The Southern Diaspora; How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America

The Southern Diaspora; How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America by James Gregory. University of North Carolina Press, 2005, paper. 

James Gregory’s The Southern Diaspora tells the story of southern black and white migration to the north and west in the twentieth century. Between the 1900s and 1970s, eighteen million people left the South, most of them permanently. They left because of the deteriorating economic conditions, particularly in agriculture. They also felt the call of better jobs in the North. By the end of the 1970s the flow of immigrants had reversed. Northerners were now heading south.


Gregory believes that there is an advantage in telling the two stories of white and black migration together. Even though there are important differences. Blacks tended to cluster in the northern and western cities, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburg, and later Los Angeles. With less resistance from northerners, white destinations were more dispersed. Contrary to popular notions, white southerners moving north were far more numerous than black southerners.


Times were tough for this southern diaspora. Nevertheless both groups did well compared to those who remained in the South. True, blacks in the south earned only a percentage of southern white income, but by the 1950s black southern women had almost caught up with white females.


Gregory’s account is a celebration of what southerners-moved-north accomplished, particularly their contributions to the cultural life of northern cities. ‘Country’ musicians, as they were called, found audiences throughout the north and west, Chicago and L.A. particularly. Gregory points out that the careers of these mostly white southern entertainers were made possible by the recording industry, then mostly in New York’s Tin Pan Alley and the film industry in southern California.


Radio and film, later television, had a fascination with white southerners from Appalachia – hillbillies. Hence ‘Ma & Pa Kettle’, ‘The Andy Griffith Show’, ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’,’ Petticoat Junction’, ‘Hew Haw’ are examples. They presented an often less than flattering image of white southerners.


Less commonly in network radio and television, black southerners have enriched American popular music. Dixieland jazz, blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, and hip-hop were musical genres pioneered by black southern musicians, many of them southerners living in the north.


Perhaps the most celebrated institution of the Southern diaspora was the black metropolis. Gregory talks about the black urban areas, like Harlem in New York, as welcoming and empowering. Today the big-city neighborhoods in which black southerners settled are viewed as creative and vibrant environments. At the time, however, social scientists and the press mostly recorded their social disorganization and poverty. Sound familiar?


Because they were less dispersed, African-Americans had the greater political impact on the North. Blacks could now vote and were good at leveraging their new voting power. They built alliances with such diverse groups as the national Republican Party, the radical left, Jews, the labor movement, and northern mainstream Protestants.


African-Americans were mostly ignored by the New Deal. Gregory recounts the Negro campaign in 1940 to open opportunities for employment in the expanding war industries, for example. When President Roosevelt resisted, black leaders threatened to march on Washington. In January 1941 a call went out and the Negro press and pulpit went into action.


Fiorello La Guardia, then mayor of New York, brokered an agreement. Roosevelt’s ‘Executive Order 8802’ banned discrimination in industries receiving war contracts and in government offices. True the armed forces remained segregated throughout the war and civil rights legislation remained stalled by southern Democrats. But the black southern diaspora had forged a major step toward rights for African-Americans.


The National Museum of African American History & Culture is opening this fall on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The Smithsonian magazine (Sept. 2016) has published a special issue to celebrate the occasion. “The Road to Freedom” by Isabel Wilkerson was one of several interesting articles on Black Migration out of the South with a graphic that illuminates the flow of some six million blacks from whence they came and to what part of the country they went.



Target Tokyo; Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor by James Scott. W.W. Norton, 2016, paper.


Americans were stunned when they arose to news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Almost immediately there was talk amongst the military and the Roosevelt Administration of a revenge mission that would penetrate Japanese home defenses and bomb industrial and military sites in Tokyo and other Japanese cities. The argument was that the U.S. public needed some act of revenge. But also the Japanese, after the daring raid on Pearl Harbor, needed to understand that its cities were vulnerable to carrier-based, long-range bombers. Thus the Doolittle Raid of 18 April 1942, which James Scott argues was intended to accomplish both.


Our newly christened aircraft carrier, ‘Hornet,’, would be moved to the Pacific and sixteen B-25s modified so that they could take off from its deck. Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle was asked to train eighty airmen to man the bombers. The bombing mission should remain a highly guarded secret to avoid Japan’s getting wind of the raid and fortifying the cities’ defenses. The American military were concerned that the plans would get leaked by the Nationalist Chinese Government to the Japanese so they weren’t informed.


The B-25s had a small crew of five: pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, and engineer/gunner. All volunteers, they were not told about the nature of their target. Doolittle was given permission to join one of the crews.


It was anticipated that the Japanese would seek revenge for our revenge. Since the bombers would be landing on friendly Chinese airfields, the Japanese would take their revenge out on civilians in China’s coastal provinces. The Japanese occupation was known for its brutality, so their savage response to the raid was no surprise. 


