Category Archives: American Society

Can’t Forget the Motor City

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David Maraniss, Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story

     In 1960, Detroit was the automobile capital of the world, America’s undisputed center of manufacturing, and its fifth most populous city, with that year’s census tallying 1.67 million people. Fifty years later, the city had lost nearly a million people; its population had dropped to 677,000 and it ranked 21st in population among America’s cities in the 2010 census. Then, in 2013, the city reinforced its image as an urban basket case by ignominiously filing for bankruptcy. In Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, David Maraniss, a native Detroiter of my generation and a highly skilled journalist whose previous works include books on Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, focuses upon Detroit before its precipitous fall, an 18-month period from late 1962 to early 1964.   This was the city’s golden moment, Maraniss writes, when Detroit “seemed to be glowing with promise. . . a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things” (p.xii-xiii; in March 2012, I reviewed here two books on post World War II Detroit, under the title “Tales of Two Cities”).

      Detroit produced more cars in this 18 month period than Americans produced babies.  Barry Gordy Jr.’s popular music empire, known officially and affectionately as “Motown,” was selling a new, upbeat pop music sound across the nation and around the world.  Further, at a time when civil rights for African-Americans had become America’s most morally compelling issue, race relations in a city then about one-third black appeared to be as good as anywhere in the United States. With a slew of high-minded officials in the public and private sector dedicated to racial harmony and justice, Detroit sought to present itself as a model for the nation in securing opportunity for all its citizens.

     Maraniss begins his 18-month chronicle with dual events on the same day in November 1962: the burning of an iconic Detroit area memorial to the automobile industry, the Ford Rotunda, a “quintessentially American harmonic convergence of religiosity and consumerism” (p.1-2); and, later that afternoon, a police raid on the Gotham Hotel, once the “cultural and social epicenter of black Detroit” (p.10), but by then considered to be a den of illicit gambling controlled by organized crime groups.  He ends with President Lyndon Johnson’s landmark address in May 1964 on the campus of nearby University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Johnson outlined his grandiose vision of the Great Society.  Johnson chose Ann Arbor as the venue to deliver this address in large measure because of its proximity to Detroit. No place seemed “more important to his mission than Detroit,” Maraniss writes, a “great city that honored labor, built cars, made music, promoted civil rights, and helped lift working people into the middle class” (p.360).

     Maraniss’ chronicle unfolds between these bookend events, revolving around on what had attracted President Johnson to the Detroit area in May 1964: building cars, making music, promoting civil rights, and lifting working people into the middle class. He skillfully weaves these strands into an affectionate, deeply researched yet easy-to-read portrait of Detroit during this 18-month golden period.  But Maraniss  does not ignore the fissures, visible to those perceptive enough to recognize them, which would lead to Detroit’s later unraveling.  Detroit may have found the right formula for bringing a middle class life style to working class Americans, black and white alike. But already Detroit was losing population as its white working class was taking advantage of newfound prosperity to leave the city for nearby suburbs.  Moreover, many in Detroit’s black community found the city to be anything but a model of racial harmony.

* * *

     An advertising executive described Detroit in 1963 as “intensely an automobile community – everybody lives, breathes, and sleeps automobiles. It’s like a feudal city ” (p.111). Maraniss’ inside account of Detroit’s automobile industry focuses principally upon the remarkable relationship between Ford Motor Company’s chief executive, Henry Ford II (sometimes referred to as “HF2” or “the Deuce”) and the head of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther, during this 18 month golden age (Manariss accords far less attention to the other two members of Detroit’s “Big Three,” General Motors and Chrysler, or to the upstart American Motors Corporation, whose chief executive, George Romney, was elected governor in November 1962 as a Republican). Ford and Reuther could not have been more different.

     Ford, from Detroit’s most famous industrial family, was a graduate of Hotchkiss School and Yale University who had been called home from military service during World War II to run the family business when his father Edsel Ford, then company president, died in 1943. Maraniss mischievously describes the Deuce as having a “touch of the peasant, with his manicured nails and beer gut and . . . frat-boy party demeanor” (p.28). Yet, Ford earnestly sought to modernize a company that he thought had grown too stodgy.  And, early in his tenure, he had famously said, “Labor unions are here to stay” (p.212).

      Reuther was a graduate of the “school of hard knocks,” the son of German immigrants whose father had worked in the West Virginia coalmines.   Reuther himself had worked his way up the automobile assembly line hierarchy to head its powerful union. George Romney once called Reuther the “most dangerous man in Detroit” (p.136). But Reuther prided himself on “pragmatic progressivism over purity, getting things done over making noise. . . [He was] not Marxist but Rooseveltian – in his case meaning as much Eleanor as Franklin” (p.136). Reuther believed that big government was necessary to solve big problems. During the Cold War, he won the support of Democratic presidents by “steering international trade unionists away from communism” (p.138).

     A quarter of a century after the infamous confrontation between Reuther and goons recruited by the Deuce’s grandfather Henry Ford to oppose unionization in the automobile industry — an altercation in which Reuther was seriously injured — the younger Ford’s partnership with Reuther blossomed. Rather than bitter and violent confrontation, the odd couple worked together to lift huge swaths of Detroit’s blue-collar auto workers into the middle class – arguably Detroit’s most significant contribution to American society in the second half of the 20th century. “When considering all that Detroit has meant to America,” Maraniss writes, “it can be said in a profound sense that Detroit gave blue-collar workers a way into the middle class . . . Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther, two giants of the mid-twentieth century, were essential to that result” (p.212).

      Reuther was aware that, despite higher wages and improved benefits, life on the assembly lines remained “tedious and soul sapping if not dehumanizing and dangerous” for autoworkers (p.215). He therefore consistently supported improving leisure time for workers outside the factory.  Music was one longstanding outlet for Detroiters, including its autoworkers. The city’s rich history of gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues musicians gave Detroit an “unmatched creative melody” (p.100), Maraniss observes.   By the early 1960s, Detroit’s musical tradition had become identified with the work of Motown founder, mastermind and chief executive, Berry Gordy Jr.

     Gordy was an ambitious man of “inimitable skills and imagination . . . in assessing talent and figuring out how to make it shine” (p.100).  Gordy aimed to market his Motown sound to white and black listeners alike, transcending the racial confines of the traditional rhythm and blues market. He set up what Maraniss terms a “musical assembly line” that “nurtured freedom through discipline” (p.195) for his many talented performers. The songs which Gordy wrote and championed captured the spirit of working class life: “clear story lines, basic and universal music for all people, focusing on love and heartbreak, work and play, joy and pain” (p.53).

     Gordy’s team included a mind-boggling array of established stars: Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and his Miracles, Martha Reeves and her Mandelas, Diana Ross and her Supremes, and the twelve-year-old prodigy, Little Stevie Wonder.  Among Gordy’s rising future stars were the Temptations and the Four Tops. The Motown team was never more talented than in the summer of 1963, Maraniss contends. Ten Motown singles rose to Billboard’s Top 10 that year, and eight more to the Top 20.  Wonder, who dropped “Little” before his name in 1963, saw his “Fingertips Part 2” rocket up the charts to No. 1.  Martha and the Vandellas made their mark with “Heat Wave,” a song with “irrepressibly joyous momentum” (p.197).  But the title could have referred equally to the rising intensity of the nationwide quest for racial justice and civil rights for African-Americans that summer.

      In June 1963, nine weeks before the 1963 March on Washington, Maraniss reminds us that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the outlines of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the end of a huge Detroit “Walk to Freedom” rally that took place almost exactly 20 years after a devastating racial confrontation between blacks and whites in wartime Detroit. The Walk drew an estimated 100,000 marchers, including a significant if limited number of whites. What King said that June 1963 afternoon, Maraniss writes, was “virtually lost to history, overwhelmed by what was to come, but the first time King dreamed his dream at a large public gathering, he dreamed it in Detroit” (p.182). Concerns about disorderly conduct and violence preceded both the Detroit Walk to Freedom and the March on Washington two months later. Yet, the two  events were for all practical purposes free of violence.  Just as the March on Washington energized King’s non-violent quest for Civil Rights nation-wide, the Walk to Freedom buoyed Detroit’s claim to be a model of racial justice in the urban north.

      In the Walk for Freedom and in the nationwide quest for racial justice, Walter Reuther was an unsung hero. Under Reuther’s leadership, the UAW made an “unequivocal moral and financial commitment to civil rights action and legislation” (p.126).   Once John Kennedy assumed the presidency, Reuther consistently pressed the administration to move on civil rights.  The White House in turn relied on Reuther to serve as a liaison to black civil rights leaders, especially to Dr. King and his southern desegregation campaign. The UAW functioned as what Maraniss  terms the “bank” (p.140) of the Civil Right movement, providing needed funding at critical junctures. To be sure, Maraniss emphasizes, not all rank-and-file UAW members shared Reuther’s passionate commitment to the Walk for Freedom, the March on Washington, or to the cause of civil rights for African-Americans.

     Even within Detroit’s black community, not all leaders supported the Walk for Freedom. Maraniss  provides a close look at the struggle between the Reverend C.L. Franklin and the Reverend Albert Cleage for control over the details of the March for Freedom and, more generally, for control over the direction of the quest for racial justice in Detroit. Reverend Franklin, Detroit’s “flashiest and most entertaining preacher” (p.12; also the father of singer Aretha, who somehow escaped Gordy’s clutches to perform for Columbia Records and later Atlantic), was King’s closest ally in Detroit’s black community. Cleage, whose church later became known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, founded on the belief that Jesus was black, was not wedded to Dr. King’s brand of non-violence. Cleage sought to limit the influence of Reuther, the UAW and whites generally in the Walk for Freedom. Franklin was able to retain the upper hand in setting the terms and conditions for the June 1963 rally.  But the dispute between Reverends Franklin and Cleage reflected the more fundamental difference between black nationalism and Martin Luther King style integration, and was thus an “early formulation of a dispute that would persist throughout the decade” (p.232),

     In November of 1963, Cleage sponsored a conference that featured black nationalist Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots,” an important if less well known counterpoint to King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington in August of that year.  In tone and substance, Malcolm’s address “marked a break from the past and laid out a path for the black power movement to follow from then on” (p.279). Malcolm referred in his speech to the highly publicized police killing of prostitute Cynthia Scott the previous summer, which had generated outrage throughout Detroit’s black community and exacerbated long simmering tensions between the community and a police force that was more than 95% white.

     Scott’s killing “discombobulated the dynamics of race in the city. Any communal black and white sensibility resulting from the June 23 [Walk to Freedom] rally had dissipated, and the prevailing feeling was again us versus them” (p.229).  The tension between police and community did not abate when Police Commissioner George Edwards, a long standing liberal who enjoyed strong support within the black community, considered the Scott case carefully and ruled that the shooting was “regrettable and unwise . . . but by the standards of the law it was justified” (p.199).

      Then there was the contentious issue of a proposed Open Housing ordinance that would have forbidden property owners from refusing to sell their property on the basis of race. The proposed ordinance required passage from the city’s nine person City Council, elected at large in a city that was one-third black – no one on the council represented directly the city’s black neighborhoods. The proposal was similar in intent to future national legislation, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and had the enthusiastic support of Detroit’s progressive Mayor, Jerome Cavanaugh, a youthful Irish Catholic who deliberately cast himself as a mid-western John Kennedy.

      But the proposal evoked bitter opposition from white homeowner associations across the city, revealing the racial fissures within Detroit. “On one side were white homeowner groups who said they were fighting on behalf of individual rights and the sanctity and safety of their neighborhoods. On the other side were African American churches and social groups, white and black religious leaders, and the Detroit Commission on Community Relations, which had been established . . . to try to bridge the racial divide in the city” (p.242).   Notwithstanding the support of the Mayor and leaders like Reuther and Reverend Franklin, white homeowner opposition doomed the proposed ordinance. The City Council rejected the proposal 7-2, a stinging rebuke to the city’s self-image as a model of racial progress and harmony.

       Detroit’s failed bid for the 1968 Olympics was an equally stinging rebuke to the self-image of a city that loved sports as much as music. Detroit bested more glamorous Los Angeles for the right to represent the United States in international competition for the games. A delegation of city leaders, including Governor Romney and Mayor Cavanaugh, traveled to Baden Baden, Germany, where they made a well-received presentation to the International Olympic Committee. While Detroit was making its presentation, the Committee received a letter from an African American resident of Detroit who alluded to the Scott case and the failed Open Housing Ordinance to argue against awarding the games to the city on the ground that fair play “has not become a living part of Detroit” (p.262). Although bookmakers had made Detroit a 2-1 favorite for the 1968 games, the Committee awarded them to Mexico City. Its selection was based largely upon what Maraniss considers Cold War considerations, with Soviet bloc countries voting against Detroit. The delegation dismissed the view that the letter to the Committee might have undermined Detroit’s bid, but its actual effect on the Committee’s decision remains undetermined.

         Maraniss asks whether Detroit might have been able to better contain or even ward off the devastating 1967 riots had it been awarded the 1968 Olympic games. “Unanswerable, but worth pondering” is his response (p.271). In explaining the demise of Detroit, many, myself included, start with the 1967 riots which in a few short but violent days destroyed large swaths of the city, obliterating once solid neighborhoods and accelerating white flight to the suburbs.  But Maraniss emphasizes that white flight was already well underway long before the 1967 disorders. The city’s population had dropped from just under 1.9 million in the 1950 census to 1.67 million in 1960. In January of 1963, Wayne State University demographers published “The Population Revolution in Detroit,” a study which foresaw an even more precipitous emigration of Detroit’s working class in the decades ahead. The Wayne State demographers “predicted a dire future long before it became popular to attribute Detroit’s fall to a grab bag of Rust Belt infirmities, from high labor costs to harsh weather, and before the city staggered from more blows of municipal corruption and incompetence. Before any of that, the forces of deterioration were already set in motion” (p..91). Only a minor story in January 1963, the findings and projections of the Wayne State study in retrospect were of “startling importance and haunting prescience” (p.89).

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      My high school classmates are likely to find Maraniss’ book a nostalgic trip down memory lane: his 18 month period begins with our senior year in a suburban Detroit high school and ends with our freshman college year — our own time of soaring youthful dreams, however unrealistic. But for those readers lacking a direct connection to the book’s time and place, and particularly for those who may still think of Detroit only as an urban basket case, Maraniss provides a useful reminder that it was not always thus.  He nails the point in a powerful sentence: “The automobile, music, labor, civil rights, the middle class – so much of what defines our society and culture can be traced to Detroit, either made there or tested there or strengthened there” (p.xii).  To this, he could have added, borrowing from Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 hit, “Dancing in the Streets,” that America can’t afford to forget the Motor City.

 

                   Thomas H. Peebles

Berlin, Germany

October 28, 2016

9 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, United States History

Blithe Optimist

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Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge:

The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

     Rick Perlstein has spent his career studying American conservatism in the second half of the 20th century and its capture of the modern Republican Party. His first major work, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, was an incisive and entertaining study of Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican Party nomination for the presidency and his landslide loss that year to President Lyndon Johnson. He followed with Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, a description of the nation at the time of Richard Nixon’s landslide 1972 victory over Senator George McGovern  — a nation divided by a cultural war between “mutually recriminating cultural sophisticates on the one hand and the plain, earnest ‘Silent Majority’ on the other” (p.xix). Now, in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Perlstein dives into American politics between 1973 and 1976, beginning with Nixon’s second term and ending with the failed bid of the book’s central character, Ronald Reagan, for  the 1976 Republican Party presidential nomination.

     The years 1973 to 1976 included the Watergate affair that ended the Nixon presidency in 1974; the ultra-divisive issue of America’s engagement in Vietnam, which ended in an American withdrawal from that conflict in 1975; and the aftershocks from the cultural transformations often referred to as “the Sixties.” It was a time, Perlstein writes, when America “suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history” (p.xiii). 1976 was also the bi-centennial year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which the nation approached with trepidation. Many feared, as Perlstein puts it, that celebration of the nation’s 200 year anniversary would serve the “malign ideological purpose of dissuading a nation from a desperately needed reckoning with the sins of its past” (p.712).

     Perlstein begins by quoting advice Nikita Khrushchev purportedly provided to Richard Nixon: “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.” Perlstein does not return to Khrushchev’s advice and, as I ploughed through his book, I realized that I had not grasped how the notion of an “invisible bridge” fits into his lengthy (804 pages!) narrative. More on that below. There’s no mystery, however, about Perlstein’s sub-title “The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”

     About one third of the book addresses Nixon’s fall in the Watergate affair and another third recounts Reagan’s rise to challenge President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican Party presidential nomination, including the year’s presidential primaries and the maneuvering of the Ford and Reagan presidential campaigns at the Republican National Convention that summer. The remaining third consists of biographical background on Reagan and his evolution from a New Deal liberal to a conservative Republican; an examination of the forces that were at work in the early 1970s to mobilize conservatives after Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 defeat; and Perlstein’s efforts to describe the American cultural landscape in the 1970s and capture the national mood, through a dazzling litany of vignettes and anecdotes. At times, it seems that Perlstein has seen every film that came to theatres in the first half of the decade; watched every television program from the era; and read every small and mid-size town newspaper.

