Fall 2018. American Studies.

The Campus Rape Frenzy; The Attack on Due Process at America’s Universities by K.C. Johnson & Stuart Taylor, Jr. Encounter Books. Some observors would have it that our universities are being overwhelmed by political extremists and sexual predators.

Secularism; Politics, Religion, and Freedom by Andrew Copson. Oxford University Press. Of the three, religion has come to be the least important in the creation of a political order.

Road to Disaster; A New History of America’s Descent into Vietnam by Brian VanDeMark. Harper Row. The decisions made to enter and then expand our involvement by the Kennedy and then the Johnson Administrations.

The Red and the Blue; The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism by Steve Kornacki. Two larger-than-life politicians, Bill Clinton contorting himself around the several factions of the Democratic Party, and Newt Gingrich employing a scorched-earth strategy to upend the permanent Republican minority in the House. 

Washington’s Golden Age; Hope R. Miller, the Society Beat, and the Rise of Women Journalists by Joseph Dalton. Rowman & Littlefield. The life of pioneering women journalist who covered the politics and diplomacy of the White House from FDR to LBJ

Talking Back, Talking Black; Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter. Bellevue Literary Press. An authoritative celebration of Black English, how it is deployed and why it matters.

They Call Me George; The Untold Story of the Black Train Porters by Cecil Foster. Biblioasis. Paper. Railway porters and how it was that African Americans dominated that niche in the labor market otherwise hostile.

Vietnam; An Epic Tragedy, 1945 to 1975 by Max Hastings. Harper Row. Both the French and American interventions.

On Desperate Ground; The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides. Doubleday paper. October 1950 General Douglas MacArthur convinced President Harry Truman that the Communist forces would be defeated by Thanksgiving. The Chinese, he proclaimed, would not intervene in the War.

Not All Dead White Men; Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg. Harvard University Press. Looks into the virtual communities of the alt-right, where men lament their loss of power and privilege and are strategizing on how they might be recovered.

John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy by Luke Mayville. Princeton University Press. Paper. Long before the current “one percent” mania, John Adams was worrying about the rise of an oligarchy.

The Politics of White Rights; Race, Justice, and Integrating Alabama’s Schools by Joseph Bagley. University of Georgia Press. The litigious battles over integration from 1954 to 1973 taught Alabama’s segregationists how to fashion more subtle defenses of white privilege, placing them in the vanguard of a new conservatism.

Beyond the Mountains; Commodifying Appalachian Environments by Drew Swanson. University of Georgia Press, paper. Appalachia is viewed as frontier, wilderness, rural hinterland, a bastion of yeoman farmers, and place to experiment with modernization.

The Hijacked War; The Story of Chinese POWs in the Korean War by David Cheng Chang. Stanford University Press. Paper. Three years of warfare and an armistice that took two years to write. The unwillingness of those involved to bring about an armistice also delayed the eventual end of the Cold War.

FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman & Allan Lichtman. Harvard University Press, 2014 paper.

There has been considerable speculation about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reluctance to deal with the refugee problem that arose in the 1930s with the triumph of the National Socialist Regime in Germany. Why did the Roosevelt Administration not do more to assist Jewish refugees fleeing Europe? In fact, that Administration failed to take any action that would indicate its disapproval of the Nazi Regime, at least, not until Kristallnacht in 1933. Was this due to indifference?

It must be remembered that there were huge numbers of unemployed in the U.S. at this time, and it was difficult to talk about admitting refuges that would only add to the jobless figures. As governor of New York for a term in 1928, Roosevelt had dealt with significant unemployment and not always successfully.

The authors of FDR and the Jews, Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman, believe that Roosevelt’s response to Adolf Hitler is better understood by dividing it into phases. Roosevelt and his Administration were initially bystanders concerned about the crisis in Europe but unwilling to get involved as suggested by their response to the MS St. Louis.

In 1939 the MS St. Louis, a luxury liner with 900 Jewish refugees on board, attempted to land its desperate passengers first in this country, then Havana. We would only admit as many refugees as the quotas from Germany and Austria-Hungary would allow. FDR worried that the admission of any additional European Jews would jeopardize support for his New Deal legislation.

We then attempted to getting around our immigrant restrictions by trying to find other opportunities and homes for Jews in other countries, and particularly Palestine. Palestine had been considered by European Zionists as the most desirable destination for Jewish refugees because they would face less Anti-Semitism there. But to promote this alternative, Roosevelt would have to gain the permission of the British. The Brits were, at this time, trying to convince the Arab world to drop their long resistance to granting permission to Jews who wished to settle in Palestine but with little success. Bought or seized from Arab pastoralists and arborists, the land would be used to establish agricultural colonies. It was argued that Jews settled in agricultural kibbutzim and following better farming practices would make more efficient use of the land than the herders and orchard keepers that were occupying this dry land.

Roosevelt became more alarmed after the Germans invaded Poland and began deporting its Jewish population. However, emigration to Palestine was not a likely solution since Polish Jews were not farmers but merchants and traders. We had hoped that Latin American countries would accommodate and make good use of those Jews who had applied for admission to the U.S.  By 1939, there was a waiting list of six thousand for American entry.