The big trick for the bomber crews was to get the heavily laden B-25s off the carrier’s deck. Still 600 miles from their target, the ‘Hornet’ and its convoy was spotted by a Japanese fishing craft, and it warned the Japanese Admiralty. Doolittle ordered that the raid proceed immediately. That meant, however, that the planes would be short of fuel.


Even though there was little in the way of Japanese air defenses until the bombers were over their urban targets, the crews had to find their designated targets and that took time and cost them precious fuel needed for the flight to the mainland. The Japanese failed to shoot down a single bomber, although several crash-landed in China. Scott has included the heroic stories of the crews who failed to reach a secure landing field. Those captured were tortured and given life sentences by a Japanese court; three were executed.


There were surprisingly few casualties amongst either raiders or civilians. Some stray bombs may have hit a Japanese school.


One plane made it to a Russian base at Vladivostok. The Russians and Japanese were not at war, so there were protocols governing their response. By international law the airmen were to be held as prisoners until the end of the war. The airmen were well cared for and American officials allowed to check on them periodically. They ended up at a Russian base just across a river from Iran, and all five made a successful escape over a loosely guarded bridge. Scott agrees with the idea that this ‘escape’ may have been the solution for what to do with the increasingly unhappy American airmen.


Meanwhile Jimmy Doolittle got back to the U.S. in May 1942. He wrote letters to the families of the raiders but did not disclose information about casualties and prisoners of war. Eventually it would be revealed that despite the impression given out by Doolittle and by the American military, there had been casualties and lost aircraft.


The Doolittle raid would be the first of a massive bombardment of Japanese cities from the air, now by B-29s taking off from islands with airstrips within reach of the Japanese cities. While the Doolittle raid caused relatively little damage, the almost continuous bombing in the last months of the war and then the two atom bombs resulted in many thousands of civilian casualties.


Scott’s ‘Epilogue’ is a moving reminder of the many Americans who died or were taken captive in the Pacific War. Just after the war, a unit was sent to Southeast Asia to search for American prisoners believed to be languishing in Japanese POW camps. In that operation the four surviving members of the Doolittle raid were discovered and brought home to a hero’s welcome.


The first post-war reunion of the crews was held in December 1945, and then almost every year after that. The last one was in 2013, and only four remained to offer the traditional toast to dead and fallen comrades. Taps were sounded as the old warriors saluted the flag for the last time as a group.   

Herbert Hoover in the White House; The Ordeal of the Presidency by Charles Rappleye. Simon & Schuster, 2016.


Charles Rappleye has written a corrective to the general notions we have of the presidency of Herbert Hoover from 1928 to 1932. Rappleye’s Herbert Hoover in the White House is obviously not a full-scale biography, but an introduction to Hoover’s life and character as mirrored by his term in office.


Born in Iowa and orphaned at nine, Herbert Hoover grew up with an uncle in Oregon and then went on to Stanford University where he joined its first freshman class. He gained his reputation during World War I organizing food relief for Belgium, then occupied by German troops and starving. He headed the U.S. Food Administration after our entry into the war and was Secretary of Commerce in both the Harding and Coolidge Administrations. A Progressive Republican, he received the party’s nomination for the presidency in 1928 and won the election against Al Smith in a landslide.


Rappleye’s careful account of Hoover’s presidency considers it to have been a failed term in office. Hoover was not a doctrinaire conservative who preached the dogma of laissez-faire capitalism, caring little about the suffering of the common folks. Nor was he the handmaiden of the American elite and out to protect their interests. This becomes clear as Rappleye explains Hoover’s responses to the stock market crash in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression in the last two years of his Presidency.


President Hoover and his Cabinet never really decided on a coherent response to the sequence of economic and social disasters, partly because they couldn’t decide on what had caused them. Was it speculation on the stock market and the inevitable correction that followed a rise in stock prices? Was it an adjustment resulting from a decline in demand for industrial goods following the Great War? Was it a consequence of the agricultural depression of the 1920s (Over 50% of the gross national product in the U.S. was from American farms)? Income disparity? Mismanagement of the money supply?


One cause of joblessness was the substantial technological progress that made manufacturing and agriculture less labor intensive. That should be considered a blessing in a capitalist economy.


Given Herbert Hoover’s background and ideology, it is understandable that he would look first to private charity to deal with economic distress and unemployment, organizations such as the American Red Cross. It would be appropriate for the federal, state, and local governments to funnel funds for relief through the Red Cross and other charitable institutions once they had exhausted their resources. However Hoover feared dependence on government assistance and saw it as a threat to American liberty.  He joined with others in both parties in abhorring the “dole,” as threatening our moral fiber.


Hoover was an organizer and the author describes the various efforts to gain coherence in the organization of the various activities of the federal Government, first as the head of the Commerce Department and later as President. The expansion of the federal bureaucracy became necessary as its relief programs multiplied.  A B C s, began with the Hoover Administration, rather than with Franklin Roosevelt after 1933.


