, and the experiences of other "minorities" in America, increased. In academe, efforts had been going on for some time to include readings and sources from people who had not been mainstream, or white, or wealthy, or in power. This tradition went back to at least the 1940s, when economic and social histories emerged to counter the history of elites. This trend of inclusion expanded to a focus on "equity", which could mean different things. To some, it meant recompense for slavery, or measures that privilege non-whites, or separation from the integration ideas of Martin Luther King. To others, it meant acting with fairness toward all.

Other elements in the culture saw the downside of these approaches to social justice, in particular the incursions upon free speech. With the post-modern critique of language had come the call to restrict language. Unacceptable derogatory terms were expanded to include "micro-aggressions" that a person might commit unthinkingly but could offend someone. College students in particular began to protest professors and speakers who had views that were in opposition to the new prevailing social justice norms, ironically at places like UC Berkeley which had been champions of free speech in the 1960s. With the increasing focus given to transgender people in the media and court cases over male/female bathrooms in schools, the divide increased even more, with most Americans in favor of tolerance, some angry about the perceived attack on morality, and others complaining that "tolerance" implied lack of acceptance.

Continuing topics

These continue from the previous lecture, as if we were providing evidence for themes. A short sampling:

Presidents and the Media

In the previous lecture, we looked at the way the media treated presidents before Watergate, compared to how they portrayed them after Watergate. Unlike President Franklin Roosevelt, whose sexual indicretions had been ignored, Clinton's had been emphasized.

While President Obama gave little opportunity to the press to publicize presidential indiscretions, the election and presidency of Donald Trump began a press war that reflected larger cultural issues. Press neutrality disappeared as right-wing websites and press outlets were encouraged to accuse other media of "fake news", while left-wing and centrist media outlets abandoned any semblance of unbiased coverage. While it is not new that presidents might be criticized by the press, and return the disdain, the very liberties on which the press was founded were threatened by both media outlets and the White House.

Cell phones and web culture

Possible theme: with each advancement in technology, something significant is lost.

iPhoneIn the first decades of the 21st century, cell phones became the main gateway to information and e-moderated social interaction. Phones became first smaller, then larger as people began using them like computers. Along with tablets (which run cell-phone operating systems), cell phones not only accessed the internet, but used private "apps" that created their own communities and networks. At the same time, broadband internet was more widely available, prompting the FCC to declare it a utility in 2015. Net neutrality (the idea that vendors of internet access should not be permitted to provide more service to some customers than others) was an issue. Electricity and water companies are not permitted to deliver their products in different amounts to different types of customers. Net neutrality supporters made some headway during the Obama administration, then the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality as of April 2018, then reconsidered.

Socially, culturally, and psychologically, the "always on" world of ubiquitous communication took its toll of health, time, and emotions. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2012), Sherry Turkle examined the alienation caused by our dependence on instant communication. Here's a TED talk presentation she gave on the subject. Scientific studies also revealed that cell phone addiction, with its inability to stop checking ones phone for the latest pings and updates, is caused by the positively reinforced cycle of adrenaline and serotonin in the brain as it responds to stimuli. This modern version of scanning the environment (a safety measure when people lived in caves) can cause stress.

TED talks themselves were symbolic of another trend, toward "chunking" information and making it entertaining. The internet encouraged the development of the "hypertext mind" (hypertext is another word for link - it makes it possible for you to click and go elsewhere). Attention shifted with the continual use of the web and the "smart" phone. The entire field of educational technology emerged at the same time, offering teaching methods and products like Canvas, the learning management system we're using now. The social impact had, like most things, good and bad sides. On the one hand, information was easier to find, on pretty much any topic. Connecting with others was, in some ways, easier too, especially across distance. But people's minds were being trained to jump to the newest sparkly object, instead of being able to follow a sustained argument. This had vast repercussions for democracy, which requires the participation of citizens.

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Home, family, and the states

The decision that marriage was male-female became a rallying point for advocates of gay marriage in the new millenium, and in response several states began to legalize same-sex marriages in addition to civil unions. The Supreme Court decision in 2013 to strike down key elements of DOMA meant a reinterpretation for federal benefits for married couples. At the same time, states began to take on the issue of gay marriage. Slate.com created a map of the legality of gay marriage following the Supreme Court's refusal to review gay marriage decisions in several states, tacitly allowing states to decide for themselves. In a 5-4 decision on Obergefell v Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry is a fundamental liberty, and protected by both the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th amendment. Although same-sex marriage bans in 13 states were then unconstitutional, difficulties continued as public opinion shifted and further cases (like the Masterpiece Cakeshop case) came to the Supreme Court.