Any alternative required Roosevelt to confront Anti-Semitism in the U.S. Our ambassador to the United Kingdom at the time, Joseph Kennedy, father to a subsequent U.S. president, was a pronounced Anti-Semite, arguing that we should not allow Germany’s  “Jewish problems” to get us involved in a European war. We should stay out of the war, unless we were attacked. He and others in the Roosevelt Administration were also responding to a new and unfounded fear of foreign spies and saboteurs.

Congress responded to this pacifist sentiment by passing the Neutrality Acts of 1935-1939 banning shipments of food and war materiel to belligerents. But the Act failed to satisfy the isolationists.

The Roosevelts, Franklin joined by Eleanor, stuck to their argument that the best way to save Jewish lives was to win the war as quickly as possible. But the U.S. kept to its neutrality, unwilling to take any action that would appear otherwise. We refused the offer of exchanging trucks for Jewish lives. We refused to bomb the approaches to death camps – Auschwitz and others. We did not intervene in Adolf Eichmann’s horrendous murder of Hungarian Jewry in 1944.

By 1944 FDR was formulating the ground rules for a postwar international peace-keeping body. (Though the war had not yet been won!) He asked that nations outside of the French-British entente should have a voice. These countries demanded the creation of post-war institutions that would ensure a peaceful future.

Toward the end of FDR and the Jews, the authors ponder an important point. If the judgment of any historical period is corrected by its posterity, then it is no less true that the present has the opportunity to shape that historic past as well.

God’s Red Son; The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America by Louis Warren. Basic Books, 2017.

            On 29 December 1890 there was a massacre at a place called Wounded Knee in South Dakota. It was the result of a long-standing clash of the officialdom that administrated the reservations in the Plains and the Native Americans who lived on them. The Indians were determined to maintain their old ways in the face of pressure on the part of these agents. Reservation Indians were being encouraged to adapt themselves to working as wage labor or taking up farming, getting an education in government schools, and accommodating their spiritual life to a new movement amongst the Native Tribes of the Southwest. They were frequently participants in a movement called the Ghost Dance.

            In the interest of modernity, Indians had been forced to drop certain practices that were part of their traditional Sun Dance. That included piercing the chest and back muscles with skewers and then dancing until they fell into a trance-like state. Helped along by the use of peyote. The reservation officials had had various objections to the Sun Dance when it was popular. But as it became less popular on the reservations, as the more mind-altering, Ghost Dance swept through the Indian communities on the Plains.

            This was also a time of revivalism in the Evangelical religious movements in white America. Ghost Dancers and Evangelical Christians were spiritual opponents in many ways, Louis Warren argues. For one thing they both claimed a Christ-like redeemer. But there could only be one redeemer in this monotheistic world and one means of acquiring redemption.

            There had long been many critics but also proponents of the reservation system. It enabled confinement and surveillance, both alien to Indian ways and to American religious movements. Moreover, the federal government provided Indians with food, medicinal supplies, etc.

            Eastern newspapers were frightening the country with stories about the Ghost Dance. It was part of an end-time when destruction would rain down on the white people. South and North Dakota were joining the Union (1889), and politicians worried about the spread of the Ghost Dance amongst the Dakota Indians would frighten white settlers from the new states.

The agencies also thought it important to reduce the number of firearms available to the Indians. The massacre at Wounded Knee involved a performance of the Ghost Dance. And, Warren suggests, that got linked together in the minds of newspaper readers. The effort to disarm these Lakota Indians resulted in the US Army intervening and shooting up the encampment.150 women and children were killed and 51 wounded. 

            Wounded Knee also undermined the long tradition of an assimilationist policy. These days we are proud of the success of our assimilationist policy in terms of Europeans and their comfortable settlement in the New World.  We have been less successful in accommodating freed slaves and Native Americans. European immigrants quickly settled into a job-oriented life. That was not so true of either of freed slaves or Native Americans. “Working for the white man” seemed natural to the European immigrant, but not so for the Native American.

            Meanwhile their sacred sites in the American West remain largely undisturbed and magnificent. 

            With exception of those who were forced into reservations in Oklahoma, Native Americans had lived in various environments west of the Mississippi and adapted themselves to each new environment. Only to watch as their lands became “zones of resource extraction.” (Warren) It was, however, possible to move further west. Though that would soon change.  

The Ghost Dance eventually became a “weekend activity.” The National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington seeks to help us understand the cultures of the plains Indians and supports the continuance of that culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native American life. And perhaps in some unknown corner of the western plains the Ghost Dance is still being performed.

The Liberators; America’s Witnesses to the Holocaust by Michael Hirsh. Bantam, 2010.

Michael Hirsh has interviewed dozens of GIs who had a part in the Allied liberation of the German concentration camps in 1945. Out of those interviews he has ascertained that the concentration camps had multiple purposes. They were never part of a static system. And they were still being built and closed in the last years of the war. For one thing the Russian army had broken the back of the Wehrmacht, and as the Russian armies moved west, the Germans moved their prison population west, ahead of the Russians. They were intent upon hiding evidence of the terrible condition that the camps were in at that point in the war.