Hoover has been accused of neglecting unemployed. But his Administration sponsored a public works projects (the Hoover Dam) and urged cities and states to undertake roadbuilding and other infrastructure enhancements. He thought it important to have a systematic plan of action.


However appropriate or inappropriate President Hoover’s responses were to hard times, they were not what defeated him in his run for a second term in 1932. Rappleye suggests two significant issues: ending Prohibition and his Administration’s response to the Bonus Army, the demonstrations of thousands of WWI veterans and their families who gathered in Washington in the summer of 1932.


By the end of the 1920s, it was clear that Prohibition was a disaster. And there was a substantial swing of public opinion toward ending it, but Hoover could not bring himself to join the “wets.”


A bonus had been promised veterans of the Great War payable in 1945. But they needed it in 1932. They were given some satisfaction by Congress, but many stayed around and, the author contends, out-stayed their welcome. D.C. police failed to maintain order so the U.S. army, led by General Douglas MacArthur, was sent in to deal with the demonstrators. MacArthur pushed the veterans into a clash. Hundreds were injured. Hoover, unwisely ordered that their encampment be moved across the Potomac.


Images of the forceful removal of these veterans found their way onto the silver screen (the early newsreels shown in movie theaters before the main feature). It was disastrous to Hoover’s reelection prospects.


Perhaps the most significant act of President Hoover’s term was his proposal in 1931 for a moratorium on the repayment of wartime loans owed by our former allies if they would agree to the moratorium on German reparations. His acting on his own authority was not popular. However, it confirmed his reputation as an American statesman.


Most everyone would grant Herbert Hoover’s status as a statesman after reading Rappleye’s fine book. The author asks that we also acknowledge the successes as well as the failures of the Hoover Presidency.

The Worst Hard Time; The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, paper.


The Worst Hard Time is the story of the dust storms that struck the Southern Great Plains in the 1930s. The region encompasses western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, and the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles. The region is normally a dry part of the Midwest, though several rivers run through it carrying the snow melt from the Rocky Mountains.


Timothy Egan explains that, prior to the 1900s, this area was covered by waste-high grasses, but as the result of an increased European demand for American wheat, much of the sod was plowed under. The federal government, under the Homestead Act, had encouraged the settlement of “nesters” on the land to provide the labor input. The individual farm family would own and operate their own farm.


Unfortunately this region received on average only twenty inches of rainfall per year, marginal land for growing a wheat crop. And Egan argues that there was no provision for the specific needs of dry land farming. In the 1930s rainfall was less than twenty inches. And there was often a strong wind blowing over the land in the winter that dried out the soil and picked up anything that would fly.


Unfortunately also the market price of wheat dropped by half after the Great War. Which meant that to maintain the farmers’ livelihood, a nester would have to plant twice as much wheat. This meant plowing under even more of the sod.


A network of railroads, mostly east to west connections, cheapened the cost of grain transport out of the region. The railroad promoters also invited European immigrants to consider homesteading some of this wheat land. Agents were sent to recruit the “Volga Germans.” Ethnic Germans living in the Volga region of Russia, many of them Mennonites or Lutherans.  They used dryland farming techniques appropriate for the dry lands in the American Midwest.


Catherine the Great (reigned 1762 to 1796) had encouraged this German settlement in newly opened lands in southeastern European Russia. She exempted them from military service and land taxes. In 1872 Catherine’s privileges were revoked by Alexander II (reigned 1855 to 1881). Looking for an alternative, Kansas and the surrounding states in the U.S. looked like an opportunity. They and their descendants weathered the dust storms of the 1930s.


These dust storms sometimes lasted for days and caused a significant loss of an irreplaceable resource. The dust got into everyone’s lungs, causing ‘dust pneumonia’, particularly deadly to the elderly and the very young. It was also devastating to farm animals.


Both the Hoover and Roosevelt Administrations, Egan suggests, were uncertain about what to do. If the cause was faulty agricultural practices, then the best means of ameliorating the situation was to encourage a different set of farming methods. Both Administrations were pro-active in intervening in the U.S. farm economy, resisting the argument that the situation should be left to sort itself out.


Others viewed the dust storms on the Southern Great Plains as caused by exceptional weather conditions. The situation should be handled like any other natural disaster.


Rainmakers were given a chance. It was believed that loud booms (cannons) would create rainfall in clouds with moisture. Experiments were sponsored by Congress. No successes. There was also an untapped source of water buried below the surface, the Ogallala Aquifer. It survived but has since been tapped and is slowly disappearing.


In the spring of 1934, the dust clouds began to move east and hung around the eastern seaboard cities for days before moving out to sea. When the eastern U.S. got a taste of a dust storm, Egan contends, attitudes abruptly changed. Roosevelt’s ‘Second Hundred Days´ created a Resettlement Administration that reversed the “cold brother [Hoover] who would not help a family in need.”