What's interesting here is the reassertion of the states. States rights, which were a battle cry in the Civil War for southern states trying to preserve their property (especially slaves), emerged nation-wide in response to President Trump's federal changes. California, for example, promised non-cooperation with federal agents trying to remove undocumented people and deport them. The state created sanctuary cities, and even issued grants for protection against federal incursion. When the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris treaty on climate change, a number of states signed on instead, as states. As the lawsuits flew back and forth, states were asserting their rights once again.

A Medicated Society, continued

Many politicians throughout American history, particularly after the Great Depression, had floated the idea that health care was a basic civil right, and should be funded by the government. A number of other countries in Europe, and even Canada, socialized health care for this reason.The champion of socialized medicine in the modern era had been Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and First Lady Hilary Clinton had also tried to get consensus on the issue. It was at the top of President Obama's agenda, and he struggled to create a plan that could gain support. But when he managed to institute health care reform in 2010 with the Affordable Care Act, the premise was to require people to have health insurance, rather than good medical care. This was a compromise with the insurance companies, because fear remained about socializing any elements of America that had been privatized. As medical costs increased, fewer people could afford to pay, and employers began to trim back their benefits. With the decline of unions, fewer companies could be pressured into offering better coverage. Insurance companies spread the risk, but they only did so if enough people enrolled, balancing the expenses of the sick with the savings of the well.

heroin bottle - vintageSince 2008, a phenomenon called the Opioid Epidemic came to public attention. Opium is derived from certain kinds of poppies, and has been used medicinally throughout human history (on derivative is heroin, as seen in the bottle of medicine here from the turn of the 20th century). Opium derivatives, such as laudanum and morphine, are the only strong pain managers humans have been able to develop, which is why they are needed for cases of severe pain, such as terminal cancer and post-operative pain. The market expanded with the increased production of cheaper opioid derivatives, and they began to be prescribed for moderate forms of pain (post-natal, tooth extractions) and even mild pain (sprained ankles) where a milder analgesic (like ibuprofen or acetaminophen) would have been more appropriate. Like antibiotics, they were overprescribed by doctors trying to help people. Opioids have always been addictive. In th 1840s China had tried to stop the importation of opium due to high levels of addiction, which were so bad they were affecting families and the economy. The result  had been British gunboats and the Opium Wars to keep the market open. Deaths from overdose increased, and the seriousness of the problem was one of the few things the political parties agreed on in the new millenium. As with most things, however, the recognition of one problem has led to another, in this case the underprescribing of opioids for serious pain.

By 2018, in light of the drug-addiction epidemic, the government shied away from reforming "Obamacare" too much, partly because many people support it and need it, and they were unable to design anything better. At the same time, marijuana legalization efforts picked up traction in a number of states, for both medicinal and recreational use. The movement was supported by the ongoing neglect of federal enforcement (which needed the funds for personnel and violent crime), the rise of marijuana as a treatment for opioid addiction, and the realization that money could be made in cannabis growthe and distribution under state regulation. Needless to say, this was controversial. The era also saw the normalization of smoking, which had been declining in popularity, with e-cigarettes. These used non-combusted tobacco, often in flavors that appealed to young people. A trend across the world, some saw it as increasing tobacco abuse, while others saw it as a safer way to smoke.

Globalization and global effects

One of the biggest criticisms, as we've seen, of the 1990s was the success of globalization. The WTO protests were not the only example of feeling against global competition, or of a sense that the rich were getting richer while the poor got poorer. President Clinton himself had tried to explain that the growing pains would balance out into a improved marketplace for all, but not everyone understood. To be fair, he could not have predicted the rise of the technology giants and the global internet as forces for anything but good. Perhaps we shoud call this the "internationalist" perspective, which was continued by President Obama. Cooperation with other nations reached its height.