There is considerable speculation by Hirsh and other historians of the War about what the German citizens knew of these camps, often located in wooded areas near them. More to the point: How much did the American military leadership know of the camps, where they were located, and the conditions under which the inmates were being held? And transferred to other camps?

There is the famous story of Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton visiting the concentration camp at Ohrdruf in Thuringia, part of the Buchenwald camp network intended for political prisoners. Prisoners of War were kept in Stalags, military prison camps, though they were later mixed in with political prisoners in the concentration camps.

(The smell; everyone mentions the smell. Of rotting corpses. General Patton’s response was to go off and regurgitate.)

The Allied military leadership has often been criticized for not having prepared the front-line soldiers likely to encounter these camps,as their visit to Ohrdruf revealed. But they were in a hurry. The British and American armies were occupying the German heartland, and they wanted that momentum to continue. Hirsh makes the point that the future of Occupied Germany was at risk. We were staking out the American Zone of Occupation; the Russians their zone.

As they were moved west, many of the camps’ inmates were packed into railway cattle cars. (Standing room only!) And since these trains packed with prisoners had a low priority, they were sometimes parked for days on rail sidings. And when unsealed, they were found to contain hundreds of dead and dying men. As more inmates were moved west and railway cars weren’t available, the result was another horror; the death marches.

The flight of the German guards in these prisons was often preceded by a final orgy of indiscriminate torture and killing. Many of the camp guards, members of the SS, Schutzstaffel, were shot or beaten to death by their former wards. They were often toughs, who had guarded Nazi party rallies.

There is the oft-told story of the dead being stacked like logs, awaiting their cremation. And locals, often young men, were drafted to dig the graves for their charred remains.

Retribution on the part of the inmates was an understandable response to the way they had been treated, but this free-for-all was not the kind of justice that the Anglo-American leadership intended for post-war Germany. The camp inmates often expressed the hope that the liberators would stay on to look after them but also to protect them against the possibility of a return of the camp guards.

It is interesting to note how frequently the gates to the concentration camps became symbols of the entire prison system. Perhaps the most famous is the entrance to Auschwitz, where the wrought-iron gate reads Arbeit macht Sie frei. “Work makes you free.”

Germany surrendered unconditionally on 7 May 1945. The war was over, and the liberators and their stories returned to this country. But much was left to be sorted out in Germany. Polish Jews who attempted to return to Poland found the same antisemitism that had forced them to leave their homeland.

For this book, Hirsh interviewed many American veterans who had been part of the liberation of the concentration camps. Many had trouble talking about their experience. They got over it; there were lots of opportunities to talk to American high school students about the Holocaust and their part in the liberation.

Most of these veterans are now approaching the age of 100. They will soon disappear from the ‘memory bank’ along with their aging memories. How will memories of World War II be altered once these liberators are dead?

The camps will, however, remain always a world of anger and remorse, for the historians of WWII and their readership to shape and reshape over time.

 

Grocery; The Buying and selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman. Abrams, 2018 paper.

Michael Ruhlman has analyzed the spaces in a mid-sized grocery chain based in his hometown of Cleveland, Heinen’s Grocery. A tour of the store reveals much about how we preserve our food, what a grocery store of that size stocks, and who determines the inventory.

A grocery store, at least the one in which I shop, is arranged by the degree of refrigeration needed to preserve an item. Thus the meat and dairy items are refrigerated and frozen items are in the outer perimeter of refrigerators and freezers. Good portions of what we find in a grocery store are items that need various degrees of preservation, though not necessarily refrigeration. Most items in Heinen’s Grocery that need cold storage are located with that in mind. Soaps, spices, and canned goods have much longer expiration dates and occupy the center of the store. Paper products can go almost anywhere, but are kept together.

Shopping carts. They haven’t always been around. At the store where I shop they come to the check-out-counter quite full. And judging from these full carts, most grocery shopping is done only once a week.

Ruhlman reports that decisions about stocking new items are generally made at the suggestion of the representatives hired by wholesale companies. Or the store’s buyers may attend trade shows and find new items there.

Food fads come and go surprisingly fast; customer demand generated by lots of advertising. At one time Swanson’s TV Dinners were popular. They have largely disappeared. Hydroponically-grown leaf letter has replaced iceberg lettuce. Several kinds of lettuce are combined, washed, and bagged. Eggs! From a regular dozen eggs to organic, cage-free, Omega-3, and half or full dozen of all those egg options.

The typical customer at Heinen’s is likely to buy food that has been partly prepared. Thanksgiving is the biggest food holiday of the year and involves eating turkey “with all the trimmings,” available to the grateful family.

Health crazes come and go: granola bars, avoiding GMOs (genetically modified organisms), grass-fed rather than corn-fed beef. Antibiotics and hormones that have gotten into the food we eat and the water we drink are to be avoided. Hence bottled spring water. Low sodium for those avoiding salt. Reduced caloric consumption.