The New Deal strategy was to resettle farmers currently farming “worn out land,” and that category would include the dry lands of Kansas and adjoining states. But this program had its critics. It moved the problem of agricultural distress and unemployment westward to the Pacific Coast.


California was hostile to the nesters, (John Steinbeck’s exiles were from Eastern Oklahoma). Their presence in California looking for work, however, turned into a blessing when they found employment in the industrial structure created on the West Coast to fight the war in the Pacific.


Timothy Egan won a National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time in 2006.

Apostle or Bones That Shine Like Fire; Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell. Pantheon Books, 2016.


This is a complicated book. Or better, a good writer has taken on a complicated subject. Tom Bissell has visited those sites associated with Jesus of Nazareth, his ministry in Galilee, and the “travels” of his apostles when alive and as bones or relics. Bissell’s travels, from 2007 to 2010, involved mostly churches and basilicas in Rome and Jerusalem but also Greece, Spain, France, India, and Kyrgyzstan.


What is perhaps most impressive about Apostle or Bones that Shine Like Fire is the Biblical scholarship that the author has incorporated into the narrative. Bissell begins his study with the canonical books in the New Testament but consults the writings of the Church fathers and non-canonical texts that date from the first through the third centuries.


He is interested not so much in religious practices as religiosity. Rarely staying for a religious service, he is more intrigued by the motivations of the pilgrims and tourists whom he finds visiting the shrine. Bissell often asks these visitors what they think about the site. He finds their answers uninspired. Which would not have been the case with the pilgrims of old, who came to the site to be moved or confirmed in their faith. Or healed of some affliction.


Twelve is a traditional number of apostles – and tribes of Israel. But the names given to the apostles in the four gospels and the other books of the New Testament vary.


Bissell begins with the apostle Judas Iscariot. Outside of the betrayal and the associated story of the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot is seldom included in other events of Jesus’s ministry. The first generation of church fathers said nothing about him.


The author agrees that Jesus’s apostles are historical, but their stories recorded in the Gospels were initially oral traditions. And these oral traditions included what he would call legends, stories that are historically unverifiable. This says nothing about their truth, only that they need to be used in a different manner when reconstructing early Christianity.


Rome harbors several sites associated with the apostles. Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is allegedly the Apostle Peter’s execution and burial site. Peter had come to Rome as part of his mission to the Gentiles. It was important for the bishop of Rome to lay claim to Peter because of the tradition that he was the “rock” upon which the church would be built. The bishop wished to establish the authority over all of Christendom of the Roman Church and its succession of bishops after Peter. By the fifth century the doctrine of “Petrine Supremacy” had been established.


Rome became the center of Gentile Christianity; it was also the most important focus of Christian pilgrimage. But if a pilgrim wants a quieter pilgrimage site in Rome, she or he should visit the site of Saint Bartholomew’s remains on an island in the middle of the River Tiber. It is more typical of Bissell’s traveling than Saint Peter’s Basilica.


Saint Andrew appears to be the most traveled of the apostles. His bones now allegedly lie in the Greek city of Patras on the Mediterranean near Corinth. Saint Andrew traveled to Bithynia (in Turkey), Scythia, Macedonia, the Caucasus region, and Ukraine. He is revered by Byzantine, Russian, and Ukrainian Orthodoxy. But also in Scotland! And by the Manichaeans, a sect that flourished in the Eastern Roman Empire from the third to seventh centuries.


Andrew is rarely mentioned in the gospels, although legend has it that he was Peter’s brother and recruiter. His disappearance from Biblical tradition is perhaps the explanation for the few who seek out his burial site. By the time his bones were returned to Patras by the Papacy in 1979, Andrew’s popularity with those early heretical groups had long since ceased to be a threat to Roman Christianity.


Thomas is also well-traveled. He is associated with Christianity in India as early as the third century. He appears in all of the lists in the New Testament. Most of the stories associated with Thomas depict him as a bit of a blockhead: doubting Thomas, needing to finger the wounds of the risen Savior.


Legend has it that Thomas planted a Christian worship that has survived in Tamil Nadu and Kerala through hostile Hindu and Muslim dynasties. An alternative legend: Christianity came to India via the trade between the Subcontinent and the Roman Empire. After centuries of co-habitation with other faiths, the purity of Indian Christianity was restored by Portuguese Catholics who purged it of heresy. Bissell visited perhaps the most revered Indian site, the St. Thomas Mound, near Chennai (Madras).


Rome and Jerusalem are the two largest Christian pilgrimage sites. Santiago de Compostela in Spain is the third largest. The traditional visit can involve a five-hundred-mile trek, and Bissell, to his credit, walked it. Santiago contains the shrine of Saint James the Great or Saint James the Moor Slayer. Bissell finds the cathedral containing the shrine mundane. Just before entering, he spotted a policeman on the cathedral roof with a rifle. The twenty-first century’s violence has intruded on medieval pilgrimage.