     Perlstein describes his work as a “sort of biography of Ronald Reagan – of Ronald Reagan, rescuer” (p.xv) — rescuer, presumably, of the American psyche from the cultural convulsions of the Sixties and the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam that had shaken America’s confidence to the core. Perlstein considers Reagan to have been a gifted politician who exuded a “blithe optimism in the face of what others called chaos” (p.xvi), with an uncanny ability to simplify complex questions, often through stories that could be described as homespun or hokey, depending upon one’s perspective. Reagan was an “athlete of the imagination,” Perlstein writes, who was “simply awesome” at “turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-heartedness and certainty” (p.48). This power was a key to “what made others feel so good in his presence, what made them so eager and willing to follow him – what made him a leader. But it was why, simultaneously, he was such a controversial leader” (p.xv).   Many regarded Reagan’s blithe optimism as the work of a “phony and a hustler” (p.xv). At bottom, Reagan was a divider and not a uniter, Perlstein argues, and “understanding the precise ways that opinions about him divided Americans . . . better helps us to understand our political order of battle today: how Americans divide themselves from one another” (p.xvi).

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     In a series of biographical digressions, Perlstein demonstrates how Reagan’s blithe mid-western optimism served as the foundation for a long conversion to political conservatism.  Perlstein begins with Reagan’s upbringing in Illinois, his education at Illinois’ Eureka College, and his early years as a sportscaster in Iowa. Reagan left the mid-west in 1937 for Hollywood and a career in films, arriving in California as a “hemophiliac, bleeding heart liberal” (p.339). But, during his Hollywood years, Reagan came to see Communist Party infiltration of the film industry as a menace to the industry’s existence. He was convinced that Communist actors and producers had mastered the subtle art of making the free enterprise system look bad and thereby were undermining the American way of life.   Reagan became an informant for the FBI on the extent of Communist infiltration of Hollywood, a “warrior in a struggle of good versus evil – a battle for the soul of the world” (p.358), as Perlstein puts it. Reagan further came to resent the extent of taxation and viewed the IRS as a public enemy second only to Communists.

     Yet, Reagan remained a liberal Democrat through the 1940s. In 1948, he worked for President Truman’s re-election and introduced Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey to a national radio audience. In 1952, Reagan supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s bid for the presidency. His journey toward the conservative end of the spectrum was probably completed when he became host in 1954 of General Electric’s “GE Theatre,” a mainstay of early American television. One of America’s corporate giants, GE’s self-image was of a family that functioned in frictionless harmony, with the interests of labor and management miraculously aligned. GE episodes, Perlstein writes, were the “perfect expression” of the 1950s faith that nothing “need ever remain in friction in the nation God had ordained to benevolently bestride the world” (p.395). Reagan and his blithe optimism proved to be a perfect fit with GE Theatre’s mission of promoting its brand of Americanism, based on low taxes, unchallenged managerial control, and freedom from government regulatory interference.

     In the 1960 presidential campaign, Reagan depicted the progressive reforms which Democratic nominee John Kennedy advocated as being inspired by Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler. Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s rival, noted Reagan’s evolution and directed his staff to use Reagan as a speaker “whenever possible. He used to be a liberal” (p.374). By 1964, Reagan had become a highly visible backer of Barry Goldwater’s presidential quest, delivering a memorable speech in support of the candidate at the Republican National Convention. Reagan went on to be elected twice as governor of California, in 1967 and 1971.

     While governor, Reagan consistently argued for less government.  Our highest national priority, he contended at a national governors’ conference in 1973, should be to “halt the trend toward bigger, more expensive government at all levels before it is too late . . . We as citizens will either master government as our servant or ultimately it will master us” (p.160). Almost alone among conservatives, Reagan projected an image of a “pleasant man who understands why people are angry” (p.604), as one commentator put it. He gained fame if not notoriety during his tenure as governor for his hard line opposition to student protesters, particularly at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, attracting scores of working class Democrats who had never previously voted for a Republican. “Part of what made Berkeley [student unrest] such a powerful issue for traditionally Democratic voters was class resentment – something Ronald Reagan understood in his bones” (p.83).

     Early in Reagan’s second term as California’s governor, on June 17, 1972, four burglars were caught attempting to break into the Democratic national headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office and apartment complex. Throughout the ensuing investigation, Reagan seemed indifferent to what Time Magazine termed “probably the most pervasive instance of top-level misconduct in [American] history” (p.77).

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     Watergate to Reagan was part of the usual atmosphere of campaigning, not much more than a prank.  Upon first learning about the break-in, he quipped that the Democrats should be happy that someone considered their documents worth reading. Throughout the investigation into corruption that implicated the White House, Reagan maintained a stubborn “Christian charity to a a fallen political comrade” (p.249). The individuals involved, he argued, were “not criminals at heart” (p.81). He told conservative commentators Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that he found “no evidence of criminal activity” in Watergate, which was why Nixon’s detractors were training their fire on “vague areas like morality and so forth” (p.249-50). Alone among political leaders, Reagan insisted that Watergate “said nothing important about the American character” (p.xiv).

     Thus, few were surprised when Reagan supported President Gerald Ford’s widely unpopular presidential pardon of Nixon for any crimes he might have committed related to Watergate, issued one month after Nixon’s resignation. Nixon had already suffered “punishment beyond anything any of us could imagine” (p.271), Reagan argued. Ford’s pardon of Nixon dissipated the high level of support that he had enjoyed since assuming the presidency, sending his public approval ratings from near record highs to near new lows. Democrats gained a nearly 2-1 advantage in the House of Representatives in the 1974 mid-term elections and Reagan’s party “seemed near to death” (p.329).

     As Ford’s popularity waned, Reagan saw an opportunity to challenge the sitting president. He announced his candidacy in November 1975. Reagan said he was running against what he termed a “buddy system” in Washington, an incestuous network of legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists which:

functions for its own benefit – increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker, who supports it with his taxes. . . I don’t believe for one moment that four more years of business as usual in Washington is the answer to our problems, and I don’t believe the American people believe it, either (p.547).

With Reagan’s bid for the 1976 Republican nomination, Perlstein’s narrative reaches its climatic conclusion.

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     The New York Times dismissed the presidential bid as an “amusing but frivolous Reagan fantasy” and wondered how Reagan could be “taken so seriously by the news media” (p.546). Harper’s termed Reagan the “Candidate from Disneyland” (p.602), labeling him “Nixon without the savvy or self pity. . . That he should be regarded as a serious candidate for President is a shame and embarrassment” (p.602). Commentator Garry Wills responded to Reagan’s charge that the media was treating him unfairly by conceding that it was indeed “unfair to expect accuracy or depth” from Reagan (p.602). But, as Perlstein points out, these comments revealed “more about their authors than they did about the candidate and his political prospects” (p.602), reflecting what he terms elsewhere the “myopia of pundits, who so frequently fail to notice the very cultural ground shifting beneath their feet” (p.xv).

     1976 proved to be the last year either party determined its nominee at the convention itself, rather than in advance. Reagan went into the convention in Kansas City as the most serious threat to an incumbent president since Theodore Roosevelt had challenged William Howard Taft for the Republican Party nomination in 1912. His support in the primaries and at the convention benefitted from a conservative movement that had come together to nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, a committed “army that could lose a battle, suck it up, and then regroup to fight a thousand battles more” (p.451) — “long memoried elephants” (p.308), Perlstein terms them elsewhere.

     In the years since the Goldwater nomination, evangelical Christians had become more political, moving from the margins to the mainstream of the conservative movement. Evangelical Christians were behind an effort to have America declared officially a “Christian nation.” Judicially-imposed busing of school students to achieve greater racial balance in public schools precipitated a torrent of opposition in cities as diverse as Boston, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky – the Boston opposition organization was known as ROAR, Restore our Alienated Rights. Perlstein also traces the conservative reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which recognized a constitutional right to abortion. The 1976 Republican party platform for the first time recommended a Human Rights amendment to the constitution to reverse the decision.

     Activist Phyllis Schlafly, who died just weeks ago, led a movement to derail the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, intended to establish gender equality as a constitutional mandate. Schafly’s efforts contributed to stopping the proposed amendment at a time when approval of only three additional states would have officially adopted the amendment as part of the federal constitution (“Don’t Let Satan Have Its Way – Stop the ERA” was the opposition slogan, as well as Perlstein’s title for a chapter on the subject). Internationally, conservatives opposed the Ford administration’s intention to relinquish to Panama control of the Panama Canal; and the policy of détente toward the Soviet Union which both the Nixon and Ford administrations pursued.

     Enabling the long-memoried elephants was Richard Viguerie, a little known master of new technologies for fund-raising and grass roots get-out-the-vote campaigns. Conservative opinion writers like Patrick Buchanan, former Nixon White House Communications Director, and George Will also enjoyed expanded newspaper coverage. A fledgling conservative think tank based in Washington, the Heritage Foundation, became a repository for combining conservative thinking and action. The Heritage Foundation assisted a campaign in West Virginia to purge school textbooks of “secular humanism.”

     With the contest for delegates nearly even as the convention approached, Reagan needed the support of conservatives for causes like these. But Reagan also realized that limited support from centrist delegates could prove to be his margin of difference. In a bid to attract such delegates, especially from the crucial Pennsylvania delegation, Reagan promised in advance of the convention to name Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate. Schweiker came from the moderate wing of the party, with a high rating from the AFL-CIO. But the move backfired, infuriating conservatives — North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in particular — with few moderate delegates switching to Reagan.   Then, Reagan’s supporters proposed a change to the convention’s rules that would have required Ford to announce his running mate prior to the presidential balloting, forcing Ford to anger either the moderate or conservative faction of the party. Ford supporters rejected the proposal, which lost on the full floor after a close vote.

     The 150 delegates of the Mississippi delegation proved to be crucial in determining the outcome of the convention’s balloting. When the Mississippi delegation cast its lot with Ford, the president had a sufficient number of delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot, 1187 votes to 1070 for Reagan. Ford selected Kansas Senator Robert Dole as his running mate, after Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whom conservatives detested, announced the previous fall that he did not wish to be a candidate for Vice President. Anxious to achieve party unity, Ford invited Reagan to join him on the platform following his acceptance speech. Reagan gave an eloquent impromptu speech that many thought overshadowed Ford’s own acceptance address.

* * *

     Perlstein includes a short, epilogue-like summation to the climatic Kansas City convention: Ford went on to lose to Democratic governor from Georgia Jimmy Carter in a close 1976 general election and Reagan emerged as the undisputed leader of his party’s conservative wing. But as the book ended, I found myself still asking how the notion of an “invisible bridge” fits into this saga. My best guess is that the notion is tied to Perlstein’s description of Reagan as a “rescuer.”  Reagan’s failed presidential campaign was a journey across a great divide – over an invisible bridge.

     On the one side were Watergate, the Vietnam War, repercussions from the Sixties and, for conservatives, Goldwater’s humiliating 1964 defeat. On the other side was the promise of an unsullied way forward.  Reagan’s soothing cult of optimism offered Americans a message that could allow them to again view themselves and their country positively.  There were no sins that Reagan’s America need atone for. Usually dour and gloomy conservatives — Perlstein’s “long memoried elephants” — also saw in Reagan’s buoyant   message the discernible path to power that had eluded them in 1964.. But, as Perlstein will likely underscore in a subsequent volume, many still doubted whether the blithe optimist had the temperament or the intellect to be president, while others suspected that his upbeat brand of conservatism could no more be sold to the country-at-large than the Goldwater brand in 1964.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 2, 2016

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, American Society, Biography

Becoming FLOTUS

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Peter Slevin, Michelle Obama: A Life 

             In Michelle Obama: A Life, Peter Slevin, a former Washington Post correspondent presently teaching at Northwestern University, explores the improbable story of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, now Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States (a position known affectionately in government memos as “FLOTUS”). Slevin’s sympathetic yet probing biography shows how Michelle’s life was and still is shaped by the blue collar, working class environment of Chicago’s South Side, where she was born and raised. Michelle’s life in many ways is a microcosm of 20th century African-American experience. Michelle’s ancestors were slaves, and her grandparents were part of the “Great Migration” of the first half of the 20th century that sent millions of African-Americans from the rigidly segregated south to northern urban centers in search of a better life.  Michelle was born in 1964, during the high point of the American civil rights movement, and is thus part of the generation that grew up after that movement had widened the opportunities available to African Americans.

            The first half of the book treats Michelle’s early life as a girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago and her experiences as an African-American at two of America’s ultra-elite institutions, Princeton University and Harvard Law School.  The centerpiece of this half is the loving environment that Michelle’s parents, Fraser Robinson III and his wife Marian Shields Robinson, created for Michelle and her older brother Craig, born two years earlier in 1962.  The Robinson family emphasized the primacy of education as the key to a better future, along with hard work and discipline, dedication to family, regular church attendance, and community service.

            Michelle’s post-Harvard professional and personal lives form the book’s second half. Early in her professional career, Michelle met a young man from Hawaii with an exotic background and equally exotic name, Barack Hussein Obama. Slevin provides an endearing account of their courtship and marriage (their initial date is also the subject of a recent movie “Southside With You”). Once Barack enters the scene, however, the story becomes as much about his entry and dizzying rise in politics as it is about Michelle, and thus likely to be familiar to many readers.

            But in this half of the book, we also learn about Michelle’s career in Chicago; how she balanced her professional obligations with her parental responsibilities; her misgivings about the political course Barack seemed intent upon pursuing; her at first reluctant, then full throated support for Barack’s long-shot bid for the presidency; and how she elected to utilize the platform which the White House provided to her as the FLOTUS.  Throughout, we see how Michelle retained the values of her South Side upbringing.

* * *

        Slevin provides an incisive description of 20th century Chicago, beginning in the 1920s, when Michelle’s grandparents migrated from the rural south.  He emphasizes the barriers that African Americans experienced, limiting where they could live and work, their educational opportunities, and more. Michelle’s father Fraser, after serving in the U.S. army, worked in a Chicago water filtration plant up to his death in 1991 from multiple sclerosis at age 55. Marian, still living (‘the First Grandmother”), was mainly a “stay-at-home Mom.”  In a city that “recognized them first and foremost as black,” Fraser and Marian refused to utilize the oppressive shackles of racism as an excuse for themselves or their children.  The Robinson parents “saw it as their mission to provide strength, wisdom, and a measure of insulation to Michelle and Craig” (p.26). Their message to their children was that no matter what obstacles they faced because of their race or their working class roots, “life’s possibilities were unbounded. Fulfillment of those possibilities was up to them. No excuses” (p.47).

     The South Side neighborhood where Michelle and Craig were raised, although part of Chicago’s rigidly segregated housing patterns, offered a stable and secure environment, with well-kept if modest homes and strong neighborhood schools. The neighborhood and the Robinson household provided Michelle and Craig with what Craig later termed the “Shangri-La of upbringings” (p.33).  Fraser and Marian both regretted deeply that they were not college graduates. The couple consequently placed an unusually high premium on education for their children, adopting a savvy approach which parents today would be wise to emulate.

      Learning to read and write  for the two Robinson children was a means toward the even more important goal of learning to think. Fraser and Marian advised their children to “use their heads, yet not to be afraid to make mistakes – in each case learning from what goes wrong” (p.46).  We told them, Marian recounted, “Make sure you respect your teachers, but don’t hesitate to question them. Don’t even allow even us to say just anything to you” (p.47). Fraser and Marian granted their children freedom to explore, test ideas and make their own decisions, but always within a framework that emphasized “hard work, honesty, and self-discipline. There were obligations and occasional punishment. But the goal was free thinking” (p.46).

       Both Robinson children were good students, but with diametrically opposite study methods. Michelle was methodical and obsessive, putting in long hours, while Craig largely coasted to good grades. Michelle went to Princeton in part because Craig was already a student there, but she did so with misgivings and concerns that she might not be up to its high standards. Prior to Princeton, Craig and Michelle had had little exposure to whites. If they experienced animosity in their early years, Slevin writes, it was “likely from African American kids who heard their good grammar, saw their classroom diligence, and accused them of ‘trying to sound white’” (p.49). At Princeton, however, a school which “telegraphed privilege” (p.71), Michelle began a serious contemplation of what it meant to be an African-American in a society where whites held most of the levers of power.