Nationalism returned in the mid-2010s. The rise of nativist populism in Europe and the United States was seen as opposition to globalization. Anti-immigration feeling emerged against certain groups of people, based on the idea that foreign people were taking jobs and controlling markets. Internationally, right-wing parties opposed to immigration got more and more votes. The Trump administration continually reassessed all foreign entanglements as a matter of course, and went to draconian lengths to control illegal immigration. Such measures were more political than essential: immigration was down, and businesses were clear that they needed cheap labor, particularly with the administration's "Made in America" rules.

Google signBut there was a form of internationalism still in play. Where once the big corporations were General Electric, Ford, and Standard Oil, there were now Google, Facebook, and Amazon. They went global in a way that Rockefeller could have only dreamed. At first it looked like the computer age would be marked by hardware and software disputes (Microsoft vs Apple, for example). But what began as disputes over operating systems installed on devices as monopolies, became an argument about infrastructure. The internet depends on wired connections (DSL, fiber optic cable, television cable) or wireless structures (cell towers). As noted above, as the internet became as common as electricity and household water, the question arose as to whether the web is a public good or the domain of private companies. Arguments about Net Neutrality (the right for all internet traffic to be treated the same in terms of speed and access) sounded like previous disputes over water rights. As with water, the likelihood of socialization was low. Government cooperation with corporations, as with health insurance, was far more likely.

Pop culture

The arts changed radically in the early part of the century, reflecting not only cultural trends like post-modernism but new market issues created by the internet. By 2005, the rise of the internet and file-sharing app Napster threatened the big music companies. According to the book The Song Machine (2015) by James Seabrook, the response was the mechanization of pop music hit-making, creating an assembly-line collaborative method for song-writing and selling. Instead of a long-term, individual, creative act, popular songs were written by a handful of artists using what Seabrook calls the "track-and-hook" method of creating a backbeat track, then having individual singers create their own melodies over it. Naturally, this made many songs sound the same, since many had the same track. At the same time, services like Pandora and Spotify began making money, indicating that music heard over streaming services was becoming more popular and economically viable than owning objects that contain music, such as records, CDs, or MP3 files.

Fiction writing was similarly subject to formulas, and self-publishing was only just beginning to form a serious challenge to publishers. As with music, marketing was key. Amazon took over from the corporate bookstores (like Borders and Barnes and Noble) who had before taken over from independent bookstores. Electronic books, read on a screen, took a big chunk of the market, and forced prices down. Textbooks, for years unchallenged as essential for college classes, were questioned as the monopolies they were. After years of charging students for "new editions" that contained only minor revisions, publishers were having to rethink. The new trends toward Open Educational Resources, while not yet providing the quality of commercially-produced textbooks, provided options.

Fewer motion pictures were being made in this era. Many movie theatres went backward, reinventing themselves as places for the middle class to view a movie in some luxury. At the same time, streaming services like Netflix created their own programming in a way that challenged both broadcast and cable television, as well as cinema movies. Home screens got larger, and the trend toward staying home to be entertained continued.

And lest we think poetry just somehow died since the 1960s, or just turned into rap and stayed there, meet Rudy Francisco (and he's local):

The Midterms 2018

Voting turnout had been low for the presidential election in 2016, as far fewer young people voted. Former President Barack Obama created a public service announcement:

According to the United States Election Project, 47% of voters turned out for the midterm elections, the highest in 50 years. Although the predicted "blue wave" didn't exactly happen, the Democratic Party did re-take the House of Representatives, ending the Republican control of the federal government.

Getting up to date

History classes don't focus much on recent events, since it's memory rather than history. But I think it's safe to say that the start of the Covid-19 Global Pandemic in March 2020 will not only make the history books, but may start or end an era. The most recent pandemic on this scale was almost 100 years ago, at the end of the First World War, 1918-19. Thus hardly anyone alive remembers the restrictions, the legal order to wear masks, or the fact that places which locked down, wore masks, and cooperatively engaged in social distancing did far better than towns and cities which did not.

In recent surveys, my students have shared with me their concern about issues that have not been addressed sufficiently by our culture. The top two worries are the environment (particularly climate change and the failure to do much about it) and gun control (same problem). Notice how neither has been a consideration in government in this time of polarization. I hope that you'll vote in every election for which you are eligible.

And now you have done something impossible just 30 years ago -- you've taken an entire class over the internet. Perhaps you studied at home or in the library. You may have been challenged by the technology, by the necessity for self-direction, or by your hypertext mind. But you've done it.

* Fearless Girl was moved to in front of the Stock Exchange in January 2019.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.