Confused? There have been several successful books that give advice on eating and, therefore, shopping: Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire; How Cooking Made Us Human, Michael Moss’s Salt, Sugar Fat; How the Food Giants Hooked Us. And other suggestions in Michael Ruhlman’s selected biography.

My father was a grocer in Garwin, a small Iowa town serving a farming community of 2000. The R & T Store – Rider and Thomas – was half groceries, half “dry goods,” the latter a mix of work cloths, small gifts, and other non-grocery items. The store delivered twice a week; the deliveries were the fulfillment of orders that had been placed over the phone. To entice its customers, the R & T offered specials, money losers for the store.

My father spent his days in the store but, like many of his customers, he kept a garden that produced food for the family table. He had an asparagus bed, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, potatoes, and string beans.

We rented a large “locker drawer” where mom kept frozen foods including chickens and food grown in dad’s garden.

There were two other, smaller, grocery stores in town; but, in general, dad avoided competition with other retailers. There was a butcher shop, and hence we had only cold cuts and several cheeses. The R & T was next to the major “anchor store” in town, the post office.

In the R &T Store there were a lot of food items that weren’t packaged. That included sixteen different kinds of cookies, often “sampled.”  Customers brought their own jugs to fill with vinegar for pickling. My mother canned tomatoes as well, and stored them in our basement.

Farm wives that did a lot of baking bought flower by the fifty pound bag. Butter and cream were obtained from the local creamery. (Homemade ice cream made from real cream!) We acquired the eggs that we sold from farmers.

Eventually an A & P Store opened in Marshalltown, a small industrial town seventeen miles distant, and it began to challenge the R & T Store. After many years dad sold the store in 1956 and it survived another 10 years through another owner. Would the R & T be recognizable as a modern-day grocery business? Yes, I think it would. Although the R&T store was in a much smaller town than Cleveland and was operating twenty years earlier, my dad’s grocery was run in much the same way as Heinen’s.

Rebels and Runaways; Slave Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Florida

 

            In 1821 Florida was ceded by Spain to the US; in 1845 it entered the Union as a state. Nineteenth-Century Florida played a unique role in the evolution of the institution of slavery and its expanding cotton economy in the American South. The expansion of raw cotton production meant a larger work force and hence more slaves. Rivers focuses on what he terms Middle Florida, which includes Leon, Jackson, Jefferson, Gadsden and Madison counties (the Florida panhandle region that abuts southwest Georgia).     Some historians claim the series of wars that we call the Seminole Wars involved this expanding cotton economy.

Florida also played an important role in the resistance to slavery. It’s long seashore and orientation to the North Atlantic economy meant that slaves fleeing Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and the West Indies often ended up in Florida. Florida’s largest towns – St. Augustine, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Pensacola – were havens for runaways.

            Rivers argues that contrary to the common perception, there was considerable resistance to African bondage. That resistance took a variety of forms. It included, of course, the slave who absconded to distant places, perhaps with the help of the “underground Railway.” Most often, however, the slave hid out in his locality, wanting not to be separated from his family and community. He had to eat and his master was the most likely source of a stolen hog, the most common food item, or chickens, or a raid on the plantation’s larder. If the slave had been involved in the maritime trade, he begged food off of his fellow sailors.

Slave owners liked to think that runaway slaves were motivated by Northern abolitionists and that their flight was itself a form of thievery on the part of those abolitionists. Ultimately Northern opponents of slavery could provide little help to the bondsmen wishing to flee his bondage. Northerners understood that a disruption of the Southern slave economy resulting from slave flight would seriously injure the cotton economy, which was feeding the New England cotton mills. 

            These runaways were out-and-out thieves, or so the slave owner contended. When caught (or when he returned to his home plantation), the slave was usually severely punished, many lashes with a whip.

The crimes involved in his flight could be more serious: The murder of the overseer who had administered the lashes? The most common way of doing in a hard master was poison, and a suspicious purchase of a poison was often a tip-off to the slave’s intentions.

Rivers describes other forms of slave resistance short of running away. Work slowdowns and faking illnesses were far more common. Often the punishment for the household servant was fieldwork, and stoop labor.

Generally the slave’s flight was not a spur-of-the-moment act. Most of the runaway slaves had planned their flight well in advance, storing up food and clothing for what might be weeks of tenuous existence.

Were these absconding slaves ‘rebels?’ Mostly they were individual slaves planning their own flight from this harsh world of Southern slavery. However, the slaves’ knowledge of Florida’s waterways was a significant assistance to the Union cause during the Civil War.

The Haitian Revolution colored Southern attitudes toward this flight of slaves. Beginning in 1791, Haitian slaves rioted, killed Haitian slave owners, and conducted guerilla warfare for years after that initial rebellion.

Plantation owners knew who, amongst their community, were a source of the brutal treatment of their slaves and hence slave flight. Perhaps to ameliorate the worst practices, they often agreed to help enforce the various codes that regulated the business of capture. The reward for returning a slave was substantial, in the thousands of dollars in today’s dollar.  