       As an undergraduate between 1982 and 1986, Michelle came to see a separate black culture existing apart from white culture. Black culture had its own music, language, and history which, as she wrote in a college term paper, should be attributed to the “injustices and oppressions suffered by this race of people which are not comparable to the experience of any other race of people through this country’s history” (p.91). Michelle observed that black public officials must persuade the white community that they are “above issues of race and that they are representing all people and not just Black people” (p.91-92). Slevin notes that Michelle’s description “strikingly foreshadowed a challenge that she and her husband would face twenty two years later as they aimed for the White House” (p.91). Michelle’s college experience was a vindication of the framework Fraser and Marian had created that allowed Michelle to flourish. At Princeton, Michelle learned that the girl from blue collar Chicago could “play in the big leagues” (p.94), as Slevin puts it.

            In the fall of 1986, Michelle entered Harvard Law School, another “lofty perch, every bit as privileged as Princeton, but certainly more competitive once classes began” (p.95). In law school, she was active in an effort to bring more African American professors to a faculty that was made up almost exclusively of white males. She worked for the Legal Aid Society, providing services to low income individuals. When she graduated from law school in 1989, she returned to Chicago – it doesn’t seem that she ever considered other locations. But, notwithstanding her activist leanings as a student, she chose to work as an associate in one of Chicago’s most prestigious corporate law firms, Sidley and Austin.

       Although located only a few miles from the South Side neighborhood where Michelle had grown up, Sidley and Austin was a world apart, another bastion of privilege, with some of America’s best known and most powerful businesses as its clients. The firm offered Michelle the opportunity to sharpen her legal skills, particularly in intellectual property protection and, at least equally importantly, pay off some of her student loans. But, like many idealistic young law graduates, she did not find work in a corporate law firm satisfying and left after two years.

        Michelle landed a job with the City of Chicago as an assistant to Valerie Jarret, then the City of Chicago’s Commissioner for Planning and Economic Development, who later became a valued White House advisor to President Obama. Michelle’s position was more operational than legal, serving as a “trouble shooter” with a discretionary budget that could be utilized to advance city programs at the neighborhood level on subjects as varied as business development, infant mortality, mobile immunization, and after school programs. But working for the City of Chicago was nothing if not political, and Michelle left after 18 months to take a position in 1993 at the University of Chicago, located on Chicago’s South Side, not far from where she grew up.

    Although still another of America’s most prestigious educational institutions, the University of Chicago had always seemed like hostile territory to Michelle, incongrous with its surrounding low and middle-income neighborhoods. But Michelle landed a position with a university program, Public Alliance, designed to improve the University’s relationship with the surrounding communities. Notwithstanding her lack of warm feelings for the university, the position was an excellent fit.  It afforded Michelle the opportunity to try her hand at bridging some of the gaps between the university and its less privileged neighbors.

          After nine years  with Public Allies, Michelle took a position in 2002 with the University of Chicago Hospital, again involved in public outreach, focused on the way the hospital could better serve the medical needs of the surrounding community. This position, Slevin notes, brought home to Michelle the massive inequalities within the American health care system, divided between the haves with affordable insurance and the have nots without it.  Michelle stayed in this position until early 2008, when she left to work on her husband’s long shot bid for the presidency. In her positions with the city and the university, Michelle developed a demanding leadership style for her staffs that she brought to the White House: result-oriented, given to micro-management, and sometimes “blistering” (p.330) to staff members whose performance fell short in her eyes.

* * *

       While working at Sidley and Austin, Michelle interviewed the young man from Hawaii, then in his first year at Harvard Law School, for a summer associate position. Michelle in Slevin’s account found the young man “very charming” and “handsome,” and sensed that, as she stated subsequently, he “liked my dry sense of humor and my sarcasm” (p.121). But if there was mutual attraction, it was the attraction of opposites. Barack Obama was still trying to figure out where his roots lay. Michelle Robinson, quite obviously, never had to address that question. Slevin notes that the contrast could “hardly have been greater” between Barack’s “untethered life and the world of the Robinson and Shields clans, so numerous and so firmly anchored in Chicago. He felt embraced and it surprised him” (p.128; Barack’s untethered life figures prominently in Janny Scott’s biography of Barack’s mother, Ann Dunham, reviewed here in July 2012).  For Barack, meeting the Robinson family for the first time was, as he later wrote, like “dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver” (p.127).  The couple married in 1992.

        Barack served three 2-year terms in the Illinois Senate, from 1997 to 2004. In 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for the United States House of Representatives, losing in a landslide. He had his breakthrough moment in 2004, when John Kerry, the Democratic Presidential candidate, invited him to deliver a now famous keynote address to that year’s Democratic National Convention.  Later that year, he won  a vacant seat in the United States Senate  by a landslide when his Republican opponent had to drop out due to a sex scandal.  In early 2007, he decided to run for the presidency.

       Michelle’s mistrust of politics was “deeply rooted and would linger long into Barack’s political career” (p.161), Slevin notes.  Her distrust was at the root of discernible frictions within their marriage, especially after their daughters were born — Malia in 1998 and Sasha in 2001. Barack’s political campaigning and professional obligations kept him away from home much of the time, to Michelle’s dismay. Michelle felt that she had accomplished more professionally than Barack, and was also saddled with parental duties in his absence. “It sometimes bothered her that Barack’s career always took priority over hers. Like many professional women of her age and station, Michelle was struggling with balance and a partner who was less involved – and less evolved – than she had expected” (p.180-81).

        Michelle was, to put it mildly, skeptical when her husband told her in 2006 that he was considering running for the presidency. She worried about further losing her own identity, giving up her career for four years, maybe eight, and living with the real possibility that her husband could be assassinated. Yet, once it became apparent that Barack was serious about such a run and had reached the “no turning back” point, Michelle was all in.  She became a passionate, fully committed member of Barack’s election team, a strategic partner who was “not shy about speaking up when she believed the Obama campaign was falling short” (p.219).

         With Barack’s victory over Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Michelle became what Slevin terms the “unlikeliest first lady in modern history” (p.4). The projects and messages she chose to advance as FLOTUS “reflected a hard-won determination to help working class and the disadvantaged, to unstack the deck. She was more urban and more mindful of inequality than any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt” (p.5). Michelle reached out to children in the less favored communities in Washington, mostly African American, and thereafter to poor children around the world. She also concentrated on issues of obesity, physical fitness and nutrition, famously launching a White House organic vegetable garden. She developed programs to support the wives of American military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, women struggling to “keep a toehold in the middle class” (p.293).

        In Barack’s second term, she adopted a new mission, called Reach Higher, which aimed to push disadvantaged teenagers toward college. Throughout her time as FLOTUS, Michelle tried valiantly to provide her two daughters with as close to a normal childhood as life in the White House bubble might permit. Slevin’s account stops just prior to the 2014 Congressional elections, when the Republicans gained control of the United States Senate, after gaining control of the House of Representatives in the prior mid-term elections in 2010.

       Slevin does not overlook the incessant Republican and conservative critics of Michelle. She appeared to many whites in the 2008 campaign as an “angry black woman,” which Slevin dismisses as a “simplistic and pernicious stereotype” (p.236). Right wing commentator Rush Limbaugh began calling her “Moochelle,” much to the delight of his listening audience. The moniker conjured images of a fat cow or a leech – synonymous with the term “moocher” which Ayn Rand used in her novels to describe those who “supposedly lived off the hard work of the producers” (p.316) — all the while slyly associating Michelle with “big government, the welfare state, big-spending Democrats, and black people living on the dole” (p.315).  Vitriol such as this, Slevin cautiously concludes, “could be traced to racism and sexism or, at a charitable minimum, a lack of familiarity with a black woman as accomplished and outspoken as Michelle” (p.286). In addition, criticism emerged from the political left, which “viewed Michelle positively but asked why, given her education, her experience, and her extraordinary platform, she did not speak or act more directly on a host of progressive issues, whether abortion rights, gender inequity, or the structural obstacles facing the urban poor” (p.286).

* * *

       Slevin’s book is not hagiography. As a conscientious biographer whose credibility is directly connected to his objectivity, Slevin undoubtedly looked long and hard for the Michelle’s weak points and less endearing qualities. He did not come up with much, unless you consider being a strong, focused woman a negative quality. There is no real dark side to Michelle Obama in Slevin’s account, no apparent skeletons in any of her closets. Rather, the unlikely FLOTUS depicted here continues to reflect the values she acquired while growing up in Fraser and Marian Robinson’s remarkable South Side household.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 17, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, American Society, Biography, Gender Issues, Politics, United States History

Changing the Definition of Literature in the Eyes of the Law

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Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book:
The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

      James Joyce’s enigmatic masterpiece novel Ulysses was first published in book form in France in 1922. Portions of the novel had by then already appeared as magazine excerpts in the United States and Great Britain. The previous year, a court in the United States had declared several such excerpts obscene, and British authorities  followed suit in 1923. In The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham describes the furor which the novel provoked and the scheming that was required to bring the novel to readers.

     Birmingham, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, characterizes his work as the “biography of a book” (p.2). Its core is the twofold story of the many benefactors who aided Joyce in maneuvering around publication obstacles; and of the evolution of legal standards for judging literature claimed to be obscene. Birmingham also provides much insight into Joyce the author, his view of art, and the World War I era literary world in which he operated. The book, Birmingham’s first, further serves as a useful introduction to Ulysses itself for those readers, myself emphatically included, who have not yet garnered the courage to tackle Joyce’s masterpiece.

     Ulysses depicted a single day in Dublin, June 16, 1904. On the surface, the novel follows three central characters, Stephen Daedalus, Leopold Bloom, and his wife Molly Bloom. But Ulysses is also a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, with the three main characters serving as modern versions of Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope. Peering into the 20th century through what Birmingham terms the “cracked looking glass of antiquity” (p.54), Joyce sought to capture both the erotic pleasures and intense pains of the human body; fornication and masturbation, defecation and disease were all part of the human experience that Joyce sought to convey. He even termed his work an “epic of the human body” (p.14).

     Treating sexuality in a more forthright manner than what public authorities in the United States and Great Britain were willing to countenance — sex at the time “just wasn’t something a legitimate novelist portrayed” (p.64) — Ulysses was deemed a threat to public morality, and was subject to censorship, confiscation and book burning spectacles. But the charges levied against Ulysses were about “more than the right to publish sexually explicit material” (p.6), Birmingham contends. They also involved a clash between two rising forces, modern print culture and modern governmental regulatory power, and were thus part of a larger struggle between state authority and individual freedom that intensified in the early twentieth century, “when more people began to challenge governmental control over whatever speech the state considered harmful” (p.6).

     There is a meandering quality to much of Birmingham’s narrative, which shifts back and forth between Joyce himself, his literary friends and supporters, and those who challenged Ulysses in the name of public morality. At times, it is difficult to tie these threads together. But the book regains its footing in a final section describing the definitive trial and landmark 1934 judicial ruling, the case of United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses, which held that the novel was not obscene. The decision constituted the last significant hurdle for Joyce’s book, after which it circulated freely to readers in the United States and elsewhere.  In his section on this case, Birmingham’s central point comes into full focus:  Ulysses changed not only the course of literature but also the “very definition of literature in the eyes of the law” (p.2).

* * *

     James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, educated at Catholic schools and University College, Dublin. As a boy, Joyce and his family moved so frequently within Dublin that Joyce could plausibly claim to know almost all the city’s neighborhoods.  But Joyce spent little of his professional career in Dublin. Sometime in 1903 or 1904, Joyce met and fell in love with Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid from rural Galway then working in a Dublin hotel. Barnacle followed Joyce across Europe, bore their children, inspired his literary talent, and eventually became his wife. Joyce and Barnacle lived for several years in the Italian port city of Trieste, then in Zurich and Rome. But the two are best known for their time in Paris, where Joyce became one of the most renowned expatriate writers of the so-called Lost Generation. In 1914, Joyce published his first book, Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories. Two years later, he completed his first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While not a major commercial success, the book caught the attention of the American poet, Ezra Pound, then living in London. During this time, Joyce also began writing Ulysses.

      The single day depicted in the novel, June 16, 1904, was the day that Joyce and Barnacle first met. Although there may have been single-day novels before Ulysses, “no one thought of a day as an epic. Joyce was planning to turn a single day into a recursive unit of dazzling complexity in which the circadian part was simultaneously the epochal whole. A June day in Dublin would be a fractal of Western civilization” (p.55). The idea of Homeric correspondences and embedding references to the Odyssey into early 20th century Dublin may seem “indulgent,” Birmingham writes, yet Joyce executed it “so subtly that the novel can become a scavenger hunt for pedants . . . Some allusions are so obscure that their pleasure seems to reside in their remaining hidden” (p.130-31).

     In the early 20th century, censors sought to ban obscene works in part to protect the sensibilities of women and children, especially in large urban centers like London and New York. It is thus ironic that strong and forward- minded women are central to Birmingham’s story, standing behind Joyce and assuming the considerable risks which the effort to publish Ulysses entailed. The first two, Americans Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were co-publishers of an avant-garde magazine, The Little Review, an “unlikely product of Wall Street money and Greenwich Village bohemia” (p.7-8), and one of several small, “do-it-yourself” magazines which Birmingham describes as “outposts of modernism” (p.71). From London, Erza Pound linked Joyce to Anderson and Heap, and The Little Review began to publish Ulysses in 1918 in serial form.

      In 1921, New York postal authorities sought to confiscate portions of Ulysses published in The Little Review under the authority of the Comstock Act, an 1873 statute that made it a crime, punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to utilize the United States mail to distribute or advertise obscene, lewd or lascivious materials. The Comstock Act adopted the “Hicklin rule” for determining obscenity, a definition from an 1868 English case, Regina v. Hicklin: “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall” (p.168).

     The Hicklin rule’s emphasis upon “tendency” to deprave and corrupt defined obscenity by a work’s potential effects on “society’s most susceptible readers – anyone with a mind ‘open’ to ‘immoral influences.’ . . . Lecherous readers and excitable teenage daughters could deprave and corrupt the most sophisticated literary intent” (p.168). The Hicklin rule further permitted judges to look at individual words or passages without considering their place in the work as a whole and without considering the work’s artistic or literary value. Finding that portions of Ulysses under review were obscene under the Hicklin rule, a New York court sentenced Anderson and Heap to 10 days in prison or $100 fines. The Post Office sent seized copies of The Little Review to the Salvation Army, “where fallen women in reform programs were instructed to tear them apart” (p.197). The court’s decision served as a ban on publication and distribution of Ulysses in the United States for another 10 years.

     The court’s decision also highlighted the paradoxical role of the Post Office in the early 20th century. Although the postal service “made it possible for avant-garde texts to circulate cheaply and openly to wherever their kindred readers lived,” it was also the institution that could “inspect, seize and burn those texts” (p.7). Moreover, government suppression of sexually explicit material in the United States during and immediately after World War I shaded into its efforts to stamp out political radicalism. Ulysses encountered obstacles to publication in the United States not so much because “vigilantes were searching for pornography but because government censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists” (p.109).

     Meanwhile, in Great Britain, Harriet Shaw Weaver, a “prim London spinster” (p.12) published Ulysses in serial form in a similarly obscure London publication, The Egoist, also supported by Erza Pound. After Leonard and Virginia Woolf refused to publish Ulysses in Britain, Weaver imported a full version of the novel from France. In 1923, Sir Archibald Bodkin, head of the Crown Prosecution Service, concluded that Ulysses was “filthy” and that “filthy books are not allowed to be imported into this country” (p.253; Bodkin also vigorously prosecuted war resisters during World War I, as discussed in Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, reviewed here in November 2014). Sir Archibald’s ruling authorized British authorities to seize and burn in the “King’s Chimney” 500 copies of Ulysses coming from France.

      The copies subject to Bodkin’s ruling had been printed at the behest of Sylvia Beach, the American expatriate who founded the iconic Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company, a “hybrid space, something between an open café and an ensconced literary salon” (p.150), and a home away from home for Joyce, the young Ernest Hemmingway, and other members of the Lost Generation of expatriate writers. After Beach became the first to publish Ulysses in book form in 1922, she went on to publish eight editions of the novel and Shakespeare & Company “became a pilgrimage destination for budding Joyceans, several of whom asked Miss Beach if they could move to Paris and work for her” (p.260).

     Over the next decade, Joyce’s novel became an “underground sensation” (p.3), banned implicitly in the United States and explicitly in Great Britain. Editions of Ulysses were smuggled from France into the United States, often through Canada. The book was “literary contraband, a novel you could read only if you found a copy counterfeited by literary pirates or if you smuggled it past customs agents” (p.3). Throughout the decade, Joyce’s health deteriorated appreciably. He had multiple eye problems and, despite numerous ocular surgeries – described in jarringly gruesome detail here — he lost his sight. He also contracted syphilis. By the mid-1920s, Birmingham writes, Joyce was “already an old man. The ashplant cane that he had used for swagger as a young bachelor in Dublin became a blind man’s cane in Paris. Strangers helped him cross the street, and he bumped into furniture as he navigated through his own apartment” (p.289).