SPQR; A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. W.W. Norton, 2016, paper.


Mary Beard has written a history of Rome in its first millennium, roughly from the legendary Romulus and the period of the kings to 212 CE and the Emperor Caracalla’s granting citizenship to all free men. The Romulus legend became the founding story of this village on the Tiber in Latium in central Italy that became Rome. In addition to describing the evolution of Rome’s political institutions, Beard devotes more attention to those often ignored by historians of Rome: women, slaves, and ex-slaves.


Roman women had greater independence than elsewhere in the ancient world. They did not take their husband’s names or fall entirely under their husband’s legal authority. Women were betrothed in their early teens and often died young in child birth. Woe to the women who failed to produce a male heir.


Slaves were frequently freed but often continued to serve in the households of their former masters. Many were educated and could speak both Latin and Greek, hence valuable assets in a Roman household.


Beard’s histories of the early “kings of Rome” from the sixth century BCE are perhaps the most unfamiliar. They were, she suggests, a succession of strongmen. Their power was usually based on their command of armed private militias. The successions to the “throne” were never well established in the regal period. Looking like it was ‘pasted into the Roman constitution,’ kingship may have been borrowed from the Etruscans, next door.


Perhaps the most remarkable political institution was the Roman Senate that dominated the age of kings as it would the republic. The Senate varied in size, according to Beard, from around 300 to 600, mostly drawn from the patrician class although it included representatives of the plebian class as well.


There was provision in the Roman constitution for what is called a dictator, what Romans knew as a magister populi. A dictator was entrusted with the authority of the Roman state to deal with some threat, usually military, or to accomplish some specific program. The appointment of a dictator was recommended by the Senate and the appointment made by the reigning consuls. His powers were nearly absolute. He was required to resign his office when the situation that had led to his appointment was somehow resolved – or after six months. Julius Caesar was the last dictator; the office was abolished after his assassination.


Beard’s account gives the reader some idea of this evolutionary nature of Roman office where there was no written constitution but only traditions and the various reforms of those ancient offices. The Romans never quite exorcised the use of armed violence from the workings of their political institutions.


Rome’s empire, according to Beard, emerged without any particular plan of action but rather as a result of having to deal with military threats to Rome or to its allies. Moreover, Roman political institutions were never imposed on the various territories absorbed into the Roman state, so long as those provincials did not interfere with the authority of the governors and proconsuls appointed to administer them. There was even provision for the trial of a Roman official charged with extortion or dereliction of duty.


Most of us know a bit about the Roman administrative structure and the frequent ill-will that it earned from New Testament accounts. Christianity was a relatively minor religious sect that thrived amongst the Jewish diaspora. Beard calls the conflict between Rome and these early followers of a Galilean named Jesus “the Christian Troubles.” Jews, on the other hand, were able to prosper within the Empire while keeping to their religion and its practices. Rome was not a “melting pot,” but the regime was broadly tolerant of its religious diversity.


Reading Mary Beard’s history of ancient Rome, one is struck by the frequency of its internal conflicts and civil wars, often but not always led by commanders of legions. Perhaps the most famous civil wars were the ‘slave wars’ and the most famous a revolt that began in 73 BCE, led by Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator. The slaves were joined by Roman citizens, including many ex-slaves. This particular war was not, Mary Beard insists, an attempt to end slavery in the Republic.


How did one acquire power in the Roman state if one were not a general or an armed slave?  As is often the case it was being in the right place at the right time. But it was also the result of a gradual accumulation of honors and titles, useful associations, and sufficient political instincts to avoid antagonizing men of power on your way up.


Wealth was all important to participation in Roman politics, and the rich are getting richer in both the republican and imperial periods. Still it is also true that despite this importance of wealth, there were opportunities for upward social mobility, in Rome and in important regional capitals such as Alexandria, Ravenna, Pergamum, and Constantinople. Our political life pays homage to Rome, and it resides in civic architecture also inspired by the Roman Empire’s columned halls.


Privacy in the New Media Age by Jon Mills. University Press of Florida, 2015.

There has always been conflict between the idea of our right to privacy and the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. But Jon Mills argues that the ‘new media age,’ that is the widespread use of the internet as a source of information, has come upon us. It offers both many new opportunities but also quandaries. And there are, he argues, solutions already in place that deal with the rights of privacy relative to the press and broadcast media. We need to think through this matrix of controls and regulations to see what might apply to the issue of privacy and the internet.


A lawyer, Mills is professor and past dean of the University of Florida’s law school. He was once Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. He is not an alarmist about the growth of the internet medium. He can see some advantages of having citizen journalists, or “iReporters”, recording and “publishing” what they have observed. For example, the recent incidents of police interactions with the street have had an impact on our views about the relationship of law and order to both civil rights and privacy.