Generally speaking, there would be a notice in a local paper with a detailed description of the runaway’s appearance, often flattering. The list of their skills is remarkable: blacksmiths, carpenters, and pilots were the most common crafts listed. Hence their flight meant a significant loss of skilled labor to the Southern economy.

Rivers contends, however, that despite this dependency on slave labor and the economic losses involved in flight, slave owners did little to ameliorate the harness of slavery in the American south. One reads accounts of slaves who fled because their infants and children had been sold to distant plantation owners. Southern slave owners often sold slaves to satisfy their debts, or to finance the purchase of new plantations. Many slaves were leased out, and their owner ceased to have any control over their well-being.

Thus Rivers believes that there were many causes of slave resistance in nineteenth-century Florida and that resistance was not uncommon. He has proven his point that slaves in Middle Florida often took it upon themselves to resist their slavery by Larry Rivers. University of Illinois Press, 2013 paper.

            In 1821 Florida was ceded by Spain to the US; in 1845 it entered the Union as a state. Nineteenth-Century Florida played a unique role in the evolution of the institution of slavery and its expanding cotton economy in the American South. The expansion of raw cotton production meant a larger work force and hence more slaves. Rivers focuses on what he terms Middle Florida, which includes Leon, Jackson, Jefferson, Gadsden and Madison counties (the Florida panhandle region that abuts southwest Georgia).     Some historians claim the series of wars that we call the Seminole Wars involved this expanding cotton economy.

Florida also played an important role in the resistance to slavery. It’s long seashore and orientation to the North Atlantic economy meant that slaves fleeing Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and the West Indies often ended up in Florida. Florida’s largest towns – St. Augustine, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Pensacola – were havens for runaways.

            Rivers argues that contrary to the common perception, there was considerable resistance to African bondage. That resistance took a variety of forms. It included, of course, the slave who absconded to distant places, perhaps with the help of the “underground Railway.” Most often, however, the slave hid out in his locality, wanting not to be separated from his family and community. He had to eat and his master was the most likely source of a stolen hog, the most common food item, or chickens, or a raid on the plantation’s larder. If the slave had been involved in the maritime trade, he begged food off of his fellow sailors.

Slave owners liked to think that runaway slaves were motivated by Northern abolitionists and that their flight was itself a form of thievery on the part of those abolitionists. Ultimately Northern opponents of slavery could provide little help to the bondsmen wishing to flee his bondage. Northerners understood that a disruption of the Southern slave economy resulting from slave flight would seriously injure the cotton economy, which was feeding the New England cotton mills. 

            These runaways were out-and-out thieves, or so the slave owner contended. When caught (or when he returned to his home plantation), the slave was usually severely punished, many lashes with a whip.

The crimes involved in his flight could be more serious: The murder of the overseer who had administered the lashes? The most common way of doing in a hard master was poison, and a suspicious purchase of a poison was often a tip-off to the slave’s intentions.

Rivers describes other forms of slave resistance short of running away. Work slowdowns and faking illnesses were far more common. Often the punishment for the household servant was fieldwork, and stoop labor.

Generally the slave’s flight was not a spur-of-the-moment act. Most of the runaway slaves had planned their flight well in advance, storing up food and clothing for what might be weeks of tenuous existence.

Were these absconding slaves ‘rebels?’ Mostly they were individual slaves planning their own flight from this harsh world of Southern slavery. However, the slaves’ knowledge of Florida’s waterways was a significant assistance to the Union cause during the Civil War.

The Haitian Revolution colored Southern attitudes toward this flight of slaves. Beginning in 1791, Haitian slaves rioted, killed Haitian slave owners, and conducted guerilla warfare for years after that initial rebellion.

Plantation owners knew who, amongst their community, were a source of the brutal treatment of their slaves and hence slave flight. Perhaps to ameliorate the worst practices, they often agreed to help enforce the various codes that regulated the business of capture. The reward for returning a slave was substantial, in the thousands of dollars in today’s dollar.  

Generally speaking, there would be a notice in a local paper with a detailed description of the runaway’s appearance, often flattering. The list of their skills is remarkable: blacksmiths, carpenters, and pilots were the most common crafts listed. Hence their flight meant a significant loss of skilled labor to the Southern economy.

Rivers contends, however, that despite this dependency on slave labor and the economic losses involved in flight, slave owners did little to ameliorate the harness of slavery in the American south. One reads accounts of slaves who fled because their infants and children had been sold to distant plantation owners. Southern slave owners often sold slaves to satisfy their debts, or to finance the purchase of new plantations. Many slaves were leased out, and their owner ceased to have any control over their well-being.

Thus Rivers believes that there were many causes of slave resistance in nineteenth-century Florida and that resistance was not uncommon. He has proven his point that slaves in Middle Florida often took it upon themselves to resist their slavery

Fear Itself; The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Kra Katznelson. Liveright, paper, 2014.

Fear Itself; The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Kra Katznelson. Liveright, paper, 2014.