* * *

     In 1932, Beach relinquished her claims for royalties from Ulysses.  The upcoming New York publishing firm, Random House, under its ambitious young owner Bennett Cerf, then signed a contract with Joyce for publication and distribution rights in the United States, even though the 1921 court decision still served as a ban on distribution of the novel. To formulate a test case, Random House’s attorney, Morris Ernst, a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, almost begged Customs inspectors to confiscate a copy of Ulysses. Initially, an inspector responded that “everybody brings that [Ulysses] in. We don’t pay attention to it” (p.306).  But the book was seized and, some seven months later, the United States Attorney in New York brought a case for forfeiture and confiscation under a statute that allowed an action against the book itself, rather than its publishers or importers. The United States Attorney instituted the test case in the fall of 1933, a few short months after the first book burnings in Nazi Germany.

     The case was assigned to Judge John Woolsey, a direct descendant of the 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards. Ernst sought to convince Judge Woolsey that the first amendment to the United States Constitution should serve to protect artistic as well as political expression and that the Hicklin rule should be discarded. Under Ernst’s argument, Ulysses merited first amendment protection as a serious literary work, “’too precious’ to be sacrificed to unsophisticated readers” (p.320). Ernst went on to contend that obscenity was a “living standard.” Even if Ulysses had been obscene at the time The Little Review excerpts had been condemned a decade earlier, it could still be protected expression in 1933, given the vast changes in public morality standards since The Little Review ruling.

     Unlike the judges who had considered The Little Review excerpts, Judge Woolsey  took the time to read the novel and ended up agreeing with Ernst. He found portions of the book “disgusting” with “many words usually considered dirty.” But he found nothing that amounted to “dirt for dirt’s sake” (p.329). Rather, each word of the book:

contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers. . . when such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture? (p.329).

Answering his question in the negative, Judge Woolsey ruled that Joyce’s novel was not obscene and could be admitted into the United States.

     A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Judge’s Woolsey’s decision, 2-1. The majority consisted of two of the most renowned jurists of the era, Learned Hand, who had been pushing for a more modern definition of obscenity for years; and his cousin, Augustus Hand, who wrote the majority opinion.  Once the appeals court issued its decision, Cerf inserted Judge Woolsey’s decision into the Random House printings of the novel, making it arguably the most widely distributed judicial opinion in history.  Two years later, the trial and appellate court decisions in the United States influenced Britain to abandon the 1868 Hicklin rule. Obscenity in Britain would no longer be a matter of identifying a book’s tendency to deprave and corrupt. Rather, the government must “consider intent and context – the character of a book was all contingent” (p.336).

     United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses established a test for determining whether a work is obscene and thus outside the protection of the first amendment, that, in somewhat modified form, still applies today in the United States.  This test requires a court to consider: (1) the literary worth of the work as a whole, not just selected excerpts; (2) the effect on an average reader, rather than an overly sensitive one; and (3) evolving contemporary community standards.  The decision, Birmingham argues, removed “all barriers to art” and led to “unfettered freedom of artistic form, style and content – literary freedoms that were as political as any speech protected by the First Amendment” (p.11).

* * *

     It is an open question whether Birmingham’s book will inspire readers who have not yet read Joyce’s masterwork to do so. But even those reluctant to undertake Joyce’s work should appreciate Birmingham’s account of how forward-minded early 20th century publishers and members of the literary world schemed to bring Ulysses to the light of day; and how judicial standards evolved to allow room for literary works treating human sexuality candidly and openly.

Thomas H. Peebles
Silver Spring, Maryland
July 29, 2016

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Filed under American Society, History, Literature

Affirmative Government Advocate

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Andrew and Stephen Schlesinger, eds.,
The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. 

      Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was what we would today likely describe as a “public intellectual,” a top-notch historian who was also deeply engaged in political issues throughout his adult life.  Schlesinger’s father, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., was himself a top-notch historian.  Both father and son taught at Harvard, with the younger Schlesinger finishing his academic career at the City University of New York.  Born in 1917, the younger Schlesinger was the author of a highly respected book on Andrew Jackson (“The Age of Jackson”) and a three volume series on Franklin Roosevelt (“The Age of Roosevelt”). He also wrote an influential 1949 political tract, The Vital Center, an argument for liberal democracy, based on civil liberties, the rule of law, and regulated capitalism, as the only realistic alternative to  fascism on the right and communism on the left.  Schlesinger was one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action, ADA which, more than any other single organization, epitomized mainstream post-World War II liberalism. He was also a loyal, always passionate, and often-elegant spokesman for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

      Schlesinger served as an advisor to President John Kennedy, whom he revered. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Schlesinger wrote an account of the short Kennedy administration, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Schlesinger stayed on briefly as an advisor to President Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy’s death but came to detest Johnson and his decision to escalate the Vietnam War. He returned to academia at City University of New York after his stint with the Johnson administration, where he remained until his retirement in 1994. He died in 2007 at the age of 89. Over the course of a long lifetime, Schlesinger wrote letters – lots of letters.

        Both the quality and the quantity of Schlesinger’s letter writing habits are on full display in this nearly 600-page collection, The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., edited by Schlesinger’s sons Andrew and Stephen. The sons have culled together selected letters to and from their father and arranged them in chronological order, adding editorial comments by way of footnotes. They estimate that they reviewed approximately 35,000 letters before making their choice of those contained here. Spaced over 71 years of Schlesinger’s adult life, from age 18 to his death at age 89, 35,000 letters amounts to an astounding average of almost 1½ letters per day during Schlesinger’s adult years.  Schlesinger corresponded regularly with presidents and presidential candidates, Congressional leaders, Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, writers, journalists, religious leaders, intellectuals and scholars. He also answered questions from members of the public, including school students.

       Formal letter writing is today largely an extinct practice, replaced by email exchanges that occasionally resemble letters of old, although more often are less formal and far more cursory. Throughout most of Schlesinger’s life, however, letters were a frequent and frequently consequential mode of communication. Schlesinger, the editors observe in their introduction, “may indeed be one of the last of the old-fashioned breed of American figures for whom letters were the paramount means of communication – a phenomena that seems oddly arcane in a digital age” (p.xii).

       The “abiding theme” of the letters contained here, the editors indicate, was Schlesinger’s preoccupation with political liberalism and its prospects. “He was always in some way promoting and advancing the liberal agenda; it was his mission, purpose, and justification.” (p.xi), they write. Through their selection of letters, the editors seek to show their father’s “intellectual and political development as one of the nation’s leading liberal voices” (p.xiii). The collection they have assembled easily meets this objective.  It allows the reader to piece together the constituent elements of what might be termed classical, post-World War II mainstream American liberalism.

     Schlesinger’s brand of liberalism was staunchly anti-communist in post World War II America, yet supported civil liberties even for communists and therefore vigorously opposed the “mad, brutal and unrestrained fanaticism” (p.76) of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaigns.  Schlesinger’s liberalism supported civil rights in the United States, a strong stand against the Soviet Union — a “monstrous police despotism” (p.27) — across the globe, and independence for colonized countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  Above all, Schlesinger’s liberalism was predicated upon what he termed “affirmative government,” the use of federal authority to regulate capitalism, assist the men and women working within the capitalist economy, and advance the national interest.  As McCarthy’s intemperate brand of anti-communism gradually faded in the late 1950s, Schlesinger’s anti-communist fervor also subsided. By the end of the 1960s, the plight of newly independent states no longer seemed to be a preoccupation, and Schlesinger had by then recognized that communism bore many faces in addition to that of the Soviet Union.  By contrast, support for affirmative government, civil rights and civil liberties remained at the core of Schlesinger’s credo until his death in 2007.

* * *

       In numerous letters, Schlesinger warned against the Democratic Party becoming too pro-business.  We already have one pro-business party in the United States, Schlesinger argued with correspondents, we don’t need another.  In a 1957 letter to then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, whose support Schlesinger recognized as essential to driving a liberal legislative agenda through Congress, Schlesinger sought to dissuade Johnson from prioritizing budget cutting.  Schlesinger described the “great tradition of the Democratic party” as the “tradition of affirmative government – the tradition of Jackson, Bryan, Wilson and FDR – not the tradition which hates the national government, but the one which regards it as an indispensable means of promoting the national welfare. If Democrats reject this tradition, they reject any chance of national political success. And a frenzy for budget cutting as an end in itself amounts certainly to a rejection of this tradition” (p.144).

      Schlesinger remained an advocate for affirmative government throughout his adult life. After Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Schlesinger criticized Carter for his “systematic attack on the great creative contribution of the modern Democratic party – the idea of affirmative government,” an attack which he considered “demagoguery” and pandering to the “most vulgar American prejudices” (p.470). He advised 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale to avoid deficit spending as a political issue: “The Republicans have used the deficit as an issue for fifty years . . . The only people who worry about the deficit are businessmen most of whom have always voted Republican and will doubtless do so again” (p.485).  After Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in November 1994, Schlesinger sent a long, and apparently unsolicited, set of suggestions to President Bill Clinton on themes for his forthcoming January 1995 State of Union address. Arguing that the Clinton administration “cannot succeed by trying to out-Republican the Republicans” (p.549), Schlesinger urged Clinton to reject the view that the election was a “repudiation of activist government” (p.548) and to “outgrow the illusion” that “power taken away from government falls to the people; much of it goes rather to corporations not accountable (as government is) to the people.” The United States cannot solve its  problems by “turning them over the marketplace and thinking they will solve themselves” (p.550), Schlesinger contended.

       Schlesinger’s numerous letters to presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson are among the richest in this collection. Schlesinger supported and advised Stevenson in his two bids for the presidency, in 1952 and 1956. Although an admirer of Stevenson’s cerebral qualities, Schlesinger perceived an infuriating “Calvinism” in Stevenson. He “cannot bear to have things come easy or to say things which please everybody” (p.60), Schlesinger wrote in 1953.  Schlesinger was incensed in 1956 that Stevenson appeared to back “gradualism” in desegregating public schools after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional. He compared Stevenson’s queasiness on desegregation to that of Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy, then campaigning openly for the Vice-Presidential nomination, who called on Democrats to take a forthright stand in support of the Supreme Court’s decision despite the possibility of alienating southern voters. I know Kennedy is “damn anxious to get southern support for the Vice-Presidency,” Schlesinger wrote to Stevenson speechwriter Willard Wirtz.   Yet Kennedy gives an “altogether different impression of his feelings on the subject [of civil rights]” (p.130),

       When President Dwight Eisenhower’s health became an issue prior to the 1956 presidential elections, Schlesinger talked himself into the view that Stevenson had a shot at being elected.  On several occasions, Schlesinger felt forced to remind Stevenson that the “one important doubt” the American people had about him was “whether you want to be President” (p.103), as he stated in a 1955 letter to Stevenson. A few months prior to the 1956 election, Schlesinger sent Stevenson a lengthy letter coaching the presidential aspirant on how to respond to questions at a forthcoming political event:

Don’t say that problems are intricate and complicated. Everyone knows that they are. . . Don’t profess ignorance on questions, or say that you don’t know enough to give a definite answer. If you are running for the Presidency, people expect not necessarily a detailed technical answer, but a clear and definite expression of the way you would propose to tackle the problem. Don’t hesitate to give a short answer. . . Do not think that all this is in any sense a counsel of dishonesty. Politics, as its best, is an educational process” (p.134-45, italics in original).

       After Stevenson went on to suffer his second lopsided loss to Eisenhower in the 1956 elections, Schlesinger turned his attention to Senator Kennedy.  When he first met Kennedy at a dinner party in 1946, Schlesinger described the young man from Massachusetts (born in 1917, the same year as Schlesinger) as “very sincere and not unintelligent, but kind of on the conservative side” (p.17). In supporting Kennedy’s run for the presidency in 1960, Schlesinger sought to coax the Senator to move toward more liberal positions.  Perceiving lethargy in the campaign after Kennedy received the Democratic Party nomination in August 1960, for example, Schlesinger urged Kennedy to “exploit one of your strongest assets – i.e., that you are far more liberal than Nixon. There is no point, it seems to me, in playing this down and hope to catch some votes in Virginia at the price of losing New York . . . I think you should take a strong liberal line from now on” (p.215).

         Schlesinger was among the many “brightest and the best” whom Kennedy assembled to be part of his administration, and Schlesinger frequently remarked that his opportunity to serve in the Kennedy administration was the high point of his career. However, there are not many letters here from Schlesinger’s time at the White House, perhaps because he did not feel free to comment to outsiders on administration business, perhaps because he did not have the time in that position to write letters with the frequency he had had as an academic.  Schlesinger stayed with the Johnson administration only through January 1964, and quickly became a caustic critic of Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam.

       Schlesinger refused to endorse Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, his long-time friend and former ADA ally, for the Democratic Party nomination in 1968 (Schlesinger was a strong supporter of Robert Kennedy for the nomination until his assassination in June 1968, after which he supported George McGovern). In July 1968, Schlesinger responded to ADA lawyer David Ginsburg’s statement that Humphrey’s approach to Vietnam and that of the Republican candidate, former Vice-President Richard Nixon, would not be “too far apart.” If this is so, Schlesinger replied, “then give me Nixon – on the simple ground that, with the Democratic party in the opposition, we could stop his [Nixon’s] idiocy quicker.” If we are to have a “stupid and reactionary foreign policy, it should be carried out by a Republican administration, not by a Democratic administration” (p.358).

       Although Schlesinger never embraced Jimmy Carter and his presidency, he saw the Reagan years as a disaster for the United States. He therefore eagerly backed the candidacy of Bill Clinton, even though Clinton seemed to be like Carter, running against affirmative government.  After the Clinton presidency, Schlesinger offered advice and support for 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, Jr.  When Gore lost that election despite winning the national popular vote by a wide margin, Schlesinger withdrew from active counseling of presidential aspirants.

      The collection’s most amusing correspondence involves Schlesinger’s quibble with conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr., over a “blurb” on a Buckley book, Rumbles Right and Left, which quoted Schlesinger in 1963 as asserting that Buckley had a “facility for rhetoric which I envy, as well as a wit which I seek clumsily and vainly to emulate” (p.262). Schlesinger vehemently denied he ever said anything like this about Buckley and threatened to sue Buckley’s publisher to retract the attribution. Their feud reveals that Buckley did indeed have a first class wit, and that Schlesinger was humor-challenged.  Buckley signed one letter “Wm. F. ‘Envy His Rhetoric’ Buckley, Jr.” (p.263).  When Schlesinger refused to go on Buckley’s television show Firing Line — Buckley said that he was informed that Schlesinger did not wish to “help” Buckley’s program – Buckley taunted Schlesinger by asking him, “shouldn’t you search out opportunities to expose yourself to my rhetoric and my wit? How else will you fulfill your lifelong dream of emulating them?” (p.389). To this, the dour Schlesinger could only reply, “[c]an it be that you are getting a little tetchy in your declining years?” (p.389).

        Readers are likely to find curious Schlesinger’s frequent correspondence with Mrs. Marietta Tree, a socialite and Democratic party activist, the granddaughter of Reverend Endicott Peabody, founder and first headmaster of the Groton School, and the wife of a British Member of Parliament, Ronald Tree, himself the grandson of famed Chicago businessman Marshall Field.  Schlesinger wrote to Tree in exceptionally endearing terms over the course of nearly two decades. In one particularly impassioned flourish, Schlesinger told his “Darling M” that he could not “resist writing to you from the heart of the Middle West [Topeka, Kansas]. Why won’t you come with me on one of these trips? You gently bred eastern girls ought to get to know America. . . It is long since we have had a good, old-fashioned evening together and I need one desperately.  All dearest love, A” (p.167-68, italics in original). Schlesinger’s sons point out in a footnote that their father and Tree “were never lovers, despite the words of endearment in their correspondence. Her passion was reserved for Adlai Stevenson” (p.57*).  Judging by the language of his letters, however, their father was plainly smitten by the enticing Tree.

       Then, suddenly, the letters to Mrs. Tree stop.  This comes at a time when we learn via another editorial footnote that Schlesinger and his first wife Marion, whom he married in 1940, divorced in 1970, and that he remarried Alexandra Emmet Allen in 1971. But there are no letters here containing references to a deteriorating marriage relationship or a developing interest in another woman. This may be the result of an editorial decision on the part of his sons to eschew the personal side of Schlesinger and emphasize the political.

