Ideas and Things

Can we be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by American culture and politics? Daily we read or more like hear about political polarization, deep ideological divides, a politicized Supreme Court, protests over race and history. Of course, there are histories and context to each issue and conflict, but sometimes what we need is something more fundamental. Behind all these things are ideas.

Intellectual historians have attracted larger and larger audiences that are hungry for explanations about the origins, contexts, and consequences of ideas that seem more powerful than ever. How do we understand a society riddled by profound contradictions—a society that transitioned, most recently, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?

Ideas matter. A lot. Most people recognize as much. Intellectual history—the study of ideas in the past—thus has a lot to offer people. With my colleague Andrew Hartman, we have co-edited a collection conceived with this basic fact in mind.

We asked the authors to consider the following question: How might the methods of intellectual history shed light on contemporary issues with historical resonance? Their answers, while rigorous, original, and challenging, are eclectic in approach and temperament. For example, to understand the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party between the left and liberals (or supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton, respectfully), Hartman argues we need to grapple with the idea of freedom: “The left’s mission—the reason for its existence—was to expand the idea of political freedom, which was limited and went by the name of liberalism, to include economic freedom, a broadened conception that went by the name of socialism. The route to such freedom was class struggle.”

In another essay, David Sehat helps us locate a position from which to look critically at “originalism” or the idea that seems to capture the politicized nature of the present U.S. Supreme Court better than any other. Sehat explains: “Intellectual historians, like all historians, recognize [the] reality of historical change and growth, which is why they have tended to be some of the strongest critics of originalism. They know that the past is different than the present; that time is corrosive of meanings, arrangements, and cultural ideas at particular moments; that its corrosiveness leaves only remnants from the past that historians must pick over to make sense of now-lost worlds; and that the reconstruction of the past is always, as a result, only provisional and partial. As such there is not, historians have suggested, a set of interpretive rules to be followed by which original meaning will be revealed, since that meaning was contested at the founding and has evolved over the centuries.”

But when we come right down to the most pressing questions of our age, we all want to know “why Trump?”

In her essay tracing the genealogy of conservatism, Liza Szefel wonders in an era that is “post-truth” what good is intellectual history to such a question? She offers an answer: “A line of inquiry gaining traction attempts to move beyond rise and fall narratives to examine conservatism not merely as an ideology, grass roots social movement, or party, but as a sensibility, temperament, and mentality. Casting conservatism as an orientation brings into relief values shared by the left and right.” Indeed, intellectual history uses the tools of social history and cultural history to look at the world—as well as world views—of Trump’s working-class supporters. By doing so, Szefel demonstrates how intellectual history identifies the ideas behind all sorts things, including Donald Trump.


 

About the author of this blog post: Raymond Haberski, Jr. is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the co-author of the upcoming #CornellPress title American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times. Take a closer look and pre-order your copy here.

Ideas and Things

Open wound: privatizing the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

After spending more than 30 years researching health care delivery and nursing in the American private, profit-driven health care marketplace, I decided to explore how the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) delivers healthcare to 9 million of the nation’s veterans. Although neither I, nor anyone in my family is a veteran, I knew that the VHA had made impressive strides in implementing healthcare teamwork and improving patient safety. I knew the system was more accountable than the settings in which I –a non-veteran– get my healthcare. I had, however, no idea how impressive the system really is.

Nearly five years observing and interviewing veterans, their families, and their caregivers, showed me how the VHA delivers excellent care –at far lower cost than is available in the private sector– to the nation’s most complex patients.

In Wounds of War, I introduce you to the veterans who receive this care and the dedicated employees who deliver it. I take you into exam rooms, hospital wards, therapy groups, homeless and legal programs, and even cooking classes where the VHA caregivers are interacting with their patients.

And you’ll find that while our broader healthcare system delivers fragmented healthcare services, the VHA is grounded in an integrated model.

It has perhaps the only functioning mental and behavioral health system in the United States and delivers high quality geriatric and end of life care, all while simultaneously addressing patients’ housing, employment, and legal problems.

True, we should all have this kind of integrated care; but it is critical to veterans. After all, military training and service places them at high risk for mental health and substance abuse problems, suicide, chronic pain, homelessness, and legal issues, to name a few.

The VHA has done something really rare in American medicine. Today, many hospitals may advertise team-based care, but will not spend their resources to teach people to work together. The VHA has devoted enormous time and energy to train employees to work on teams. You’d be surprised to find out that a veteran’s primary care provider will actually consult with his or her mental health therapist or orthopedist, social worker, dietician, or physical therapist in a face-to-face conversation –not only through notes entered into a shared electronic medical record–, in order to determine the best plan of care.

Over and over again, I am reminded how lacking this kind of integrated care is outside the VHA.