Kra Katznelson’s book looks at the New Deal, including both the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman Administrations, a twenty-two year span dominated by Democratic control of both Houses. He admires both Presidents but does not fail to mention their omissions. “Fear Itself” is taken from FDR’s inaugural address in 1933, “[The] only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The author’s grand theme is the importance of the Southern Democrats in forming the New Deal. Its essential support in those years explains FDR’s unwillingness to take on its social system: Jim Crow involved white supremacy, a restrictive franchise, and racial segregation. The ‘solid South’ also opposed the international role that the Roosevelt-Truman Administrations resolved to play in World War II and its aftermath.

One criticism of Fear Itself is that Katznelson doesn’t discuss the Hoover Administration, its efforts to deal with the country’s massive unemployment prior to 1932 and the role that the alliance of Southern Democrats played in limiting Hoover’s response to the Depression. Roosevelt understood that revitalizing the national economy and rebuilding our armed forces in the face of German aggression would include a huge increase in military spending. that greater federal efforts to restore the economy would require a larger bureaucracy. Hence the construction of the Pentagon building in 1941-1943.

Not only did the Southern Democrats shape American response to depression and war, they were also able to shape racial policy during the New Deal. The new Pentagon was a segregated building as were most federal office space. The Armed Services also remained segregated throughout both world wars. Truman ordered their integration in 1948 at the beginning of his second term.

But African-Americans served in our segregated army and hence should be given the opportunity to vote. “Ballots for Soldiers” would seem to have been a given. Yet federal intervention to expand the franchise threatened Jim Crow. Katznelson points out that there were difficulties involved in facilitating voting by soldiers stationed overseas. Also voter registration in the South was in the hands of local and state officials. Collecting the poll tax, common in the South, could not be part of any federal initiative.  Roosevelt’s solution was to create a simple federal ballot, but leaving its administration in the hands of those state and local officials

Historians talk of two New Deals, the First New Deal (1933-1935) involved an array of federal interventions into the American capitalist economy. Those first hundred days of the Roosevelt Administration have become a model for nearly all subsequent pro-active Administrations.

The Second New Deal (1935 to 1941) was in part the result of the Southern Democrats and their continuing “veto” as a restraint on a federal response to the Depression. (FDR was also having difficulty getting his legislation through court challenges.) However the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the passage of the Civilian Conservation Corps got past the Southern “veto.” Both authorized relief programs that employed unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25.  The camps were segregated and the benefits to African-Americans fewer. The CCC was perhaps the most popular measure of the Second New Deal, and many of its projects are still around for everyone to enjoy.

Americans watched while fascist regimes triumphed in both Italy and Germany. We felt comparatively safe from European entanglements, oceans protecting us. From a distance the US could admire the Italian and German regimes addressed their own troubled economies in ways not open to a capitalist democracy.

We were divided over Roosevelt’s isolationist position. The various Neutrality Acts passed in 1930s were intended to ensure that the US would not become entangled in European conflict.

Roosevelt found ways, however, to support Britain, most notably the Lend Lease Act. War materiel from destroyers to machine guns were supplied on credit in exchange for bases on various islands within the British Empire – Destroyers for Bases. In the meantime we began our own rearmament efforts. This time the South was not left behind with the industrial surge resulting from that war production.

The fear of which Roosevelt spoke in his first inaugural was the result of economic collapse. We now feared German submarines sinking American merchant ships in the North Atlantic. We had no German bombers dropping their loads on our cities, or American boys dying on the battlefield. But we anguished as the British cities were bombed repeatedly and the Russians lost millions of young men on the Eastern Front. In 1941 we entered World War II.

Several final chapters discuss the anxiety of atomic warfare in the late 1940s. Looking back, it seems to have been an effort to keep the nation mobilized for a prolonged ‘cold war’ with the Soviet Union. 1952 is a good year to end the story that Ira Katznelson tells. General Dwight Eisenhower’s two presidential terms provided a different set of fears and anxieties. Who can forget the grade school drills when we crouched under our desks fearing an atomic attack?

The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City by Margaret Creighton.

The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City by Margaret Creighton.  W.W. Norton, 2017 paper.

The Pan American Exposition opened in Buffalo, New York, in May of 1901 and closed in November. It celebrated our ‘victory’ in the Spanish-American War in 1898, a triumph for imperial America at the expense of imperial Spain. Even back then, world fairs were financially a losing proposition and this one was no exception. The Exposition had some other unhappy distinctions. And Margaret Creighton tells that story.

            The attendance figures sound impressive: 200,000 daily and on good days as many as 300,000 paid admissions. Its promoters, however, felt they were competing with the Chicago World’s Fair for attendance. The Buffalo fair was a days’ journey by rail for forty million people. Canadians were next door. Hence the Buffalo Exposition had a much bigger potential draw than was the case with Chicago.

Some wealthy businessmen and several politicians with public money to spend had agreed to subsidize the Exposition. But the promoters had to hustle to keep money coming in. That meant creating exciting press coverage. Press releases were frequent and there were a number of special-event days designed to attract attendees, often for a second visit. But then a downer. While visiting the Fair, William McKinley, just beginning his second Presidential term, was shot and mortally wounded by a drifter, Leon Czolgosz, on 6 September.