* * *

       The lack of references to key moments in Schlesinger’s personal life is also a reminder that a collection of letters should not be confused with biography or autobiography. This smartly compiled collection nonetheless provides a keen sense of how the galvanizing political and public issues of Schlesinger’s adult life looked not only for Schlesinger himself but also for the robust and unapologetic liberalism that he articulated from the early post-World War II years into the first decade of the 2st century.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
December 8, 2015

6 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, History, Intellectual History, Politics, United States History

Year of Liberal Unraveling

1965

James T. Patterson, The Eve of Destruction:
How 1965 Transformed America

       James Patterson’s The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America addresses a distinction between the 1960s and the Sixties, the former being the decade that ended in 1969, whereas the latter refers to the divisive times we associate in the United States with anti-war protests, student radicalism, urban riots, racial conflict, changing mores and, for many, cultural degeneration. Patterson, professor emeritus at Brown University and a prolific writer on 20th century American history (not to be confused with the best-selling thriller author of the same name), finds the early 1960s to have been socially and culturally similar to the 1950s in the United States. He locates the start of the Sixties in the second half of 1965, past the halfway point of the 1960s. 1965 was a year of remarkable legislative accomplishment in the United States, under the banner of the Great Society. But 1965 also marked the point when a post-war liberal consensus began to unravel, and a half-decade or so of tumult and fractious disorder ensued.

       Patterson sees the unraveling as due above all to the significant, incremental and largely secretive escalation in the United States’ participation in the war in Vietnam in 1965, along with discord within the Civil Rights movement, as it moved beyond its original focus on desegregation and injustice in the American South to focus on full rights for all African-Americans throughout the country, North and South, and consequently began to lose widespread white support. In Patterson’s account, the major event setting off this counter-reaction – “white backlash” was the term often used at the time — was the disturbance in August of 1965 in the heavily African-American Watts neighborhood of south central Los Angeles. The outsized if flawed personality of President Lyndon B. Johnson dominates the book, as he dominated political life in the United States in 1965. But lurking in the background is Ronald Reagan and a conservative movement that was down at the time, but definitely not out. In addition to covering the main political events of 1965, Patterson strives to capture the social and cultural zeitgeist of the year in the United States, discussing films, television and, especially, popular music.

       Books abound about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the Johnson presidency. Patterson’s sources are almost exclusively derived from authors who have written in greater detail on these subjects, and his book is almost entirely about the United States. Even his discussions of Vietnam are mostly from a United States perspective. If there is an original contribution here, it may be his chronological approach within the year 1965 and his precision in dating the start of the Sixties to a two-week period in late July and early August 1965.

       On July 28, 1965, President Johnson announced a large and practically irrevocable escalation in the U.S. military commitment to Vietnam. Two days later, on the thirtieth, he signed the landmark Medicare/Medicaid act, one of the Great Society’s most significant social welfare measures, extending medical care to millions. On August 6, 1965, the equally significant Voting Rights Act became law, providing authority to the federal government to end voting rights discrimination against African Americans. Then, on the eleventh, the five-day rebellion erupted in Watts. “These were the most consequential days of 1965, the inaugural year of the Sixties” (p.191), Patterson writes. They represented the “high-water mark for postwar liberalism . . . never to rise again during Johnson’s presidency. It was not long before a considerably more divided and disputatious politics – a hallmark of the Sixties – would surge into view” (p.201).

* * *

       Patterson begins with President Johnson’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in December 1964. Coming of a landslide victory over conservative Barry Goldwater in the previous month’s presidential elections, Johnson proclaimed that Americans then lived in the “most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem . . . Today—as never before – man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth” (xiii-xiv). Johnson’s rhetoric now seems almost comically inflated, but Patterson notes that most Americans in December 1964 found the United States to be a “remarkably stable and confident place to live” (p.18). Johnson’s tree lighting message the following year would be more subdued, addressing a country noticeably less unified and confident of its future.

      Johnson idolized President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was determined to build a body of legislative achievement comparable to that of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In that, he largely succeeded. The legislative achievements of 1964 had included passage of an historic Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, housing and federally aided programs. Passage of an effective voting rights act, although a natural next step after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, seemed out of reach for 1965. Johnson nonetheless made clear in his 1964 Christmas message that he had extensive liberal legislation in mind for the upcoming year, calling for “passage of a huge bundle of programs he would urge on Congress in the coming months: an education bill that would aid disadvantaged public school students; a government effort (labeled Medicare) that would provide health care for the elderly via Social Security; laws to advance clean air, clean water, and the landscaping of highways; increased funding for the War on Poverty; repeal of . . . Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act – a goal of union leaders—and creation of a National Foundation on the Arts” (p.37).

       But Johnson was also a Cold War warrior, every bit as much as his post-World War II predecessors in the Oval Office, and saw the defense of South Vietnam’s independence as a test of American will to stand firm against international communism. Further, Johnson believed that each of his predecessors had committed the United States to preserving an independent South Vietnam. Driven by his conviction that the international credibility of the United States was at issue in Vietnam, Johnson worried that conservative Republicans such as Goldwater and Reagan would “savage him if he did not stand up to communism” (p.93). Further, Johnson thought he needed to remain steadfast in Vietnam to maintain Republican support for his ambitious Great Society agenda (yes, in those days, some Republicans supported a Democratic president’s legislative proposals).

      Patterson joins many others in demonstrating that Johnson made incremental decisions to escalate the war in Vietnam largely in secret, without informing the public. Johnson seemed to sense that the public would not support an enlarged war as a measure to confront international communist foes. He never accepted the recommendation of his advisors that he provide more information to the American public on what he intended to do in Vietnam. Throughout 1965, Johnson remained “secretive about his decisions and about the course of the war. But it was impossible to conceal everything that the United States was doing” (p.95).

      In late March 1965, Johnson authorized sending 3500 combat Marines to Vietnam and secretly granted a request to allow American soldiers to mount offensive operations. Three weeks later, Johnson — again secretly — ordered additional combat troops to be deployed to Vietnam, this time 40,000 — a “staggering escalation of American military might” (p.131). But the turning point came on June 7, when the head military officer on the ground in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, beseeched the President to send 93, 000 additional troops to prevent a collapse of South Vietnam, America’s ally. Westmoreland informed the President that the United States was “in for the long pull” and that he saw “no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war” (p.159). Johnson agonized over the request for some seven weeks until, on July 28, the day after the House of Representatives had passed the landmark Medicare/Medicaid bill, he officially authorized an additional 50,000 troops be deployed to Vietnam, hiking the overall U.S. commitment to 125,000 military personnel.

      Patterson characterizes the July 28th decision to send additional troops as the “most significant in terms of manpower of any that . . . [Johnson] had made to that time. And it had huge implications: it committed the United States to take over much of the fighting from the demoralized South Vietnamese” (p.173). Johnson made this “extraordinarily important decision” (p.172) after seriously consulting only a handful of senior officials. Advisor William Bundy said later that Johnson’s July 28th decision was the “end of debate on policy, and the beginning of a new debate on tactics and above all on presentation to the country” (p.170). Because he did not level with the public about the seriousness of the situation, Johnson “did not prepare them for sacrifices that would later be required. Imagining that Americans might tolerate ever-increasing costs and causalities, he overestimated the solidity of his popular support and the reverence of people for the presidency” (p.173). By year’s end, there were 184,000 troops in Vietnam, with 400,000 at the end of 1966.

        The public generally seemed to support Johnson’s war efforts throughout most of the year, although public support was “neither deep nor well-informed” (p.93). As the year progressed, however, protests against the war became ever more commonplace on college campuses. Many were based on the realpolitik principle that it was not in the interests of the United States to preserve the independence of a South Vietnamese regime widely seen as pervasively corrupt and ineffective. But protests also began to reflect what came to be known as the “New Left” viewpoint associated with the Sixties, which linked the Vietnam War explicitly to the “baneful influences of materialism, corruption and corporate liberalism” (p.232). The United States in the New Left view was an imperialist country in which the “insatiable appetites of American capitalism generated warlike policies” (p.97) – policies implemented by leaders who, as one New Left radical put it, “study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead” (p.232). More than any other event of 1965, Patterson concludes, American escalation in Vietnam “spurred the polarization that characterized the Sixties in the United States” (p.89).

       Interwoven with escalation of the Vietnam conflict as a source of polarization was the fracturing of what had been relative unity within the Civil Rights movement. Beginning in early 1965, Martin Luther King led a series of nationally televised marches in Selma, Alabama, seeking support for an effective Voting Rights Act, the complement to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On March 7, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” white law enforcement authorities in Selma assaulted some six hundred nonviolent civil rights marchers crossing a bridge on their way to demonstrate for voting rights at the state capital in Montgomery, battering the marchers with clubs, nightsticks, and electric cattle prods. Many marchers were hospitalized. The day’s violence, much of it televised nationally, provided the impetus for the politically elusive Voting Rights Act.

        Passed one week after the landmark Medicare/Medicaid bill, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was designed to correct what President Johnson described as a “clear and simple wrong.” It established mechanisms for abolishing literary tests as voting requirements. Section V of the Act – its “pre-clearance” provision — required governmental entities with a history of racial discrimination to secure “clearance” from the Department of Justice or special three-judge court in Washington, D.C., before making changes to voting procedures. But passage of the Voting Rights Act also occurred almost simultaneously with President Johnson’s nearly irrevocable decision to escalate the war in Vietnam and five days prior to the devastating riot that broke out in Watts.

       The Watts disorders, an “especially damaging blow to liberal dreams” (p.179), were a forerunner to a series of summer riots in African-American communities across the United States that took place in the immediately following years. For many, urban unrest such as that in Watts, came to be seen as an integral part of the Sixties, transforming the attitudes of many white Americans who had previously been sympathetic to the civil rights cause. The destruction of Watts and its political aftershocks “demoralized Johnson and left the once proud and luminously effective civil rights movement in a state of disarray from which it never recovered” (p.179).

       As 1965 progressed, but particularly in the aftermath of Watts, many African-Americans activists began “openly questioning the virtues of nonviolence and interracial cooperation” (p.225) and highlighting poverty and discriminatory conditions in African-American communities outside the South. The eloquence of Dr. King’s call for non-violent change was yielding to more strident voices, which did not rule out – and, in some instances, seemed to encourage – violence as a tool available in the struggle for social justice. Malcolm X personified this approach until he was assassinated in February 1965. Stokeley Carmichael, the Black Panthers and others picked up the message after Malcolm X’s death, directly challenging older, more traditional civil rights leaders such as King. The “fracturing and enfeebling of the nonviolent, interracial civil rights movement” (p.225) by the end of 1965 was the second far-reaching development marking the onset of the Sixties, Patterson contends.

     Critically, Patterson emphasizes, the new militancy within the Civil Rights movement and the specter of unrest in African-American communities not only undermined white support for civil rights but also engendered a conservative reaction, personified by a former actor, Ronald Reagan, who seemed to be angling to run for governor of California and perhaps seek national office. The 1966 mid-term elections, in which Republicans gained solid majorities in both houses of Congress, demonstrated that the once powerful clout of liberalism “was no more. Fallout from the pivotal events that had started to weaken it in mid and late 1965—above all, escalation in Vietnam and the disturbances at Watts – had seriously afflicted it, ushering in the more contentious political world that followed. The earliest of these more polarized years, extending from late 1965 into the early 1970s, are what should be remembered as the Sixties” (p.244).

        “The Eve of Destruction” makes an appropriate title to Patterson’s book, capturing well how progressives might now look back at 1965, a high water mark of post-war liberalism. Devastating urban riots would take place in numerous other American cities during the following years, including Detroit, my hometown, in 1967. United States military involvement in Vietnam would not end until 1973. No social legislation even approximating the significance of Medicare and Medicaid would pass into law until 2010, 45 years later, when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. Better known as Obamacare, the ACA seeks to guarantee heath care to working age persons and families. But conservatives opposed and attacked the ACA with a rancor and vehemence politically unthinkable at the time Medicare and Medicaid became law. Further, in 2013, the Supreme Court drastically undermined the Department of Justice’s “pre-clearance” authority under Section V of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had been one of the federal government’s most effective tools in guaranteeing voting rights to African-Americans in the American South. And Democrats, representing, however imperfectly, mainstream American liberalism, would go on to lose five of the next six presidential elections.

       But Patterson’s title comes from what he terms a “breakthrough rock song” (p.153) of that name, sung by Barry McGuire, formerly lead singer for the New Christy Minstrels. “The Eve of Destruction” was briefly the country’s number one popular song and ranked 29th on Billboard’s Top 100 for the year. With the sounds of bombs going off in the background, the song’s lyrics were “bitter, blunt and devastatingly bleak about contemporary events, predicting that all manner of terrible developments – war in Vietnam, racial tensions, nuclear weapons – were propelling the United States (and ‘the whole crazy world’) toward the apocalypse” (p.193-94). Like many songs that address political and social issues, “The Eve of Destruction” seemed to me at the time, and still seems, mostly like an opportunistic attempt to make money off important issues of the time. Perhaps because of his use of “Eve of Destruction” for his title, Patterson’s effort to capture the zeitgeist of 1965 concentrates on the year’s popular music, although he also covers the most popular television shows and movies of 1965.

* * *

       Patterson makes a convincing case that 1965 may be considered the beginning point for what we have come to know as the Sixties – perhaps even that they started in that fateful two week period between President Johnson’s no-turning-back decision to escalate United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam on July 28 and the eruption in Watts on August 11.  Those readers who, like myself, lived through 1965 and the Sixties as young adults will find an instructive summation of the momentous year — in my case, with the exception of popular music, mostly a reminder of what I missed. Those too young to remember the period should also benefit from Patterson’s analysis of a year whose repercussions are still very much with us today, a full half-century later.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
August 29, 2015

6 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics

Never At Home

LHO

Peter Savodnik, The Interloper:
Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union

            More than fifty years after Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, writers are still trying to make sense out of an assassination which has proven also to be something of a national obsession. In The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, Peter Savodnik seeks to deepen our understanding of Oswald himself through an exploration of his time in the Soviet Union, where he lived from 1959 to 1962, primarily in the provincial Belarusian city of Minsk at the height of the Cold War. Savodnik’s book is unlikely to have much appeal to conspiracy theorists. Savodnik posits early in the book that Oswald acted alone in killing the president, and that the “lone gun” theory is the only plausible account of the assassination. The question we should be asking, Savodnik contends, is not who killed President Kennedy, but why did Oswald kill him.

            In many senses, Oswald fit the all-too-familiar pattern of the American assassin, a lonely, disturbed, undistinguished young man whose notorious act – at least for those who accept the lone gunman theory – seems nearly senseless. But Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union during the Cold War sets him apart from other American assassins. Exploration of Oswald’s experiences in a country that was the “arch enemy of his own” (p.27) thus adds a dimension to Oswald’s life which, Savodnik indicates, has not previously been examined in depth.

           As the word “interloper” in his title indicates, Savodnik’s overriding theme is that Oswald was never at home anywhere. He was always an outsider, an interloper. His failure to settle anywhere made him more aware of his status as an outsider or interloper. “And with this awareness came anger building to a fury” (p.xv). Oswald actually spent more time in Minsk than any other location in his short life and, Savodnik stresses, he came closest in Minsk to shedding his interloper status and achieving a “sense of place” (p.xiv). Savodnik finds a very American quality to Oswald’s rootlessness. Oswald’s “fury, naïveté, narcissism, and even indifference to whatever place he had parachuted into” for Savodnik reflects an “uncontainable rage that felt and sounded American,” expressing a “classically American individuality, a desire to be free of external forces and to achieve a wholly separate self that had not been shaped by other people, clans, or institutions” (p.210).

         Savodnik’s book is arranged in three general sections, “Before Minsk,” “Minsk,” and “After Minsk” addressing, respectively the first twenty years of Oswald’s life; the 32 months in Minsk, from October 1959 to June 1962; and Oswald’s final 17 months back in the United States after leaving Minsk and the Soviet Union, from June 1962 to November 1963. Oswald’s tortured relationship to the United States is a constant theme throughout the three sections. A final section, “Epilogue: A Conjecture,” seeks to use Oswald and Kennedy’s intertwined lives to explain the United States in the early 1960s.

* * *

          Born in 1939 in New Orleans, Oswald had a tumultuous youth and was adrift from his earliest days. His father, a descendant of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee (the reason for Oswald’s first name) was an insurance premium collector who died of a heart attack in August 1939, two months before his son was born. His father’s death and absence from Oswald’s life “might be regarded as the defining trauma of Oswald’s entire life, setting in motion a youth of chaos and frenzy” (p.3), Savodnik argues. He describes Oswald’s mother Marguerite as “perennially unstable” (p.xiv), “unreliable, frantic, harried, hectoring, needy, and prone to irrational outbursts” (p.4), hardly capable of playing the role of one parent, let alone two. Marguerite and her two sons, Lee and older brother Robert, moved from New Orleans to Dallas to Fort Worth to New York City, then back to New Orleans. In a previous marriage, Marguerite had another son, John Pic, Oswald’s half brother, with whom he had intermittent contact. Marguerite’s “inability to provide any semblance of stability and normalcy for her youngest son” is “clearly reflected in Lee’s constant moving” (p.4). Oswald attended 12 different schools and by one count had resided in 17 different locations before dropping out of high school at age 16. Oswald’s peripatetic and essentially homeless youth “cannot be stressed enough,” Savodnik contends, in understanding the “unstable man Lee Harvey Oswald was to become” (p.4).

