By Robert Wilson
December 1, 2008
The Obama administration will not lack for problems to solve or for advice about how to solve them. But part of the fun of having a change in government, especially a change as dramatic as the one we are about to see, is the chance to put in your own two cents’ worth. One big way in which I hope the Obama drama will play out has to do with a new eagerness for historical perspective. For eight years, the Bush administration put ideology above any respect for the accumulating wisdom of history. Thus, for example, they ignored the constitutional separation of powers in favor of the “unitary executive,” tore down a web of international alliances that had been spun over the decades since World War II, and with initiatives ranging from domestic spying to the use of torture clawed away at the very notion of what it means to be an American, in our own estimation and in the eyes of the world. In this issue of the Scholar, we offer three articles that bring historical perspective to questions that the Obama administration might well address.
John Tirman’s “The Future of the American Frontier” warns that we have reached the limits of the global frontier, which was the 20th century’s response to the closing of the continental frontier at the end of the 19th century. Given the enduring and even defining role of the frontier myth in our national identity, something will have to replace the global frontier. Tirman suggests what that new frontier might be.
A problem the Obama administration could be uniquely placed to solve is the ongoing question of affirmative action. Ralph Eubanks, a writer who is himself of mixed race, suggests in “Affirmative Action and After” that changes must be made, but that the conservative proposal that we should replace racial considerations with class ones is too simplistic. For a more subtle argument he turns to Martin Luther King Jr. and his ally in the civil rights movement Bayard Rustin.
In “Spies Among Us,” Clay Risen looks back to the 1960s to examine the widespread use of the U.S. military for domestic spying. The Founding Fathers, having fought a revolution, were deeply concerned about the dangers of a standing army being used against its own citizenry and sought in the Constitution and Bill of Rights to prevent such a possibility. The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act explicitly forbids the use of the military for domestic law enforcement. Although the public exposure of Army spying in the early 1970s caused an outcry and helped lead to the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), no effective restrictions were ever passed by Congress. Recent legislation gutting FISA, for which Senator Obama voted, makes matters worse, and as Risen writes, “most of today’s domestic surveillance activities fall under the military’s control.” Risen explains why this is a situation that should frighten us as much as it did the Founders.
Robert Wilson is the editor of the Scholar and the author of Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation.
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