But he is concerned. There are no “editors” and “gatekeepers” auditing the content of videos posted on web sites by thousands of bloggers and read by millions here and abroad. We are getting used to hyperbole these days coming from candidates for the U.S. Presidency. We agree that political speech is allowed to wander from the truth. Those same allowances can be made for postings on the internet. Perhaps they are to be evaluated in much the same way that we view those ‘tell-all” magazines in grocery checkout counters.


The author builds his argument by beginning with the contention that bloggers should have the same rights and obligations as newspaper reporters have always had. Journalists are, for the most part, shielded from litigation over their reportage. We would perhaps agree that we want that to continue to be the case with reporters. But for bloggers?


Mills reminds us that there are, in fact, limits to that immunity of reporters from lawsuits. Property rights come in to play; for example, laws against trespass. Mills agrees that someone using concealed video cameras to record what is going on inside your house is an “intrusion upon seclusion.” Another building block: you cannot legally violate an individual’s privacy when it comes to his or her cell phone without a court order. And anyone who addresses the judge on the matter must have good reason for that request. But the internet makes all this concern for property rights seem a bit quaint. Bloggers don’t bother.


Community Standards? Back when I had a bookstore and a newsstand, I was asked to subject their content to community standards. I argued that it was impossible to ascertain “community standards.” They were the creation of self-appointed “spokespersons”, and never a tangible code. That is certainly true of any notion of community standards applied to the internet.


Those who use the internet enjoy considerable anonymity. Still we know from Edward Snowden’s revelations that electronic snooping can provide the opportunity and a temptation for governments to “listen in” to millions of internet conversations.  


I found interesting Mills’ discussion of the distinction between obtaining information that should be considered private and publishing that material.  Once the information is available to or in possession of the press, prohibiting publican is viewed as prior restraint or censorship, an intrusion upon seclusion. The acquisition of material has been much more frequently contested than the subsequent publishing of it. The courts are divided on maintaining this distinction.


Curiously the longer information about a person’s private life is stored the more it becomes protected in the interests of privacy. Drudging up information that is several decades old is considered more of an offense to privacy than their immediate revelation!


Jon Mills also points out that journalism generally is not a licensed profession. Nor has the category ‘reporter’ even been defined.  Perhaps, at the very least, those in newspaper and broadcast journalism but also those individuals posting on the internet might be asked to read and sign a document outlining what is expected of them by way of intent and accuracy. In the meantime, one should assess the expectations one has of privacy in the new media and adjust one’s participation accordingly.








A Is for Arsenic; The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup. Bloomsbury, 2015.

Agatha Christie is perhaps the best known detective novelist of the last century, and her best-known fictional detectives are Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. This is an analysis of the poisons used in her novels and short stories. (These days murderers – even in England – mostly use guns). Christie has provided an elaborate Appendix of her fictional murders and what the murderer used, poisons and otherwise.  She claims that her stories are based on the true crimes of the day. Her first novel was accepted in 1920; she died in 1976; we presume of natural causes.


Kathryn Harkup points out that Christie knew what she was about. She had volunteered as an apothecary’s assistant during the Great War and eventually became licensed. Her copy of Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia is well thumbed. Harkup, a chemist, investigates the poisons used by the murderer in fourteen of Christie’s novels.


The poisons are arranged in alphabetical order, hence beginning with arsenic. Arsenic was widely available in Christie’s time. It was kept around the house because arsenic, like several of the other poisons Christie uses in her “crime career,” was sold as a pesticide and weed killer.


The symptoms for arsenic poisoning were numerous and not unlike those of other poisons – acute stomach pains, vomiting, and diarrhea. Until other antidotes were developed, the common means of treating someone who had been poisoned with arsenic, either on purpose or by an unintended contact with the pesticide, was activated charcoal. Alternatives to charcoal were developed during the Great War because the Lewisite gas used on the Western Front was an arsenic-based poison.


More recently another poisonous gas, sarin, has been considered a military weapon designed to be used much as Lewisite gas was in the Great War. It stops the production of mucus and hence was at one time used in cough medicine. It is colorless, odorless, and can kill within minutes of receiving a lethal dose. It is the B poison in Markup’s book because one form of the poison was called belladonna.


Hydrogen cyanide is perhaps the most common form of cyanide, a notorious poison. It can be obtained from various sources, such as in the stones of apricots, apples, and peaches. And cassava; the residual cyanide in cassava, an important food source, can be fatal. Hydrogen cyanide is notorious because it was used to kill inmates at German death camps in the last years of World War II. A German chemical firm, IG Farben manufactured it under the trade name Zyklon B. Biting into a capsule containing hydrogen cyanide in a powdery form was a common means of committing suicide amongst the National Socialist elite. Hitler swallowed cyanide but then also shot himself in April 1945.


And so on, through the alphabetical listing that Kathryn Markup has provided. But stopping at two more letters of the alphabet: n – nicotine and o – opium (which includes morphine and heroin as popular forms). Nicotine was a New World drug; tobacco was imported into Europe in the sixteenth century by Spanish explorers and early colonists. It is very addictive. It is most commonly smoked but can also be chewed and snorted. (The latter two are considered declassee; spittoons have largely disappeared.)


