Tag Archives: University of Chicago

Using Space to Achieve Control

Mitchell Duneier, Ghetto:

The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea 

            In 1516, Venice’s ruling authorities, concerned about an influx into the city of Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492, created an official Jewish quarter. They termed the quarter “ghetto” because it was situated on a Venetian island that was known for its copper foundry, geto in Venetian dialect. In 1555, Pope Paul IV forced Rome’s Jews into a similarly enclosed section of the city also referred to as the “ghetto.” Gradually, the term began to be applied to distinctly Jewish residential areas across Europe. After World War II in the United States, the term took on a life of its own, applied to African-American communities in cities in the urban North. In Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier, professor of sociology at Princeton University, examines the origins and usages of the word “ghetto.”

            The major portion of Duneir’s book explores how the word influenced selected post World War II thinkers in their analyses of discrimination against African-Americans in urban America. While there were a few instances pre-dating World War II of the use of the term ghetto to describe African-American neighborhoods in the United States, it was Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe that gave impetus to this use of the term. By the 1960s, the use of the word ghetto to refer African-American neighborhoods had become commonplace. Today, Duneier writes, the idea of the black ghetto in the United States is “synonymous in the social sciences and public policy discussions with such phrases as ‘segregated housing patterns’ and ‘residential racial segregation’” (p.220).

          Duneier wants us to understand the urban ghetto in the United States as a “space for the intrusive social control of poor blacks” (p.xii).  It is not the result of a natural sorting or Darwinian selection; it is not an illustration of the adage that “birds of a feather flock together.” He discourages any attempt to apply the term to, for example, poor whites, Hispanics or Chinese. The notion of a ghetto, he argues, becomes a “less meaningful concept if it is watered down to simply designate a black neighborhood that varies in degree (but not in kind) from white and ethnic neighborhoods of the city.  .  . Extending the definition to other minority groups . . . carries the cost of obscuring the specific mechanisms by which the white majority has historically used space to achieve power over blacks” (p.224). Duneier shows how, in the decades since World War II, theorists have emphasized different types of external controls over African-American communities: restrictive racial covenants in real estate contracts in the 1940s, precluding the sale of properties to African-Americans; the rise of educational and social welfare bureaucracies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; and, more recently, police and prison control of African-American males resulting from the war on drugs.  But Duneier’s  story, tracing the idea of a ghetto, starts in Europe.

* * *

            In medieval times, Jews in French, English and German speaking lands lived in “semi-voluntary Jewish quarters for reasons of safety as well as communal activity and self-help” (p.4). But Jewish quarters were “almost never obligatory or enclosed until the fifteenth century” (p.5). Jews were always free to come and go and were, in varying degrees, part of the community-at-large. This changed with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, with many migrating to Italy.  Following the designation of the ghetto in Venice in 1516, Pope Paul IV gave impetus to the rise of separate and unequal Jewish quarters when he issued an infamous Papal Bull in 1555, “Cum nimis absurdum.” In that instrument, the Pope mandated that all Rome’s Jews should live “solely in one and the same place, or if that is not possible, in two or three [places] or as many as are necessary, which are to be contiguous and separated completely from the dwellings of Christians” (p,8).  After centuries of identifying themselves as Romans and enjoying relative freedom of movement, Duneier writes, suddenly Rome’s Jews were forcibly relocated to a small strip of land near the Tiber, “packed into a few dark and narrow streets that were regularly inundated by the flooding river” (p.8).

          This pattern prevailed across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, with Jews living in predominantly Jewish quarters in most major cities, some semi-voluntary, others mandatory.  “Isolation in space” (p.7) became part of what it meant to be Jewish.  Napoleon’s war of conquest in Italy in 1797 led to the liberation of Jewish ghettos in Venice, Rome and across the Italian peninsula.  In the 19th century, ghettos began to disappear across Europe. Yet, Rome remained stubbornly resistant. When Napoleon retreated from Italy in 1814, Pope Pius VI almost immediately reinstated the Roman ghetto, sending the Jews back into the “same dank and overcrowded quarter that they had occupied for centuries” (p.12). A product of papal authority, the Roman ghetto was formally and officially abolished with Italian unification in 1870. Thus, Rome’s Jews, among the first in Europe to be confined to a ghetto, “became the last Jews in Western Europe to win the rights of citizenship in their own country” (p.12).

          Duneier perceives a benign aspect to confinement of Jews in traditional ghettos.  The ghetto was a “comfort zone” for often-thriving Jewish communities, a designated area where Jews were required to live but could exercise their faith freely, in a section of the city where they would not face opprobrium from fellow citizens. Jewish communities possessed “internal autonomy and maintained a wide range of religious, educational, and social institutions” (p.11). In Venice and throughout Europe, the ghetto represented a “compromise that legitimized but carefully controlled [Jewish] presence in the city” (p.7). The traditional European ghetto was thus “always a mixed bag. Separation, while creating disadvantages for the Jews, also created conditions in which their institutional life could continue and even blossom” (p.10).

      In the early 20th century, the word ghetto came to refer to high-density neighborhoods inhabited predominantly but voluntarily by Jews. In the United States, the word frequently denoted neighborhoods inhabited not by African-Americans but by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Then, when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they gave ominous new meanings to the word ghetto. Privately, Hitler used the word to compare areas of enforced Jewish habitation to zoos, enclosed areas where, as he put it, Jews could “behave as becomes their nature, while the German people look on as one looks at wild animals” (p.14). Publicly, and more politely, Hitler argued that confined Jewish quarters under the Nazis simply replicated the Catholic Church’s treatment of Jews in 19th century Rome.