       Savodnik asks his readers to view Oswald’s embrace of Marxism through the lens of Oswald’s childhood and adolescence. There was “little, if anything, in Lee’s childhood that suggested he might one day embrace radical politics” (p.9), Savodnik notes. But by the time Oswald reached early adolescence, there was an “obvious emptiness in his life, a desire for something real and deeply felt to compensate for the home that was sorely missing” (p.9). At age 15, Oswald began to teach himself about Marxist theory. By then, the “gulf separating Oswald from his mother was probably unbridgeable, he had very little extended family to speak of, and he had no friends or place that he thought of as home” (p.9). Marxism offered the young Oswald “discipline and purpose” and was “shot through with a vocabulary and mood that comported with Lee’s mounting rage” (p.9). But here, and throughout his life, what Oswald believed to be strongly-held ideological convictions were nothing more than what Savodnik characterizes as “very personal feelings – about his home, his family, his sense of rootlessness – that had hardened into political viewpoints but, at root, had nothing to do with anything explicitly political” (p.171).

       After dropping out of high school, Oswald joined the Marines at age 17 in October 1956. He spent nearly three years in the Marines, but left on a hardship discharge at age 20, claiming that his mother needed care. In October 1959, almost immediately after leaving the Marines, Oswald traveled to Moscow on an overnight train from Finland, where he arrived with a one week visa. In his short time in Moscow, he applied for Soviet citizenship. The request was denied and Oswald was told that he had to leave the Soviet Union immediately. There then followed an ostensible suicide attempt. Oswald stayed in Moscow under psychiatric care, until the end of October 1959, when he went to the United States Embassy in Moscow in a failed attempt to renounce his citizenship.

       Hinting to Soviet authorities that he might have valuable information to pass along based upon his time in the Marines, the Soviets allowed Oswald to stay in the country. The KGB, suspicious that he might be an American “sleeper agent” (p.83), found Oswald “difficult and irascible and, at times, histrionic, self-pitying, and reckless. He could hardly have been counted on to do or finish anything” (p.33). He was sent to Minsk, a city that was “proudly Soviet and conservative” (p.119) and an unusual destination for defecting Americans – most at that time were sent to Ukraine.

* * *

        Although the city of Minsk had existed since the 11th century, Old Minsk had been largely flattened by the Nazis. Even prior to the Nazi invasion, the population of Minsk had been depleted by Stalinist collectivism, mass deportations and the purges of the 1930s, destroying “most everyone who might have helped cultivate a national identity separate from the Soviet super state” (p.72). Consequently, New Minsk was a “model communist city . . . broad, orderly and boring . . . an unequivocal statement of the totalitarian impulse” (p.70). It lacked “its own commercial practices, its own mores and rituals” as well as any deep traditions of “artistic and intellectual inheritance” (p.73). Nothing in Minsk connected its citizens, termed Menchani, with previous generations. Rather, the Menchani were “above all Soviet. They may also have been Belorussian, Polish, or Russian, but their primary identity was their ideology” (p.72). They were thus quite unlike residents of the Baltic states or Ukraine, who had “retained a national heritage and were in a permanent state of semi-war with the Soviet regime” (p.72).

        In Minsk in the early 1960s, World War II continued to be the overriding force that shaped the mindset of all adults. The experience of the war had been “so intense, so acrid, bitter, and all-consuming, that it had changed everyone permanently. It was hard to understand people who had not been changed in the same way” (p.81). Not having lived through that war experience, “Oswald could never really grasp the shape and scope of the lives of everyone he spent most of his time with – and it meant that they had a very difficult time making sense of Oswald” (p.76).

        Under Stalin, who had died six years earlier, in 1953, “any right-thinking Soviet citizen would have avoided Oswald, an American, for fear of being branded a traitor or counterrevolutionary” (p.54). But by the time Oswald arrived in Minsk in 1959, Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had not only denounced Stalinist crimes but was also seeking to loosen controls over artistic endeavors and lessen tensions with the West. Average Menchani in 1959 “weren’t sure whether they should stay away or give in to their curiosity” and talk to Oswald (p.54). Those whom Oswald met were “mostly courteous and temperate. They listened to whatever he had to say. They were pleasant, if at times a little brusque” (p.55).

        Thanks to considerable assistance from the KGB, Oswald had a relatively easy life in Minsk, with a comparatively spacious apartment and a prestigious job for the time, as a lathe operator in a factory that manufactured radios and televisions. He found a few friends in Minsk, but most of his co-workers resented his relative privilege. Oswald was too clean, had no real grime under his fingernails, and didn’t like to drink Vodka. Moreover, notwithstanding the loosening of norms in the Khrushchev era, his follow workers were driven by the unspoken fear that “being too close, or perceived as too close to the American would make other people, and especially the security organs, question one’s loyalty” (p.91). Yet, for a fleeting moment in Minsk, Oswald “looked as if he was ready, at long last, to leave behind his adolescence and his many angers and frustrations” (p.106).

        Oswald developed a deep crush on a woman who turned down his marriage proposal, Ella German, whom he described as a “silky, black haired Jewish beauty” (p.101). Savodnik suggests that Oswald’s decision to leave the Soviet Union and the start of his precipitous final descent that ended in Dallas in November 1963 may be linked to German’s rejection of his marriage offer. A few months thereafter, Oswald married Marina Prusakova after a strikingly short courtship. Oswald’s marriage to Mariana may have been intended to spite German, Savodnik surmises. Marina’s background bore some similarity to that of Oswald: she had never known her father and had moved around constantly as a youth. Marina bore Oswald a child in the Soviet Union, June, born in February 1962; and another, Rachel, born in October 1963 when the couple returned to the United States.

       Despite good living and working conditions in Minsk by the standards of the era, Oswald gradually discovered, with “unhappiness, dejection and fear” that he was “not a Menchan and never would be” (p.80). Oswald’s experience in Minsk was one of “gradually coming to the conclusion that he was all alone. . . [and] that the Soviet Union was not the home he had hoped it would be” (p.74). Nearly three years after his arrival in Russia, Oswald was “not only angry but also self-pitying, lost, spent, humiliated. In Russia . . . he’d been told, obliquely, that he was not really a worker, a Menchan, that he would never be admitted to the proletarian family that he had disparately craved. His ideology had been sapped . . . and, finally, he’d come to the awful conclusion that there was nothing else to do, so he left” (p.186).

* * *

       In late June 1962, Oswald found himself back in the United States with Marina and their baby daughter. Oswald’s 17 months in the United States after Minsk were “more chaotic, frenzied, hapless, and desperate than any other time he had known,” a period of “continuous unraveling” (p.194). “Unhappiness, fury, a permanent and deepening sense of alienation” were Oswald’s’ “new default position” as he confronted a life of “inescapable rootlessness” (p.189). He and Marina relocated to the Dallas area, but separated shortly after arrival there, with Marina moving in with an acquaintance she had met. During his 17 months back in the United States, Oswald lived at nine different addresses for an average of two months each, plus some shorter stays and trips. He was “unable, as always, to build a life anywhere—to hold onto a job, pay his rent or bills, make friends, or tend to the chores and duties of daily life” (p.190).

        During this time, Oswald began to cobble together a small arsenal. In April 1963, Oswald attempted to assassinate Major General Edwin Walker, a leading right-wing figure. This attempt had plain ideological overtones: Oswald compared it to killing Hitler. The Walker assassination attempt, Savodnik notes, marked the first time since his suicide attempt in Moscow that Oswald had “sought to resolve his mounting furies with a powerful and culminating violence” (p.196). Oswald took up the issue of Cuba, becoming active in an organization known as Fair Play for Cuba. Oswald then landed a job at the Dallas School Book Depository, from which the fatal shots were fired on November 22, 1963. Ironically, Savodnik notes that Oswald’s position at the School Book Depository provided a modicum of stability to his tormented life. Savodnik considers the assassination a form of suicide, “anticipated many years before by an awful childhood that could not be corrected for by school or social workers and could not be overcome in the Marines or the Soviet Union” (p.217).

* * *

       In  “Epilogue: A Conjecture,” Savodnik tries to provide his readers with a sense of what the entwined lives of Oswald and President Kennedy tell us about the United States in the early 1960s. Although he acknowledges at one point that there was an “intense hatred” directed at the President from different directions (p.218), for the most part Savodnik’s description of Kennedy and his administration is so rosy as to be almost unrecognizable. For most Americans in the early 1960s, Savodnik argues, Kennedy “seemed to hover between man and god—to be half man, half deity, and a conduit connecting [Americans] with something eternal and deep. Americans had rarely, if ever, experienced this feeling with their presidents” (p.213). During the short Kennedy administration, a “Rubicon of sorts seemed to have been crossed. Suddenly the affection or sympathy that many Americans had at one time or another felt for a president morphed into a kind of love. . . it was Kennedy, more than any of the thirty four who preceded him, who crossed into the magical realm” (p.213). Kennedy had “captured – he was – the national zeitgeist. The country was confident, bold, unwavering; it knew exactly what it was, and that certainty was central not only to America but to Kennedy’s persona (p.201). In killing Kennedy, Oswald “elevated him—he mythologized a president who was already a myth, and not just him but his title, the presidency” (p.218). This strikes me as over-the-top hyperbole, taking too seriously the Camelot myth that arose after Kennedy’s death and adding little to Savodnik’s narrative.

* * *

         Savodnik admits that Oswald’s “psychology and the interior forces that preyed on him remain a secret” (p.219). But through his treatment of Oswald’s Soviet years and his emphasis on Oswald’s continuous moving and searching, Savodnik succeeds at least partially in explaining what made Oswald tick. Savodnik’s portrait of Minsk during the Khrushchev years, moreover, makes his book worthwhile even for those readers not particularly interested in peering into Lee Harvey Oswald’s tormented mind.

Thomas H. Peebles
Herndon, Virginia
June 15, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, History, Soviet Union, Uncategorized, United States History

Livelong Activism and Anger at American Injustice

Pictures.parks.

Jeanne Theoharris, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

            In the winter of 2013, I reviewed Douglas Brinkley’s succinct Rosa Parks: A Life, under the title “Civil Civil Rights Activist.” I was therefore intrigued when I learned that Jeanne Theoharris had written another biography of this remarkable woman, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Theoharris aims for comprehensiveness in a way that Brinkley does not. She reveals far more about Parks’ engagement in the quest for social justice in the United States, both before and after that fateful day in December 1955 when Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white person, thereby triggering the Montgomery bus boycott, which in many ways triggered the modern civil rights movement. Much of Parks’ life after the boycott was spent in Detroit, Michigan, where she worked for Congressman John Conyers and confronted Northern racism. Unlike other works on Parks, Theoharris’s book explores in depth her Detroit years. Readers who share my enthusiasm for the Motor City, that soon-to-be-once-again-great industrial center, will find the latter portions of Theorharris’ book particularly captivating.

            Like Brinkley, Theoharris recoils from the sentimental image of Rosa Parks as a fed-up seamstress who one day had had enough and spontaneously decided to take a stand against Montgomery’s rigidly oppressive bus segregation. Theoharris considers this view a “romantic fable” (p.x) and “gendered caricature” (p.xiii), which reduces Parks’ significance to a single act of conscience while ignoring her “lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice” (p.ix). Theoharris drives this point home by starting with Parks’ funeral in 2005, a short time after Hurricane Katrina.

              In an effort to “cover up the federal travesty of inaction around Hurricane Katrina two months earlier,” national leaders cast Parks as the “nonthreatening heroine of a movement that had run its course” (p.241), Theoharris argues. The view of Parks which emerged at her burial was of a “self-sacrificing mother figure for a nation who would use her death for a ritual of national redemption” (p.ix). Parks’ funeral “communicated a lesson on the history of American progress and the end of racism . . . [with racism] cast as an aberrant flaw rather than a constitutive element of American democracy – that, once recognized, had been eliminated” (p.242). Contemporary vestiges of racial discrimination, such as “[p]ersistent educational inequality, widening economic disparities, skyrocketing incarceration rates for people of color, unending wars, and rampant racial and religious profiling” were implicitly cast aside as matters “very different from the clear wrong that Parks had protested, despite the fact that the actual Rosa Parks and many of her colleagues had spent a lifetime trying to address them” (p.243).

            The sentimental version of Parks may well be part of an effort to convince ourselves that the ugly history of American racism should now be considered a closed chapter (after Ferguson, is there anyone who really believes that?). But Theoharris locates the origins of this version of Parks in the Montgomery bus boycott movement itself. For strategic reasons, at a time when many Americans associated the civil rights movement with communism, the male leadership of the boycott cleverly developed and exploited this version to demonstrate the wholesomeness and genuineness of the movement. Yet, that same leadership, which included a galvanizing 25 year old pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rarely if ever allowed Parks to speak for the movement. As Theoharris puts it, Parks was “lauded by the crowd as their heroine but not consulted for her vision of the struggle and subsequent political strategy” (p.93).

           In this highly-readable, wide-ranging biography, Theoharris demonstrates that the exploitation of Parks was made possible by Park’s bedrock character. Through deeds and by example more than by words, Rosa Parks managed throughout her life to be conciliatory yet uncompromising, serving repeatedly as a bridge between competing factions and visions.

* * *

              Rosa McCauley was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, the granddaughter of slaves on both sides of her family. Her father left her mother and younger brother Sylvester when Rosa was very young. She was raised by her single mother, in a home that also included her grandparents and a great-grandfather – a home both “full of love” (p.3) and very mindful of social inequities. “Steeped in political thought from an earlier age,” Theoharris writes, Rosa’s family “exposed her to a sense of black pride. From an early age, she knew ‘we were not free’” (p.4). In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, whom Parks described as the “first real activist” she had met. The “appreciation for race pride and activism that she had learned at home came to fruition in her relationship with Raymond Parks. He was the love of her life” (p.14). The couple’s wedding took place as Raymond was actively organizing to save the Scottsboro nine, young men aged twelve to nineteen falsely accused of raping two white women. Throughout her life, Parks was also a “staunch and devout Christian” who saw “no contradiction between religious belief and political militancy. Serving God necessitated collective action to address the needs of her fellow men and women. To Mrs. Parks, God stood with the oppressed and did not take kindly to complacency” (p.179).

             Parks’ early life provides good insight into what might be termed the “pre-Civil Rights era.” This was an era when, with little national attention, the foundation was being established for an attack on racial segregation in the American South. Parks played a major, and largely uncredited, role in establishing that foundation. She served as secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP and was active in other organizations that attacked segregation, frontally and indirectly. But working as an activist in the 1940s meant “working without any indication that your efforts would be realized in your lifetime,” Theoharris observes (p.18). During this time, Parks was closely associated with the dynamic yet enigmatic E.D. Nixon, head of the Montgomery NAACP.

                A fascinating figure who is likely someday to be himself the subject of a biography, Nixon was once described as “Gandhi with guns” (p.20). Nixon was decidedly working class in background and outlook and Montgomery’s substantial middle class African-American community looked upon him as a rabble-rouser. The NAACP was then a middle-class black enclave, and there was much tension between the Montgomery’s NAACP chapter and its head. Given her non-confrontational personality, the mistrust accorded to Nixon by Montgomery’s middle-class African Americans did not rub off on Parks. Although from a working class background herself, Parks was often the bridge between middle and working class African Americans in Montgomery in the 1940s and 1950s. Nixon was one of Parks’ greatest champions over the next decades, but his views about the proper roles for women did not include them being visible leaders. “Women don’t need to be nowhere but in the kitchen,” he once told Parks (p.28). Nixon “did not fully acknowledge Parks’s intellectual talents and political acumen, which shaped how he envisioned the roles she should play,” (p.29) Theoharris concludes.

                In the summer of 1955, Nixon arranged for Parks to attend a two-week workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee on desegregating public schools in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which had held public school segregation unconstitutional. Highlander was a fully integrated social justice training center which was beginning to focus on civil rights after years of work on behalf of labor unions and the working poor, particularly Appalachian whites. The experience at Highland that summer was transformative for Parks, allowing her to see the need for desegregation in Montgomery as part of a global movement for human rights. It was also one of the few times, she remarked, when she “did not feel any hostility from white people” (p.40). Parks maintained her connections with Highlander for the rest of her life.