Czolgosz, was born into a Polish immigrant family. An unemployed steel worker, he contended that the capitalist economy in America was disproportionately favoring the well-off. He considered himself an anarchist, though, Creighton notes, his ideology was thin.

McKinley seemed to be doing fine, recuperating in a mansion near the Fair. But he took a turn for the worse on 13 September and died early the next morning of an infection that the medicine of the time couldn’t stop. The McKinley assassination put a dent in the attendance and hence revenue.

Given the theme of the Exposition – electricity and its blessings, Czolgosz’s death by electrocution was an unwelcomed outcome of that celebration. He was one of the electric chair’s first victims.

            Close to Niagara Falls, the Exposition was always an opportunity for individuals to seek press attention by passing over the Falls in a barrel.  Annie Edson Taylor was a school teacher of middling success who had taught in different schools in the Upper Midwest. Most people thought her aim was to commit suicide, but she made it over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls on 24 October. Her stunt had the advantage of all the publicity linked to the Exposition. She lived for another thirty years, dying at the age of ninety-three. Taylor stayed out of the poor house for most of the rest of her life by selling souvenirs of her stunt on the streets of Buffalo, a facsimile of the original barrel by her side.

            Like most state fairs, carnivals, and circuses, World’s Fairs had a midway. The Pan American Exposition was no exception. Its most popular midway attraction was owned by Frank Bostock, which included a dozen or so elephants including Jumbo II, which was said to be the largest mammal in captivity.          

The star attraction of this midway, however, was Chiquita, “The Cuban Doll,” a very small midget, around whose stature Bostock had created an act. But love conquered Chiquita’s height problem. She fell in love with a musician in the show, Tony Woeckener. “Little Tony,” was scrawny but not a midget. Chiquita and Little Tony were carrying on in secret.

To keep together they needed a union of some sort and so fled to Buffalo and got a quick marriage. But alas, Bostock found out about their relationship and subsequent ‘flight.’ To justify his intervention in their happy post-marriage, he claimed that The Cuban Doll had been kidnapped and that sensation got a flock of journalists to follow the fate of The Cuban Doll and Tony.

            Bostock, it turned out, had another problem. Jumbo II, his elephant star of the show was not behaving, and misbehaving elephants were not safe to parade amongst the attendees as the elephants did several times daily. It was decided that Jumbo should be ‘retired’ by a public execution. And there was a good crowd drawn that day to watch poor Jumbo’s demise. But the electrocution didn’t work, despite several tries and obvious suffering on the part of the animal.

            Neither those who opposed capital punishment nor cruelty to animals had yet found their voice. But the author points out that those missing voices were soon to follow.

 

The People’s Platform; Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

The People’s Platform; Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor.  Henry Holt, 2016.

Astra Taylor poses a question early on in her book, The People’s Platform. Is the internet a democratizing force where all voices can be heard and can participate equally? A cultural leveler? Or rather, is the internet now reflecting real-world inequalities? She argues for the latter.

Taylor has an axe to grind; she is an author and documentary filmmaker; and it is not clear how those professions will fare in our digital future. The internet, she argues, straddles two economies: a “gift economy” and a “market economy.” Those who are creating the cultural content for the internet are not bringing home big paychecks; they are expected to do their jobs without a fair compensation: the gift economy.

The companies and platforms which dominate the distribution of that cultural content on the internet – Google, YouTube, etc. – are making the big bucks. And many of those technology companies are, in turn, being acquired by the ‘legacy media’, companies such as Disney, Time Warner, CBS, Comcast, and AT & T. And there are even bigger bucks to be made through an old capitalist phenomena, mergers and acquisitions.

This mixture of the two different economies is not unlike the much older issue of copyrighted material. How long does a person own his or her work and receive the benefits of that ownership? Cultural content is constructed on the work of other scholars, artists, etc. who have been the creators of earlier cultural content. And none of them are compensated.

Taylor talks about “search engine success.” The internet is a contest for attention. But the rewards from internet users are clicks rather than dollars. The result, sadly, is a race to the bottom; celebrity affairs, fake news, and the trials and tribulations of ordinary folks “gone viral.” Few web sites have succeeded well enough to be sold for large figures. But don’t forget the Huffington Post. It was launched in 2005 and after six years was acquired by AOL for $315 million.

The “people’s platform” is being constructed just as we are experiencing another new phenomenon. Our smartphones and the internet have made us into citizen journalists. We have become the documentarians of this new media. Crime scenes, for example, are being recorded by witnesses and posted to a network of internet users.  Anything can be posted on a web site and there are no challenges. Where are the “gate keepers” of old? Fact checkers we have but with little of the authority that editors have had over what gets said in the print media.

The recent presidential election has demonstrated that the internet – and specifically Twitter – can be an effective means of political communication. Is the press conference with its constraints and safeguards being replaced by short communications on Twitter (140 characters)?  These factoids are now passed around without the usual questioning by professionals.