Recently electronic-cigarettes have been introduced as a means of reducing the health-related problems associated with breathing in tobacco smoke. The judgment is still out on whether it is a step toward a ‘healthier’ means of consuming what is after all a lethal poison. Never having smoked, I, like many of my generation, nevertheless, ingested ‘secondhand smoke’ riding in the back of our family car.


Not a word about marijuana or hemp (M is represented by monkshood. H by hemlock.), nor cannabis.


Opium, obtained from the opium poppy, is a popular street drug, more commonly consumed in the form of heroin or morphine, which are the more concentrated forms. There is some evidence that opium was used by the ancient Sumerians as an analgesic. As laudanum it was widely consumed in the nineteenth century as pain medicine and to relieve diarrhea. Codeine, another mild form of morphine, was used as a cough suppressant.


Markup doesn’t mention this but morphine was widely used to treat pain during the American Civil War. Hence many of the veterans wounded in the War returned home addicted. Opium poppies are only one of many species of poppies. The seeds from other poppy species are used to flavor bakery goods. We celebrate those growing in Flanders Fields as a memorial to World War I.


But back to Agatha Christie and the use of poisons as a common form of homicide. Entertainment for Christie fans; impressive chemistry; a reminder to us of our connections to the plant world – its occasional perils, and ecstasies.

The Biohistory of Alachua County, Florida by Francis William Zettler. Pineapple Press, 2015 paper.

Francis Zettler’s Biohistory of Alachua County, Florida is a slender volume but with some surprises for us locals. ‘In the beginning’ the Florida platform was part of the African Tectonic Plate. A good chunk of it broke off from Africa, meandered around the globe, and eventually became attached to the North American Plate.


The present land surface of our state is only a portion of the much larger Florida platform which extends an additional 125 miles west of the present coastline and is covered by the Gulf of Mexico. The cycles of global warming and cooling that alter ocean depths have added and subtracted dry land from peninsular Florida. The sand for those wide beaches on the Gulf side came from the eroding Appalachian Mountains, washed down by the rivers that drained those mountains and deposited in their estuaries.


Having attached Florida to the North American Landmass, Zettler reminds us that most of our flora and fauna migrated over Beringia, a land bridge that linked North America to Asia over the Bering Strait. Perhaps the first immigrants from Asia were grasses. Maize (We call it corn.), wheat, rice, oats, barley, rye, and sugar cane are grasses that have been domesticated. These grasses supported grass-eating animals. And human hunter-gatherers followed close behind.


The author maintains that we lost most of our large mammals to these early hunters, although that is controversial. So we never had any ancestral domestic beast of burden once our American horse and camel shrank and disappeared. The American buffalo was hunted but never domesticated. This absence of beasts of burden had an obvious impact on mobility but also hunting and warfare. Much has been written about the changes caused by the introduction of the European horse to the Western Hemisphere by the Spanish.


These original Floridians should be grateful to Spain for reintroducing the horse and for other reasons. This is not an age which thinks kindly about Christian missionary activity in the New World, but the string of missions established in northeast and Panhandle Florida moderated the impact of European contact with the Native Americans, the Timucua and Apalachee. The Church provided some protection against the forced labor introduced by European settlers. They were less successful in moderating the harm done by European diseases that wiped out a large portion of the Native American populations of our state.


As these Native American populations shrank, Africans were imported to work the plantations in Alachua County. (Alachua County was once a much larger territory, extending along the Gulf as far south as Sanibel Island.) Various crops have come and gone. The cotton boll weevil decimated the cotton crop in the late nineteenth century. We grew citrus for a while but Alachua County was too close to the frost line. Naval stores were important in the first part of the last century, but there was always a conflict between the exploitation of our pine forests to obtain the naval stores and the harvesting of those pines for lumber and pulpwood. The former was mostly the work of black labor, the latter by white migratory workers.


The opening up of the County had been limited by its accessibility. There were several Indian trails that connected frontier Florida to South Georgia. But the first real road was the Bellamy Road authorized by the federal government in 1824. It was wide enough to allow two wagons to pass and ran for 445 miles between St. Augustine and Pensacola passing through “greater” Alachua County. There were various establishments and struggling settlements along the Road to serve the needs of the traveler, often to disappear without a trace.


Transportation remained primitive until the opening of the Cedar Key to Fernandina railroad in 1861. It ran through Gainesville, then the County seat. The town was soon to become the location for the Florida Agricultural College, a land-grant institution moved from Lake City, Florida. The College eventually absorbed other smaller institutions of higher learning, including the East Florida Seminary moved from Ocala.