* * *

            Parks was not the first to challenge Montgomery’s bus policies. A bus boycott in 1900 had forced the city to change its policy so that no rider had to surrender a seat unless another was available, although this policy was routinely breached. There were numerous other instances of bus resistance and disruption in Montgomery, which Parks was fully familiar with. The notion that Parks was the “first – or even third — to resist or that she made her bus stand impulsively misses her familiarity with the many instances and dangers of bus resistance, and the considerable thought she had given to the matter” (p.49).

                Earlier in 1955, Claudette Colvin, a feisty fifteen year old, refused to cede her seat and was arrested, setting off a short-lived, Nixon-led bus boycott and fueling anger throughout Montgomery’s African-American community. Colvin’s case went to trial, where she was convicted not for refusing to respect Montgomery’s bus policies but for “assault” of the three policemen who arrested her, thereby precluding an appeal of the bus policies. Nixon did not consider Colvin quite the right person to build a campaign around. She was too young and “uncontrollable” (p.57) – she became pregnant by an older man shortly after the bus confrontation. Yet activist lawyer Fred Gray later commented that, without taking anything away from Rosa Parks, “Claudette gave all of us the moral courage to do what we did” (p.54).

             The bus which Parks boarded on December 1, 1955 was initially not crowded, and Parks took a seat in a middle row, an area of four seats in theory open to either race. But by the third stop, the bus had filled and there were no vacant seats for a boarding white passenger. When driver James Blake demanded that the four blacks seated in the middle row move so the single white person could be seated, three of the four blacks moved to the back of the bus. Parks did not move. Thereupon ensued one of the most famous dialogues in American history. Blake asked Parks: “Are you going to stand up,” to which Parks responded, “No.” When Blake said, “Well I am going to have you arrested,” Parks stoically retorted, “You may do that” (p.63-64).

                 This confrontation is the centerpiece of Brinkley’s book. “Her majestic use of ‘may’ rather than ‘can’,” Brinkley argues, put Parks “on the high ground, establishing her as a protester, not a victim . . . And her formal dignified ‘No,’ uttered on a suppertime bus in the cradle of the Confederacy as darkness fell, ignited the collective ‘no’ of black history in America, a defiance as liberating as John Brown’s on the gallows in Harper’s Ferry” (Brinkley, p.107). Theoharris is less melodramatic, but describes Parks’ response to Blake as a “deeply political, principled act by a woman who well knew the danger of bus resistance. In her bravery, other people would find theirs as well” (p.71).

          Parks was arrested but, through Nixon’s efforts she was quickly released on $100 bail. Nixon saw Parks’ resistance as the opportunity he had been waiting for to launch a direct attack on bus segregation. Parks was the ideal person to build a movement around: “middle-aged, religious, of good character, known and respected in the community for her political work and brave” (p.72). But building the boycott around Parks demanded publicizing a strategic public image of her which obscured her longstanding political activity. This strategic image as a “good Christian woman and tired seamstress” proved “pivotal to the success of the boycott because it helped deflect Cold War suspicions about grassroots militancy” (p.83). The “seeds of the ‘simple tired seamstress’ myth” — the “romantic fable” and “gendered caricature” which Theoharris deplores — were thus “planted in the early days of the boycott to mitigate the repressive atmosphere of the Cold War” (p.84).

           To the surprise of the boycott’s leadership, nearly 100% of Montgomery’s African-American community participated in the protest. The boycott relied upon car pools, which “powerfully drew together Montgomery’s various economic and social classes” (p.95) within its African-American community. Women were the backbone of the boycott, as walkers, drivers, organizers and fund-raisers, although the leadership visible to the public was all male.

                Throughout the bus boycott, Nixon clashed openly with Dr. King, then a newcomer to Montgomery. Some of the conflict was due to the class tension that divided Montgomery’s African-American community; some was due to the natural tendency to be offended by attention afforded to others during a deeply-felt, highly emotional series of activities. Nixon “resented the ways the young King received all the credit and adulation for the movement at the expense of other leaders” (p.138). King, though, was already a charismatic personality who gave the boycott pizzazz and clout.

            The impact that King’s emerging leadership had on Montgomery’s black community in those first months, Theoharris writes, was “hard to capture. Nearly everyone – Parks especially – thrilled to the amazing good fortune at having this bold young minister who was making the community proud” (p.105). If there was tension between Nixon and King, none of it affected King’s relationship with Parks. Parks plainly admired the mesmerizing young preacher and she and King formed a tight relationship that would last until King’s death in the following decade. But King, too, “gendered” Parks, to use Theoharris’ formulation, keeping her in secondary and auxiliary roles as the boycott moved on.

           The boycott crippled financially the private bus company, which blamed Montgomery’s local government. Whites were surprised by the extent and intensity of the grievances. Many were convinced that the Communist Party was behind the protest. The boycott came to an end over a year later when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Browder v. Gayle, a civil suit directly challenging the constitutionality of Montgomery’s segregated bus policies, filed by four other female African-American bus riders. The case represented Nixon’s “second front” in the Montgomery bus boycott. For tactical reasons, Nixon and the boycott leadership determined that Parks would not be a plaintiff in the suit. In Browder, the Supreme Court affirmed a decision of the Alabama federal district court, which had held unconstitutional racial segregation on Montgomery’s buses. On December 20, 1956, 382 days after the boycott had begun, a “community that had walked and walked and carpooled for more than a year stepped aboard the bus and sat where they pleased” (p.134).

                But the immediate aftermath of the boycott was not a happy period for Parks. She lost her job as a seamstress in a Montgomery department store and had great difficulty finding gainful employment. Her strong work habits and non-threatening personality were not nearly enough to overcome the stigma she bore among Montgomery’s white economic leaders, who had neither forgotten nor forgiven her role in the boycott. Further, Raymond lost his job as a barber and lapsed into serious drinking which further exacerbated the couple’s financial problems (the couple had no children).

* * *

              Given their financial uncertainties, Rosa and Raymond moved to Detroit in 1957, where Rosa’s brother Sylvester had lived since the end of World War II. The Parks were spared some of the indignities in Detroit which segregated Montgomery imposed on African-Americans every day. But Parks reached the conclusion quite early in her time in Detroit that African-Americans there too were second class citizens. Detroit was the “Northern promised land that wasn’t” (p.166), Parks concluded. Housing was at least as segregated as it had been in Alabama, police were at least equally brutal, if perhaps a bit more subtle in their brutality, and a wide swath of jobs was off limits to African-Americans.

               Parks and her husband continued to struggle economically in Detroit, but the couple turned the corner in March 1965 when Parks became the local office manager for another rising African-American star, Congressman, John Conyers, today the senior member of the Congressional black caucus. Parks served Conyers loyally for more than 20 years, but nonetheless remained in what Theoharris terms a “gender-appropriate role, answering phones, handling constituent needs, welcoming visitors, and coordinating the office” (p.182). In addition to these standard services which go with any home congressional office, Parks was also able to pursue many of the activist causes which both she and her boss supported – and get paid for it. Parks thus became a quiet but powerful force in Detroit for many of the same issues of social justice which Conyers was working on in Washington.

                    Parks lived through some of Detroit’s most trying moments, none more so than the July 1967 riots, probably the worst of the riot-filled 1960s, which started only a few blocks from Parks’ home and destroyed large chunks of the city. Parks attributed the origins of the riots to the “long history of white resistance to civil rights demands and rising anger among black youth” (p.195). The riots accelerated the movement of Detroit’s white working class families to the suburbs and started the city on a steep decline that continued into the 21st century. Returning to those horrific days was a heartbreaking experience for me. To this day, I remember vividly listening to the evening sniper fire while sitting on the back porch of my parents’ comfortable suburban home, only a few short miles from the violence.

               Parks’ first decade in Detroit coincided with significant changes in the African American rights movement across the country. The eloquence of Dr. King’s call for non-violent change was yielding to more strident voices, which did not rule out – and, in some instances, seemed to encourage – violence as a tool available in the struggle for social justice. Malcolm X personified this new approach, until he was assassinated in 1965. Stokeley Carmichael, the Black Panthers and others picked up the torch after Malcolm X’s death. Another indication of Park’s unusually conciliatory personality is that she managed to have good relations with both camps, the newer and younger militants, with their harder edges, and the more traditional, religious, integrationist, non-violent activists whom King led until he was assassinated in 1968. Parks saw “no contradiction in her deep admiration for King and Malcolm X” (p.207), Theoharris writes. Refusing to characterize the calls for black power movement as a perversion of the traditional civil rights movement, Parks was “not afraid of ruining her reputation or getting in trouble, as some black leaders of her generation would feel about associating with these young militants” (p.204).

               King’s assassination in 1968 deepened Parks’despair over the deep roots of racism in America. By the late 1960s, Parks had become an “elder stateswoman in the vast and diverse black freedom struggle.” Like King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and Betty Shabazz, Malcom X’s widow, Parks stayed “above the ideological fray to support a broad range of mobilizations” (p.217). In Parks’ later years, she was ignobly mugged in her home by a young black man, prompting commentators to “bemoan the decline of a new generation of black youth” (p.233). Parks’ mugging “served as a convenient metaphor for the degraded values of a new generation” (p.233), Theoharris observes.

* * *

                  Theoharris also describes one priceless scene that occurred in the same time frame as Parks’ mugging, when Nelson Mandela visited Detroit in 1990, just a few months after his release from Robben Island prison. Parks was a late addition to the dignitaries invited onto the tarmac to welcome Mandela as he deplaned (one can only imagine the other Detroit dignitaries jockeying for position on that tarmac). Although the two had never previously met, Mandela recognized Parks instantly. “Ro-sa Parks! Ro-sa Parks,” he shouted as he made a direct line for her. Then, the “two freedom fighters embraced” (p.231). How I wish I could have witnessed that embrace: African man, African-American woman, both having led lives that changed countless other lives and transformed the societies in which they lived.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
March 28, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, United States History

Working on the Left, Writing About the Left Out

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Martin Duberman, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left

          Howard Zinn was a prominent voice of dissent and for radical change in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death in 2010. In Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, Martin Duberman provides an easy-to-read biography of Zinn, which focuses on three different but related aspects to Zinn’s professional life: his political activism, concentrated on his support for Civil Rights and an unwavering opposition to the Vietnam war; his career as a university teacher, in which he clashed with university presidents in two very different institutions, Spelman College in Atlanta in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and Boston University from the mid-60s up to his retirement in 1988; and his approach to the writing of history, as illustrated in his best known work, A People’s History of the United States, which emphasized contributions to American history which Zinn thought conventional histories ignored. Zinn burned most of his personal papers prior to his death. Although Duberman cannot therefore delve too deeply into Zinn’s personal life, he does not neglect this side of the man.

            Duberman shares Zinn’s progressive outlook and provides his own comments on the issues of the day that were galvanizing Zinn. He occasionally provides balance to Zinn’s views, often by noting omissions, but more frequently engages in gratuitous jeremiads likely to infuriate political conservatives. Yet, conservatives willing to venture outside their comfort zone to try to get inside Zinn’s mind may actually enjoy some of Duberman’s commentaries. He consistently bashes traditional liberals, whom he considers weak-willed and way too quick to jettison core principles (Duberman refers to traditional liberals as “liberal gradualists” (p.66); Zinn described them as believers in the “self-correcting character of American democracy” (p.9); my unsolicited definition: those who think it is more important to keep a Republican out of the White House than to feel good about voting for Ralph Nader).

            Zinn was born in New York in 1922 to hardscrabble Russian Jewish immigrants. He was a mediocre high school student, but enlisted in the war effort and served as an airman, flying bombing missions over Germany and France. He later recoiled from the violence he had perpetrated during the war, but never fully worked out how his later commitment to non-violence and his anti-war positions could be reconciled with combating raw evils such as those represented by Hitler and the Nazis. After the war, Zinn earned an undergraduate degree from New York University on the GI Bill, then received Master’s and Ph.D degrees at Columbia University. His master’s thesis addressed the 1914 Ludlow Coal Miner’s strike, where workers in a mine owned by John D. Rockefeller Sr. clashed violently with the Colorado State National Guard. He wrote his PhD thesis on Fiorella LaGuardia’s career in Congress, from 1917 to 1933, later published by Cornell University Press under the title La Guardia in Congress.

            Zinn’s radical views were not rooted in traditional Marxism and he never flirted with the Communist Party. Zinn considered Marx “needlessly ‘dogmatic” (p.199), and throughout his career refused commitment to any form of ideology, which he thought led to “an enclosed circle of ideas impermeable to doubt” (p.9). Zinn was quite content to let business make money, and let big business make big money. He wanted to assure that the contributions of the people who worked in these business be recognized: that such persons be paid a living and fair wage for their contributions and protected to the extent possible from the dangers to which their work exposed them. Zinn was even willing to acknowledge now and then that capitalism had “developed the economy in an enormously impressive way,” increasing “geometrically the number of goods available” but failed to distribute them justly (p.158). Zinn liked the Marxist idea of redistributing wealth, but in his later years also felt considerable attraction to the anti-authoritarian stance of anarchism as “still more potent, especially in its dismissal of nation-states as a barrier to the development of human values” (p.199).

            Duberman notes at several points that Zinn never extended his intellectual or emotional passion to the women and gay rights movements that emerged in the latter third of the 20th century and were in many ways modeled after the Civil Rights struggles in which Zinn was so vested. Zinn didn’t oppose these movements. But in his heart of hearts, Duberman surmises, Zinn “couldn’t imagine comparing the deprivation of African Americans and the poor to that of essentially white middle-class women and gay people” (p.197). He could “never wrap his mind around the importance of an individual’s search for his or her ‘specialness.’ For Howard, whether the focus was on gay rights or Polish rights, such emphasis was mostly diversionary” (p.198).

         Zinn’s confrontations with Spelman College President Albert Manley and Boston University’s John Silber constitute a major portion of Duberman’s story. At both institutions, Zinn’s activism – Civil Rights at Spelman and anti-Vietnam war agitation at Boston University –earned the ire of the school’s president. Zinn arrived at Spelman in 1956 and “started at the top,” as chairman of the history and social science department. Spelman was then a black women’s college, modeled after Northern “finishing schools.” Ideal Spelman graduates were “sedate, quiet [and] careful,” with a “capacity to pour tea gracefully” (p.30). President Manly came from a “particular generation of black college presidents, forced to walk a tightrope between a limited endowment and white racist power” (p.31). In Manly’s view, the best way forward for his students was not to challenge the racial status quo head on. This view was diametrically opposed to that of Zinn.

            Although Atlanta in 1956 was a rigidly segregated city, it was also a hotbed of Civil Rights activism. Spelman was not far from Morehouse College, where Martin Luther King had studied and future activist Julian Bond was enrolled. Further, Zinn’s students at Spelman included writer Alice Walker and another future activist, Marian Wright, now better known as Marian Wright Adelman. Zinn can be credited with encouraging activism among Spelman students and altering its image as a finishing school for polite young Negro women. He became the faculty advisor to the school’s Social Science Club and in that capacity helped his students desegregate Atlanta’s public libraries. Zinn later became an advisor to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, probably the leading student organization in organizing “sit ins” challenging segregated eating establishments.

            Some of the student protests at Spelman turned inward, toward the school’s administration, which infuriated President Manly more than his students’ challenges to segregation in the community. In the spring of 1963, Manly informed Zinn that he did not intend to renew his contract, even though Zinn was a tenured faculty member. Zinn fought back but, in the end, the Spelman Board of Trustees backed Manley, and Zinn and his family headed north. He ended up at Boston University, where he would stay for the remainder of his professional career, until his retirement in 1988. Just as the Civil Rights cause dominated Zinn’s time at Spelman, his opposition to the Vietnam War coincided with his early years at Boston University. During this time, Zinn helped hide Father Daniel Berrigan, a fugitive from justice wanted by the FBI for a break-in at a Selective Service office in Pennsylvania. Later, Zinn retained a large number of purloined documents provided to him by Daniel Ellsberg, which subsequently surfaced as The Pentagon Papers.

          John Silber, Zinn’s protagonist at Boston University, arrived as President in 1971. If Manly was an old-style, Southern educational autocrat, Silber presaged the modern, corporate CEO-type of campus autocrat, an early model of what all too many university presidents in the United States seem to have become today: high-profile, prodigious fund-raisers with eye-popping salaries who would appear equally comfortable promoting soap products or university education. An outstanding fund raiser, Silber was notoriously stingy with faculty salaries, and on several occasions overrode faculty recommendations for modest salary increases for Zinn. Silber was also conservative politically, and very conservative by Massachusetts standards (in 1990, he ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Democrat). The issues that separated the two men included not only Zinn’s anti-Vietnam War activities but also his approach to the writing of history, especially as manifested in A People’s History of the United States. Although Zinn’s best-known work, Silber considered A People’s History slanted.

