Thursday, June 11, 2015

David Halberstam was a Harbinger

Note: This is a condensed re-run, posted as part of acknowledging recent reader preference for essays regarding Don’t Be In Denial About American Decline.

I condensed it because the Wall Street meltdown, no longer a fresh horror, no longer motivates readers.
I’ve deleted the lessons from Vietnam, where Halberstam eventually realized the US had recently acquired hubris. And I deleted the footnotes.

It was on this day three years ago, in 2007, that David Halberstam, while a passenger, was killed in a car crash… Although many of us believe in going through our life in this democracy as “passengers,” Halberstam believed we could aspire to be "crew," active citizens. He obviously wrote his books for concerned readers. I wonder, today, if he merely cast his pearls before swine. Poor guy.

Before his untimely death he had won many journalism awards, including the Pulitzer, and to what avail? Despite Halberstam’s fine work his fellow Americans, in the long run, have ignored his messages. I don’t think we realize whom we’ve lost, for he was a blend of Cassandra and Prometheus. Perhaps, by the end his days, his researched-in-vain findings were tearing at his vitals. More likely, he maturely coped. After all, to understand all is to forgive all. And Halberstam, a hard working researcher, understood people.

The Reckoning

The current world wide recession, which began with the awful U.S. implosion, was, in essence, predicted in Halberstam’s small-page book of only 126 hardcover pages, The Next Century (1991)

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Wall Street meltdown, as the U.S. pondered whether to bail out the car industry, there was concern being expressed as to whether General Motors (GM) was capable of internal reform. I chuckled when all-but-bankrupt top automotive executives flew to meet with the government in Washington…. because they made the mistake of flying in an expensive private jet. It became a front-page scandal. People wondered in public if profligate GM was hopelessly addicted to being prodigal… and, as well, stuck with second-class, by world standards, designers and engineers. As all this public discourse was happening not a single person, to my knowledge, referred to Halberstam’s thick best seller The Reckoning (1986) Here he documented America’s auto culture as being a culture of arrogance and resistance to reform, as in, for example, front wheel drive being common in Europe a full ten years before the U.S. auto makers introduced it.

The Reckoning compared and contrasted not merely the automotive cultures of Japan and America, but, equally important, the educational cultures in which the workers and designers were embedded. His book “could have been called The Wakeup Call” as he contrasted the school systems. The New Century examines education too:

QUOTE ...He (Ayama) believed a mistake of historical proportions may have been made as Japan prepared to deal with its future. The nation, he suggested, was producing workers rather than full citizens, and he once told me in passing, almost as a throwaway, that it was a great deal easier to produce a good car than it was to produce a good human being.UNQUOTE

Recently, as the American people, in this brave new millennium, have semi-confidently plunged into two new Asian wars, I’m sure no one read Cassandra’s – er - Halberstam’s old Vietnam book, The Quagmire. He won the Pulitzer for his dispatches that preceded that book. As you know, the trick in Nam was “to win the hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese, to convince them to reform themselves enough… so then they would freely choose democracy over communism. 

Today I’m unhappy. Never mind reforming GM: Are the American people ready for reform?

Over Christmas, I read in the (2009-2010) Economist that household debt in the U.S. has risen, just in the last decade alone, by 30 per cent.

I remember as a young man reading how the Japanese were amazed at U.S. behavior, exclaiming that the U.S. economy would collapse in a single day if the Yanks ever stopped buying on credit!

It was to Japan that Halberstam went away to spend months and a small fortune, gambling that he would learn enough, that his book would pay enough, to recover his costs. This in a land where prices are very high and businessmen don’t believe in being open and honest the way Americans do. Happily, Halberstam’s gamble paid off, or so he must have thought. Too bad his work is all but forgotten.

Oh, and lest we forget, it was before the Wall Street recession that a certain South American supermodel made the world news. She insisted on her contract being written to say she would be paid in Euros, not U.S. dollars. No one laughed at her for thinking Americans would have problem soon if they didn't reform. Even a beautiful bimbo could foresee how the average U.S. citizen is less likely to reform than to go wimpering off into the night. At least, so far, that’s their track record, as individual consumers and as federal citizens— update: The Americans are breaking their streak of preferring security to freedom. They are about to allow the sun to set on parts of their patriot act.


Halberstam offers some scant comfort. As regards the U.S. sliding from super power to major power status he was pleased that at least the various state governors, being closer to factories and investments on the ground, “get it.” The bad news, at least at the time he was writing, was that the feds “didn’t get it.”

QUOTE;…I was one of two speakers before the governors of fifty states of the Union. It was a memorable occasion, not merely because of the distinguished audience, but also because Henry Kissinger was the other speaker.UNQUOTE

It was amazing how out of touch Henry Kissinger was. I guess that's why Halberstam’s book, The New Century, has a tale of that astounding night as chapter one.

QUOTE The governors, I noted, were in a good position to know if America was going to be a great power in the years 2010 and 2020 because they knew the quality of our average high school graduates far better than did the people in our national security complex.UNQUOTE

For me, appreciative of media, I am pleased to see that Halberstam presents significant consequences flowing from how the public now prefers to get their news from moving pictures. Screens. Using terms like “sound bites,” and “trivializes,”he shows how this new preference has altered, significantly altered, the quality of political discourse among citizens and civil servants. At some level, surely, if the public doesn’t seem to know of their changes then it’s not by accident. It’s as if they don’t want their “choosing to change” to be an informed choice. Call them infantilized. For me, it’s nice to hear Halberstam’s voice in the wilderness calling for print. (See my essays tagged newspapers)


 …It is from countless social indicators, in contrast to the years up to and including WWII and President Harry Truman, that Halberstam, in The New Century, has been able to abstract a crazy-sounding Big Concept: the U.S., at the federal level, has come to value power over truth. Call it hubris.

Of course, hubris was something the Greeks knew of all too well. Hubris, they knew, leads always to a fall.

Somehow, strangely, U.S. hubris has not been dented so far, not even after the U.S. has created a worldwide recession. Still, I haven’t lost hope – And so I am grateful to those few poor heroic voices such as David Halberstam.

Today, in memory of him, instead of being a passive user of my credit card, I will stop and actively review whether I am living within my means. “A Boy Scout is thrifty.”

Sean Crawford
North America
April 23, 2010
June 2015

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