The other day, a friend who’d been suffering for years from back pain, consulted with a high- priced orthopedic specialist. The specialist peered at his X-rays and declared that he wasn’t a candidate for surgery. Maybe, the physician told my friend, PT would work, or chiropractic, or acupuncture, or even yoga.  Check it out, he advised, as he rushed on to his next appointment. My friend was on his own.

If my friend was a veteran, he would have been scheduled for a visit with an integrative pain team. He would have been helped to enroll in the kind of pain classes that significantly reduce patients’ perceptions of pain and enhance daily function. He would have been scheduled for physical therapy and even signed up for classes of yoga and mindfulness meditation. And all of this would have been coordinated by caregivers, not left in the hands of a vulnerable patient.

Plus, it wouldn’t cost the veteran one dime.

Today, President Donald J. Trump and Congressional Republicans are attacking and trying to privatize the entire system, rather than to improve and strengthen it. They are following the game plan of ultra right wing-libertarian billionaires like the Koch brothers, who have carefully crafted a narrative of a broken government-run healthcare system. Aided and abetted by some Democrats who fail to understand the promise and problems of the VHA, they have passed legislation like VA MISSION and VA Accountability Acts. These laws will outsource more VHA care to the private sector, starve the system of resources, close facilities, vilify VHA employees and shift billionaires of tax payer dollars into the hands of private sector hospitals, doctors, mental health practitioners, medical equipment companies, and even real estate developers.

That’s why I hope you will not only read Wounds of War but also join me and the veterans, healthcare reform groups, and unions that are fighting for the VHA. We owe it to the veterans who have sacrificed for their country to maintain and improve a healthcare system designed to serve their specific needs. And it would also be an important step towards promoting the kind of successful models of care that should ultimately be available to all of us, not just veterans.


For more information on Wounds of War and the VHA, listen to our latest #1869podcast:

 

About the author of this blog post: Suzanne Gordon is an award winning journalist and author who writes about healthcare delivery, health care systems and patient safety. Her last book, The Battle for Veterans’ Healthcare: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Policy Making and Patient Care was published by Cornell University Press in May of 2017.  She received the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Special Recognition Award for her work covering veterans’ healthcare. Ms. Gordon is the Senior Policy Fellow at the Veterans’ Healthcare Policy Institute.

Open wound: privatizing the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration

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Sahar Muradi

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

In a bedroom she shared with her three siblings in Elmhurst, Queens, 9-year-old Sahar Muradi snuggled up to her mom.  Sensing her daughter’s pensive mood, her mother asked, “Is there something on your mind?” Then her mom reached for the magical red book. Sahar remembers, “I can picture it—the book was leather-bound, frayed from overuse. It was small and fit perfectly into my little hands.” This was Hafez’s Divan, the collected works of a revered fourteenth-century poet from Iran, where great poets are considered seers. Hafez’s sobriquet or nickname is lesān-al-ḡayb, or The Tongue of the Unseen. Continue reading “Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration”

Consulting Hafez on the Trump Administration

Understanding the use of Kompromat in Russian Politics: An Excerpt from Alena V. Ledeneva’s “How Russia Really Works”

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“To keep kompromat on enemies is a pleasure. To keep kompromat on friends is a must.”

The word kompromat has no direct equivalent in English. Its literal translation—“compromising material”—refers to discrediting information that can be collected, stored, traded, or used strategically across all domains: political, electoral, legal, professional, judicial, media, or business. A recent dictionary of contemporary terminology defines kompromat as an abbreviated term for disparaging documents on a person subject to investigation, suspicion, or blackmail, derived from 1930s secret police jargon. In its contemporary context, the term is strongly associated with kompromat wars—intrigues exercised through the release of often unsubstantiated or unproven information (documents, materials)—which are damaging for all those involved.


The term is strongly associated with kompromat wars—intrigues exercised through the release of often unsubstantiated or unproven information—which are damaging for all those involved.


Hungarian sociologist Akos Szilagyi defines kompromat as the publication (or blackmail with the threat of publication) of information, documents, evidence, and revelations that are related to a genre of denunciation (donos), exposure/unmasking (razoblachenie), slander (kleveta), and allegations that can destroy or neutralize political opponents or business competitors. He notes that kompromat is associated with political indecency, and points to the double meaning of the suffix mat, which is an abbreviation of the Russian word materialy (materials) as well as a Russian word for “swear language.” In English, the essence of kompromat is best grasped by the phrase “blackmail files” that are gathered or fabricated for political or business purposes.

Continue reading “Understanding the use of Kompromat in Russian Politics: An Excerpt from Alena V. Ledeneva’s “How Russia Really Works””

Understanding the use of Kompromat in Russian Politics: An Excerpt from Alena V. Ledeneva’s “How Russia Really Works”