           Zinn’s overriding theme in A People’s History is that the American experience from start to finish has been the story of how the powerful few have deceived and dominated the many. A People’s History overtly sought to tell the history of our country from the perspective of those under-included or excluded from most conventional American history texts. In contrast to more conventional histories which emphasized the contributions to American history of Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt, Zinn chose to emphasize those working for these “titans of industry,” as the texts like to call them. This of course included the workers who contributed their labor (and sometimes their lives) to the great industrial expansion of the second half of the 19th century and much of the 20th century. But A People’s History also featured lesser known contributors to American history, such as the farmers of Shay’s Rebellion, black abolitionists, draft resisters, and Vietnam veterans against the war.

            Zinn looked at his approach not as a substitute for more traditional accounts but as a supplement to them. He did not want people to stop learning about George Washington but to start learning, as well, about the Ludlow Massacre of striking coal workers in 1914. A People’s History received two enormous jolts of free publicity, first in 1996 when actor Matt Damon, who had grown up next door to the Zinn household, mentioned the book in the film Good Will Hunting. Then, in 2002, in an episode of the TV Series The Sopranos, Soprano’s son cited A People’s History to support his argument that that the good Italian Christopher Columbus had tortured and murdered Native Americans, an argument that outraged his father,

            Duberman acknowledges that A People’s History sometimes lacks nuance, treating the nation’s past mainly as the story of “relentless exploitation and deceit” (p.228), with the world divided between good guys and bad guys, oppressors and oppressed, villains and heroes. “The middle ground disappears in A People’s History,” (p.228), Duberman concludes. Zinn dismissed Abraham Lincoln as indifferent to slavery, for example, overlooking what Duberman considers Lincoln’s complex evolution on the slavery question. A book which conservatives love to hate, A People’s History has had real staying power and still sells briskly.

           Duberman’s discussion of A People’s History leads him to consider the nature of the historian’s craft: how should history be written? In writing history, Zinn insisted that objectivity – scrupulous accuracy when researching and reporting historical data – must remain the historian’s goal, even as he warned that this goal could only be approximate, never reached. “The closest we can come to that elusive ‘objectivity,’” Zinn argued in The Politics of History, another of his major works, “is to report accurately all the subjectivities of a situation” (p.167). The historian’s values, both buried and conscious, plus the incomplete nature of surviving historical evidence, always stand in the way of a fully dispassionate or intact reproduction of the past. Every historian of every stripe makes decisions on what evidence to use, what evidence to emphasize, what evidence to discount or exclude. Because in general only the most privileged members of society leave behind substantial records, the evidence that comes down from the past is frequently skewed and fragmentary even before historians begin the process of selecting and emphasizing (often unconsciously) certain material and not others from the limited stockpile, thereby inevitably distorting any reconstruction of “what actually happened.”

            Given Zinn’s destruction of his personal papers prior to his death, Duberman must of necessity tread lightly on Zinn’s personal side. Still, he provides some insights into Zinn’s life with Roslyn (Roz) Schechter, whom he married during World War II. The couple stayed together, despite some difficult moments, until she died in 2008. They had two baby boomer children, Myla and Jeff. Zinn’s clashes with two university presidents might suggest an intractably abrasive personality. But the personal Howard Zinn who emerges from these pages is a genuinely likeable, perpetually upbeat, self-effacing man. There is no hint of the stereotypical hard-charging progressive radical who fights for humanity while remaining contemptuous of all too many human beings. Duberman’s portrait of Zinn opens up a window on an interesting American perspective and an interesting American life.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
March 7, 2015

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History

Tension Ridden Thinker

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Catherine and Michael Zuckert, The Truth About Leo Strauss:

Political Philosophy and American Democracy 

            In 2003, the year of the United States’ fateful invasion of Iraq, the anti-war opposition’s search for the culprits responsible took an odd turn, going well beyond the usual suspects, Rumsfeld, Chaney and their boss, President George W. Bush. Media reports in 2003, both before and after the invasion, were pointing to an obscure, deceased (since 1973) professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany whose parents died in the Holocaust, one Leo Strauss. Strauss was fingered as the thinker whose ideas had inspired a cabal of ambitious young policy wonks who left the University of Chicago to take positions of influence in Washington. These “Straussians” were grouped together as “neo-conservatives,” and, as the popular wisdom still holds, neo-conservatives were the driving force behind the 2003 Iraq invasion.

            Professor Strauss was said to be an adherent of a strong-willed approach to foreign policy which the authors associate with Woodrow Wilson, advocating regime change as a means to implant liberal democracy throughout the world. While this certainly suggests neo-conservatism, Strauss was also portrayed in a somewhat contradictory vein as a resolute Machiavellian who espoused a “very hard-edged realism” that was “unabashedly elitist” (p.6), in which the end justifies the means and “[o]nly philosophers can handle the truth” (p.7). The elite must therefore “lie to the masses; the elite must manipulate them – arguably for their own good” (p.7).

            In The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, the authors, Catherine and Michael Zuckert, a husband and wife team at the University of Notre Dame and both former students of Strauss, seek to show that the views attributed to Strauss are at best caricatures, the result of a failure to dig deep enough into the man’s “complex and tension ridden” views about America and liberal democracy (p.20). As to those former students who could be termed Straussians, they are mostly academics like Strauss, with strong but by no means consistent views about the United States and basic American principles. Straussians are “far more interested in exploring the history of political thought than in acquiring or exerting direct and immediate influence on American public policy. The differences among the Straussians are principled and philosophical more than they are partisan or personal” (p.258), the authors contend. The common thread they see to today’s Straussians is a distaste for much of what transpired in American intellectual life in the 1960s.

* * *

            The Zuckerts’s opening chapter, cleverly titled “Mr. Strauss Goes to Washington,” explores how the notion that Strauss’ thinking was behind Bush-era neo-conservatives gained traction in the first place. This part of their story constitutes a good lesson in how mainstream media can get stories wrong (the Iraq war and run up to it are filled, unfortunately, with far more consequential instances of media missing the proverbial boat). The genesis of the notion, the Zuckerts argue, can be traced primarily to an otherwise little-known scholar, Shadia Drury. In 1988, fifteen years after Strauss’ death and fifteen years prior to the second Iraq war, Drury produced what the authors consider a generally sound, objective account of Strauss’ thinking, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. This book established Drury’s credentials as a Strauss scholar. But sometime in the 1990s, the authors argue, Drury lost her objectivity and began to impute dastardly qualities to Strauss’ writing in an effort to tie Strauss to the American right.

            In this phase, Drury found Strauss to be a partisan of “tyrannical teaching,” which holds that there is “only one natural right, the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise over the vulgar” (p.158). Drury even compared Strauss to Adolph Hitler:

Hitler had a profound contempt for the masses – the same that is readily observed in Strauss and his cohorts. But when force of circumstances made it necessary to appeal to the masses, Hitler advocated lies, myths and illusions as necessary pabulum to placate the people and make them comply with the will of the Fuhrer. Strauss’ political philosophy advocates the same solutions to the problems of the recalcitrant masses. (p.17)

             Drury’s more polemical ideas gained traction in the mainstream media, inexplicably aided in no small part by Lyndon Larouche and his followers, whom the authors describe, with considerable restraint, as a “fringe if not quite lunatic group” (p.12). Larouche echoed Drury’s views and led his own drumbeat of anti-Strauss rhetoric. Larouche’s involvement should have been a warning that something fishy was afoot. But Larouche at least as much as Drury provided the mainstream media with its Straussian talking points. The New York Times was an early leader in linking Strauss to the darker side of American conservatism. In November 1994, Brett Staples wrote “Undemocratic Vistas: The Sinister Vogue of Leo Strauss,” followed by Richard Bernstein’s “A Very Unlikely Villain (or Hero),” published in the Times in January 1995.

            In 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion, the Times ran articles on Strauss bearing the titles “Leo-Cons, A Classicist’s Legacy: New Empire Builders” and “The Real Strauss.” The French daily Le Monde weighed in with an influential piece, “Strategist and Philosopher.” Other 2003 articles about Strauss included “Selective Intelligence” (The New Yorker); “The Long Reach of Leo Strauss” (International Herald Tribune); “Philosophers and Kings” (The Economist); “ConTract: The Theory Behind Neo-Con Self Deception” (Washington Monthly); and “Neo-Cons Dance A Straussian Waltz” (Asian Times). Those whom the media mistakenly labeled Straussians included Richard Perle, Clarence Thomas, and Robert Bork (“not a shred of evidence to support these claims,” p.264); Thomas Sowell (“nothing to do with Strauss;” p.10); and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In some accounts, even Bill Clinton and Al Gore were characterized as Straussians. The only neo-conservatives outside academia whom the authors consider to be genuine Straussians are commentator William Kristol and Bush Defense Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz, along with Leon Kass, Chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics.

              The story of Strauss’ rise as the Darth Vader of the Iraq war seems in one way very European, more French or German than American, with a long deceased scholar of the abstractions of philosophy exercising a direct influence over those in power. That just doesn’t seem like the United States where, as Richard Hoftstadter reminded us a half century ago, anti-intellectualism dominates our public life. But perhaps the Strauss story underscores Hoftstadter’s point: when we Americans repair to abstract philosophy to explain current events, we often get it badly wrong.

              The easy part of the Zuckerts’ book is that devoted to how Strauss came to occupy such a prominent place in the post-Iraq debate, more than forty years after his death. Unfortunately, this story constitutes a relatively small portion of their book. A far larger portion is an effort to help us understand what Strauss was really saying, which necessitates a deep dig into his political philosophy. Readers not already familiar with the arcane debates that dominate the field may find this portion slow going.

* * *

           Strauss’ signature idea was that philosophy should be reconstituted on the thinking of the ancients, especially Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Strauss “rediscovered an older and very non-standard tradition of Platonism, which, in his opinion, contained a superior understanding of ancient philosophy” (p.31). Strauss considered Machiavelli the first philosopher of modernism who, in that capacity, had taken philosophy away from its Socratic and Platonic roots and provided impetus to the idea of reinventing political and social life around the passions. Although the Strauss who appeared in the anti-Iraq War debates was often portrayed as a Machiavellian who believed that elites were justified in doing just about anything necessary to stay in power, Strauss the philosopher was decidedly anti-Machiavelli. He drew the ire of his scholarly peers in the 1950s by describing Machiavelli was a “teacher of evil,” then a very retrograde view of the Florentine, but one that Drury and others would subsequently level at Strauss himself.

            The authors devote much time to Strauss’ “esotericism,” which has a particular meaning in philosophy sharply removed from its everyday use. In the philosophic sense, esotericism involves the hiding of meaning, somewhat akin to what we often refer to today as “speaking in codes” — “first and foremost a device whereby thinkers of the past concealed some part of their thought for the sake of guarding themselves against persecution” (p.120). Strauss wrote about thinkers who wrote “cautiously” because they believed that there are “basic truths which would not be pronounced in public by any decent man, because they do harm to many people” (p.126). Strauss called this a “noble lie.” Strauss’ critics pounced on this pronouncement to conclude that Strauss meant to justify political leaders lying to the citizens they serve.

             Strauss was, the authors concede, fascinated by the practice of esotericism, and playfully employed it from time to time. But Strauss was fascinated by this manner of communication primarily because it was effective in societies where writers were not free to say explicitly what they believed. Esotericism is “first and foremost a method for historically understanding writers in the past who lived in illiberal societies, not a prescription for writers living in liberal societies” (p.121). In free societies, Strauss believed, the need for esotericism should not arise. Rather than reinstating esotericism, the authors conclude, “Strauss exposed it” (p.133).

           Strauss was a secular Jew with unorthodox views of religion. Revelation cannot be disproved by reason, he contended. For Strauss, the “core, the nerve of Western intellectual history [and] Western spiritual history,” was the conflict between the “biblical and the philosophical notions of the good life” (p.45), which he sometimes referred to metaphorically as “Jerusalem” and “Athens.” The inherent tension between revelation and reason – between Jerusalem and Athens — was for Strauss the secret to the “vitality of Western civilization” (p.45), and exposure of this tension marked the “hallmark of Strauss’ philosophic activity” (p.154).

               In his efforts to go “back to the basics” in philosophy, back to the foundations of the ancients, Strauss was often portrayed as “anti-modern” and “anti-Enlightenment.” The Zuckerts do not disagree with this characterization. But if Strauss was “anti-modern,” and if the United States is the ultimate modern country, wouldn’t that make him anti-United States? Not necessarily, reply the authors. The Zuckerts argue in a syllogistic manner that Strauss found the United States good relative to the alternatives available within modernity; that he found modernity not wholly or uniformly bad; and that he considered the United States not wholly or uniformly modern. The United States’ modernism was tempered by the political thinking behind the United States Constitution, which Strauss found to be a reflection of the ancient philosophers whom he revered (contrary to just about everyone else, Strauss discounted the Enlightenment influence on the Constitution). Strauss adopted the Madisonian view that since the wise will not necessarily rule, government should be limited, and the limits should be established by law. For Strauss, tyranny was the absence of the rule of law.

          The ineffectiveness of Weimar Germany in withstanding the Nazi surge to power in his native Germany heightened Strauss’ reservations about liberal democracy. Democracy’s failure in Germany was for Strauss far more than the product of factors unique to German history and culture. Rather, it was an episode in what he came to call “’the crisis of our times,’ a crisis compounded of extremist ideologies . . . and a congenital weakness of liberal (modern) theory,” which made the “moderate, centrist, liberal order particularly vulnerable to attack from the extremes” (p.189-90). Much like a 20th century de Tocqueville, the authors argue, Strauss nonetheless provided a “restrained but genuine endorsement” of liberal democracy, reminding us that its freedom and openness to virtue can push democratic regimes to be “overly democratic” (p.78). The freedom of modernity opens human beings to the “insidious and powerful challenge of freedom in the phenomena of conformism and mass culture” (p.67). Having been driven from his home country by the Nazis, and having seen the damage of which ideological systems are capable, Strauss preferred individualistic, liberal governments like that of the United States. Strauss probably would have agreed with the quip attributed to Churchill that democracy is the worst of all systems of governance, except for the others.

            But the authors note the irony of Strauss becoming, after his death, a guru for a certain political viewpoint in the United States. Although an American citizen for much of his adult life, Strauss rarely spoke out on political or public matters, and there is virtually no record of his views on the major issues that the United States addressed during his day. Living in the midst of a modern liberal democracy, Strauss did not think he had to promote religious and intellectual toleration so much as self-restraint on the part of intellectuals and philosophers, particularly in criticizing and opposing the religious beliefs of others.

* * *

          After their effort to clarify Strauss’ philosophic views, the authors finish with a chapter on the Straussians, Strauss’ students. Although Strauss himself had little to say about the United States, three of his students made their mark in academic circles in the 1950s by addressing key issues concerning fundamental American principles: Walter Berns advanced a quirky view of freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; Martin Diamond challenged the Progressive view associated with Charles Beard that the framers of the Constitution sought principally to protect their own property interests; and Harry Jaffa wrote what the authors consider still among the greatest works on Abraham Lincoln’s political efforts to bring the United States back to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

              These authors’ work pre-dated what the Zuckerts term the “circus” of the 1960s, a decade which “aroused almost uniform opposition among Straussians on the basis of Straussian principles. Sixties ideals were utopian through and through, and the main theme of Straussian political philosophy was anti-utopian” (p.230). Allen Bloom, probably the best known of the Straussians, published a best seller in the 1980s, The Closing of the American Mind, which the authors describe as “largely a polemic against the sixties” (p.231). From the 1960s onward, the authors contend, all branches of Straussism were attempts to come to terms with the charged political culture associated with that decade. To this extent, Strauss’ approach to philosophy probably gives more comfort to what we would understand as conservatives today than liberals.

             Yet, the admiration of those influenced by Strauss “have not prevented them from thinking through the problems of political philosophy for themselves or coming to disagree . . . with each other and with Strauss himself” (p.253). Among Straussians, there is a “deep going debate and serious division of opinion about the character and meaning of American political principles at the time of the founding and at present” (p.258-59), a debate which Strauss himself only barely touched upon, but one in which his former students were and, in some cases continue to be, passionately engaged. But the authors stress that there is no single Strauss perspective; no sect attempting to impose the rule of philosopher kings by lying to the American public or its elected leaders; nor any cult seeking to implant American democracy around the world through any means necessary.

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                  Setting the record straight as to what Strauss did and did not espouse is a formidable task. But the Zuckerts do a credible job of explaining this complex and elusive thinker for general readers. Although not easy to read, the Zuckert’s book is assuredly worth the effort.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
January 10, 2015

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Political Theory