The internet creates echo chambers and reflecting mirrors from the choices we make in the sites we visit. We cooperate with these invisible filter bubbles to sort through the voluminous internet traffic to provide us with “the daily me.” We marvel at the freedom the internet holds out to us; yet we retreat mostly to our comfort zones.

Yes, the Internet is free but not without costs. Those are born by users, and more-and-more by those who advertise on the sites that we visit. Taylor argues, however, that the revenue generated is considerably less than the advertising revenue enjoyed by the broadcast and print media in their heydays. We have begun to replace them and their traditional advertising sources with a medium that is far less able to finance its programing. This pattern of compensation, Taylor contends, is not a sustainable arrangement for the future of the internet.

There is a related phenomenon of inadequate compensation in the recording industry. As music fans chose to copy files rather than buying CDs, musicians saw the revenue stream on which they had counted shrivel. They were forced to take to the road again and earn their money through performances. That parallel situation will require those creating cultural content on the internet to seek other sources of reimbursement.

Taylor is apparently less concerned with two additional threats to a viable future for the internet that have surfaced in recent years. Europeans, at least, were shocked to find out about the extent of international surveillance. Spying on German politicians! While we Americans are told that the internet of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees were hacked by Russian cyber-specialists, and that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, may have used information gained from that hacking to assist Donald Trump in his run for the Presidency. We can’t respond in kind because Russia has nothing like our American electoral cycle and the attendant partisan politics.

 

 

 

An Empire on the Edge; How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker. Vintage, 2015, paper.

An Empire on the Edge; How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker. Vintage, 2015, paper.

Having read Nick Bunker’s An Empire on the Edge, our familiarity with the American Revolution seems remarkably shallow. The Boston Tea Party, the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, and John Hancock’s overly large signature on that parchment is about all most of us know, and we learned that in our grade-school history.

Nick Bunker’s story of how Britain came to the fight with its American colonies is much more complicated. The author describes the political protests in the colonies from 1775 to 1782 as seen from Britain and in the eyes of its ruling elite. He has given us a full account of a parallel political and economic crisis in Britain combined with the considerable ineptitude of the Administration of Lord North (Frederick North), prime minister, and Lord Dartmouth (William Legge Dartmouth), colonial secretary, in dealing with the thirteen colonies. While the separation of the colonies now seems to have been an inevitable consequence of an American coming of age, it also involved considerable mismanagement of colonial affairs.

Tea, yes, the crisis did involve tea. The tea, then largely from China, was transported to England by the ships of the East India Company, a public/private company chartered to bring tea to the home market and to the North American colonies. Tea imports were taxed as part of the more general tax on a triangular commodity trade between the colonial ports stretching from Halifax to Charleston, the West Indies, and London. That commodity trade also included wheat and tobacco from the Chesapeake region; cotton from India; sugar, indigo, and rum from the West Indies. The tax on this commodity trade was an important source of imperial revenue.

Britain in turn exported mostly the products of its booming iron and steel industry. An ‘industrial revolution’ was transforming the English economy and creating an entrepreneurial class out of its landed elite. This elite dominated political life, largely because of the unreformed parliament. Its interests were framing the North Administration’s views about colonial taxation.

The Lord North government generally neglected to take seriously warnings from its administrators in the colonies, Thomas Hutchinson and later Thomas Gage. It tended to view the unrest largely as a problem in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, ignoring the growing discontent from the southern and Chesapeake colonies as well. That colonial administrative apparatus was also compromised by the time it took to send and receive reports and orders by sailing ships – thirty to forty days. The North administration could not respond quickly to fast-moving events in the colonies.

The British thought that the North American colonists ought to pay for more of the cost of its administration. Bunker points out that there is some truth to the contention that they were not paying their share. The average tax per annum paid in Britain was 25 shillings per head; North American 6 pence (12 pence to a shilling).

On the other hand the Americans worried about the colonial administration in London paying the salaries of judges and customs officials serving in the colonies. This resulted, they believed, in undue influence of London over the decisions of these officials. Taxation without Representation.

All might have been different if the North Government had not been reeling from bad economic news, if there had not been the continued Russian and Austrian threat to the British position on the European continent, and if there had not been a looming war with France and Spain. Without European allies, that war would require a naval presence in the North Sea and a greater military presence on the Continent, all that costing money when government coffers were emptying. Thus even greater dependence on taxing trade.

Perhaps the “last straw” was the Quebec Act enacted by the British parliament in May 1774. The French in Canada would be free to worship as they chose. This seemed to be an act of toleration but not through American eyes. It would, they felt, create a catholic presence in the Ohio Valley, in other words handing American settlers over to “popery”.

Nick Bunker compares the various parliamentary debates over the enforcement of British colonial taxation in the 1770s to the debate over the Munich Agreement in 1938.  In both cases the likelihood of war weighed heavily on Britain. Perhaps some who hesitated to enter World War II against Nazi Germany sensed the irony of the different role that those American colonists, now the United States of America, played in that decision almost two centuries later.

 

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