Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reading Journal: The Hopkins Touch

David Roll, The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler. Oxford University Press, 2013. 

The political biographies most popular in the modern era often tell us less about their subjects than about the moment in which the books themselves are published.” Jill Abramson, reviewing Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York Times Book Review November 2, 2012)

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected President and faced the daunting challenge of leading a nation in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The new President responded with a $800 million dollar stimulus package, the American Resource and Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA), with the goal of creating jobs, investing in infrastructure, and strengthening the social safety net for those affected by the economic downturn. As the result of ARRA, President Obama has been compared to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his economic stimulus package has been called “the new New Deal.”

Meanwhile, Republicans concerned about the increasing national debt and opposed to government spending began to call for reform of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, leading to accusations that the GOP was attempting to roll back the New Deal. “If it was not clear before,” the New York Times editorialized in April 2011, “it is obvious now that the party is fully engaged in a project to dismantle the foundations of the New Deal and the Great Society.”

With a Democrat in the White House and an increasingly conservative Republican majority in the House after 2010, partisan gridlock took hold of Washington, resulting in a series of fiscal crises in 2012—the debt ceiling crisis in the spring, and the fiscal cliff crisis in the winter. In 2010, when Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) announced his retirement after twelve years in the Senate, among the reasons he cited for his decision were “dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties, and a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus.”

It’s not surprising that, at such a time, there should be a rash of new books about members of FDR’s circle, both architects of the New Deal and significant contributors to the U.S. involvement in World War II. The past four years have seen biographies of Frances Perkins (Kristin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal, 2010) and Joseph P. Kennedy (David Nasaw, The Patriarch, 2012), and group biographies of FDR’s Supreme Court appointees (Noah Feldman, Scorpions, 2010) and of the Americans who helped forge the alliance between the United States and Great Britain during the War (Lynne Olson, Citizens of London, 2010). And 2013 will see the publication of David Roll’s biography of Harry Hopkins (January 2013) and Susan Dunn’s history of the Presidential election of 1940 (June 2013).

One of the major themes that emerges from these books is the importance of personal relationships and bipartisan cooperation in the face of national crisis. The quiet hero of Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London is Gil Winant, the former Republican governor of New Hampshire, whom FDR first appointed to head the new Social Security Board and then sent to London during the war as the United States ambassador. And Susan Dunn, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, highlights the close wartime cooperation between FDR and Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate Roosevelt defeated in 1940. But undoubtedly the most important relationships forged during the war were between Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, the leaders of the three most powerful Allied nations. And instrumental in forming those relationships was Harry Hopkins.

Harry Hopkins was born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1890, graduated from Grinnell College, and became one of the most prominent and energetic social workers in the nation. When FDR took office in 1933, he put Hopkins in charge of Federal relief efforts, first as head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and then as head of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who shared his passion for social work, and was briefly considered as a possible successor to FDR in the White House. As World War II loomed, Hopkins did, in  fact, end up living in the White House—not as President, but as an unelected “deputy President” who served as Roosevelt’s closest wartime advisor.

Hopkins was one of the chief architects of the Lend Lease program, which sent materiel to America’s struggling allies, Britain and the Soviet Union, and made the United States “the arsenal of democracy.” Hopkins was also Roosevelt’s first personal envoy to both Churchill and Stalin, and played a central role in holding the alliance together, often smoothing over differences between the three leaders with a deft personal touch—“the Hopkins touch,” which provides the title for David Roll’s laudatory new biography.

Roll clearly admires Hopkins, and portrays him as charming, witty, penetrating, and ambitious only to serve.  He painstakingly reconstructs important diplomatic episodes—the meetings at Casablanca and Teheran, for example—highlighting the influence of Hopkins in the often tense negotiations between the three strong-willed Allied leaders. He downplays Hopkins’ reputation as a womanizer, and dismisses allegations that Hopkins was actively spying for the Soviets. For Roll, Hopkins’ close relationship with the Soviets was motivated only by his laser-like focus on defeating Hitler. Hopkins emerges from the biography as the personal pivot upon which the alliance moved, and a man of almost superhuman energy—all the more remarkable considering that his fragile health was failing all through the war years.

When Hopkins died in 1946—less than a year after Roosevelt’s death and the end of the war—Churchill told the New York Times: “We shall not see his like again.”

Roll’s Hopkins-centric retelling of events of World War II is thoroughly researched and well written, if single-minded in its efforts to find Hopkins’ fingerprints on the success of the wartime alliance. In the current age of recurring fiscal crisis and endless partisan gridlock, it’s inspiring to remember a time when someone with just the right touch could bring people together to get things done.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Reading Journal: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Nicholas Carr. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Most of us who use the Internet recognize the phenomenon: we click around, check email, check Facebook, find ourselves unable to focus on a task. At best, we find ourselves “multitasking.” At worst, we’re simply unable to concentrate on any task at all. The Internet is a “technology of distraction,” overloading our brains with stimuli.
Drawing on research on “neuroplasticity,” Nicholas Carr argues that this technology actually alters the human brain, creating new circuitry adapted to the rapid-fire, stimulus-rich environment of the Internet. Studies of how people read on the Internet, for example, show that people tend to skim, scanning the page for the salient points. Deep, reflective reading is sacrificed for a rapid and efficient gathering of relevant information. Carr worries that, as our brains are rewired for this kind of shallow reading on the Internet, we will lose the capacity for deep reading and reflection.
He cites other studies that link reflective, slow mental processing with the development of empathy, and he worries that, as we gain speed and efficiency online, we lose some of the qualities that make us human. In interacting so much with machines, we become more like machines ourselves.
Near the end of the book, Carr draws on Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media to observe that “our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of the body they ‘amplify.’” He explains:
When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions. When the power loom was invented, weavers could manufacture far more cloth during the course of a workday than they’d been able to make by hand, but they sacrificed some of their manual dexterity, not to mention some of their “feel” for the fabric (210).
The same is true, he argues, of intellectual technologies, such as clocks or maps or the Internet. Clocks changed the perception of time of those who use them, and maps changed the perception of space and place. Carr cites a study of London cabbies, who are required to memorize the names and locations of all of the streets in London. The research shows that a London cab driver’s hippocampus—a central clearinghouse for memory processing in the brain—is unusually large, because of the amount of detailed local knowledge it contains. As most humans became dependent upon maps, such detailed knowledge dried up, and the configuration of the brain changed. The hippocampus became smaller.
Technology, Carr argues, “alienates” us from our environments and from ourselves, allowing us to “outsource” some of our cognitive functions. Quoting a study on the use of “user-friendly” software, for example, Carr argues that sophisticated apps allow us to “‘externalize’ problem solving and other cognitive chores,…[reducing] our brain’s ability ‘to build stable knowledge structures’…that can later ‘be applied to new situations’” (216).  As we in Northfield consider putting iPads into the hands of students beginning in fourth grade, we should ask ourselves if we’re actually strengthening transferable problem-solving skills, or simply providing students with an expensive mental prosthesis.
Carr cautions that, as we become more dependent upon computers and the Internet, we should be mindful of what we stand to lose as well as of what we stand to gain. “We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self,” he warns (212).
Carr’s book is wide-ranging and engagingly written, and highly recommended for readers who want to get away from their computer screens and reflect on what the Internet is doing to their brains.