Moses Levy (Levy County) is one of the more interesting individuals mentioned by Zettler. He was born in 1782 in Morocco the son of Sephardic Jews whose families had been expelled from Spain the same year as a Spaniard named Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.” The family ended up in the West Indies.


Levy bought a large track of land in Florida where he hoped to found a settlement of Orthodox Jews recruited from Europe and the West Indies. It was intended to be a utopian community with some proto-Zionist leanings. With that in mind, he helped establish the town of Micanopy, Florida. Doesn’t sound like a Jewish name; Levy thought well enough of the Native Americans to name the town after a local chief.


What a charming introduction to our local history from this former University of Florida faculty member. And published by Pineapple Press in Sarasota.

Dietrich and Riefenstahl; Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland and Shelley Frisch, trans. W.W. Norton, 2016, paper.


Marlene Dietrich (1904-1992) and Leni Riefenstahl (1902- 2003) both began life as daughters of moderately prosperous German families in Berlin. Both families were upwardly mobile, and their dreams were realized in their daughters’ successful careers in the 1930s. Both daughters were beautiful women. But similarities begin to play out as their careers diverged.


Berlin had survived the Great War and the revolution that followed German defeat. The city was home to the new German film industry; there were large movie theaters opening in the 1920s.  German cinema was, however, even then under the thrall of Hollywood. Dietrich spent most of her acting life in California and New York. Riefenstahl wanted to be a dancer but after an injury, took up acting and then directing films. She formed her own production company in 1931.


German cinema began with “mountain films,” an odd genre that celebrated the perils and triumphs of mountain climbing but had no plots. Perhaps the most celebrated, “The Holy Mountain,” premiered in Berlin in 1926 and starred Leni Riefenstahl.


About that time Riefenstahl became enamored with the rising star of Weimar politics, Adolf Hitler. She found him spellbinding and attended his rallies.  He admired her work. (Hitler’s only love, however, was his Germany) and soon Riefenstahl was commissioned to film the National Socialist Party rallies in Nuremberg. The 1934 documentary, “The Triumph of the Will”, was distributed by Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment. A propaganda effort, the film was also an attempt to get the German public to forget the recent deadly rupture between Hitler and the leader of the SA, Ernst Röhm – the “night of the long knives.”


Riefenstahl’s film was widely received as a successful documentary and remains much respected. Wieland suggests that these rallies drew huge disorderly crowds to Nuremberg and Riefenstahl’s film imposed whatever order there was at these rallies.


Meanwhile Marlene Dietrich’s career was taking another turn altogether. She had hooked up with a German-American director Josef von Sternberg who worked for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood and had been invited back to Berlin in 1930 to direct Germany’s first talkie, ‘The Blue Angel.” He needed a “discovery” for the main female part. Dietrich fit the bill. She signed a contract for two films a year.


She was paid $125,000 for each film, an enormous sum, but Dietrich loved to spend money, and her finances were often rocky. Moreover as she aged, she found it difficult to keep up her young, glamorous film star notoriety. She married, had a child, and then a grandchild which also compromised that persona. Dietrich never really liked Hollywood; she preferred New York. In 1939 she became an American citizen.


In 1939 Leni Riefenstahl accompanied the Wehrmacht when it invaded Poland to film a documentary. She came upon an incident where some Polish workers were being badly mistreated. She lodged a complaint; nothing happened except that she was not invited back to cover the subsequent occupations of Ukraine and Russia.


By way of contrast, Marlene Dietrich volunteered for the United Service Organization (USO) and entertained American troops in North Africa and Europe. Although tiring work, she enjoyed the travel and was, according to Wieland, a huge success.


After the War, this most beautiful grandmother in the world had difficulties finding work. Westerns came to her rescue! With these movie shoots, she often included some fun in bed with other actors and particularly producers. Which we learn about in great detail.


After the war Riefenstahl, according to Karin Wieland, displayed a shocking egomania, days – years – full of self-pity. In 1948 she had to undergo denazification hearings. Cleared, she was able to resume her career. Most German artists welcomed the new influences on their art coming from Europe and North America after the war, having been largely cut off from them from 1933 to 1945. That was not true of Riefenstahl.


However, she did manage a post-war career. She accompanied some anthropologists to Africa and photographed the Nuba in the Sudan and turned those photographs into several successful books. The well-muscled males wrestled and dueled with knives in the nude. Cultural critic, Susan Sontag, argues that you can still see in this collection the aesthetics of her films from the Nazi era. Certainly that is true of the films of the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin.


Two complaints about the book. Too much shifting of the spotlight back and forth between Dietrich and Riefenstahl. Also, Wieland provides some political and cultural background, but mostly prior to the Nazi regime. Defeat in the Great War, the stab-in-the-back legend, hyper-inflation, and certainly the growing animosity toward German Jews in the inter-war years are neglected. There is only a mention of Kristallnacht, a massive pogrom in 1938 in Berlin and elsewhere that made anti-Jewish sentiments available for everyone to see – if they wished.