          But ghettos controlled by the Nazis were more frequently like prisons, surrounded by barbed-wire walls. The Nazi ghetto was a place established with the “express purpose of destroying its inhabitants through violence and brutality” (p.22), a place where the state exercised the “firmest control over its subjects’ lives” (p.220). The Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism, Duneier concludes, “transformed the ghetto into a means to accomplish economic enslavement, impoverishment, violence, fear, isolation, and overcrowding in the name of racial purity — all with no escape through conversion, and with unprecedented efficiency” (p.22).

* * *

       The fight in World War II against Hitler and Nazi tyranny, in which African-Americans participated in large numbers, understandably had the effect of highlighting the pervasive discrimination that African-Americans faced in the United States. The modern Civil Rights movement came into being in the years following World War II, focused primarily on the Southern United States and its distinctive system of rigid racial separation know as “Jim Crow.” A less visible battle took place in Northern cities, where attention focused on discrimination in employment, education and housing. A small group of sociologists, centered at the University of Chicago, emphasized how African-Americans in nearly all cities in the urban North were confined to distinct neighborhoods characterized by sub-standard housing, neighborhoods that came to be referred to as ghettos.

       Framing the debate in post-war America was the work of Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who wrote what is now considered the classic analysis of discrimination in the United States, “An American Dilemma.”  Myrdal’s work, based on research conducted during World War II and published in 1944, took on a high level of importance in post-war America.  Myrdal’s research focused principally on the Jim Crow South, where three-fourths of America’s black population then lived.  But Myrdal also advanced what may seem in retrospect like a naïve if idealistic view of Northern racial segregation: it was due primarily to the practice of inserting restrictive covenants into real estate sales contracts, forbidding the selling of property to minorities (along with African-Americans, Jews and Chinese were other groups often excluded by such covenants). Restrictive covenants directed against African-Americans had a component of racial purity that was uncomfortably similar to Nazi practices, most frequently excluding persons with a single great-grandparent of black ancestry. Such clauses, Myrdal argued, were contrary to the basic American creed of equality.  Once white citizens were made aware of the contradiction, they would cease the practice of inserting such restrictions into real estate contracts, and housing patterns would desegregate.

        Myrdal himself rarely used the term ghetto and his treatment of the urban North was “perfunctory by any standard” (p.58). His main contribution was to view Northern segregation not as a natural occurrence, but as a “phenomenon of the majority’s power over a minority population” (p.63). Myrdal’s notion of majority white control over African-American communities influenced the views of two younger African-American sociologists from the University of Chicago, Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake. In 1945, Cayton and Drake published Black Metropolis, a work that focused on discrimination in Chicago and the urban North but failed to gain the attention that Myrdal’s work had received. Duneier indicates that Myrdal’s analysis of the urban North suffered because he was unable to work out an arrangement with Cayton to use the younger scholar’s copious notes of interviews and firsthand observations of conditions in Chicago’s African-American communities.  

         Cayton and Drake sought to “systematically explain the situation of blacks who had recently moved from the rural South to the urban North” (p.233). They were among the first to use the word ghetto frequently as a description of African-American communities in the North.  The word was for them a “metaphor for both segregation and Caucasian purity in the Nazi era” (p.71-72): blacks who sought to leave, they wrote, encountered the “invisible barbed wire fence of restrictive covenants” (p.72; Duneier’s emphasis). Cayton and Drake considered black confinement to black neighborhoods as permanent and officially sanctioned, unlike Hispanic or Chinese neighborhoods, giving African-American neighborhoods their ghetto-like quality.  For Cayton and Drake, therefore, ghetto was a term used to highlight the differences between African-American communities and other poor neighborhoods throughout the city.

         Echoing the interpretations of traditional European Jewish ghettos discussed above, Cayton and Drake emphasized the “more pleasant aspects of black life that were symbolic of an authentic black identity” (p.69). They argued that racial separation had created a refuge for blacks in a racist world and that blacks had no particular interest in mingling with white people, “having accommodated themselves over time to a dense and separate institutional life – ‘an intricate web of families, cliques, churches, and voluntary associations, ordered by a system of social classes’ – in their own black communities. This life so absorbed them as to make participation in interracial activities feel superfluous” (p.69). Today, Black Metropolis remains a “major inspiration for efforts to understand racial inequality, due to its focus on Northern racism, physical space, and the consequences of racial segregation” (p.79).

            Another protégé of Myrdal, renowned Columbia University sociologist Kenneth Clark, emphasized in the 1950s and 1960s the extent to which external controls of black neighborhoods – absentee landlords and business owners, and school, welfare and public housing bureaucracies – produced a “powerless colony” (p.91). Clark’s 1965 work, Dark Ghetto, which Duneier considers the most important work on the African-American condition in the urban North since Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis two decades earlier, argued that the black ghetto was a product of the larger society’s successful “institutionalization of powerlessness” (p.114). Clark looked at segregated residential patterns as just one of several interlocking factors that together produced in ghetto residents a sense of helplessness and suspicion. Others included discrimination in the work place and unequal educational opportunities. Clark thus saw urban ghettos as reenforcing  “vicious cycles occurring within a powerless social, economic, political, and educational landscape” (p.137). Together, theses cycles led to what Clark termed a “tangle of pathologies.”

       For Clark, the traditional Jewish European ghetto bore little resemblance to American realities. Rigid housing segregation was “more meaningfully a North American invention, a manner of existence that had little in common with anything that had come before in Europe or even in the U.S. South” (p.114).  More than any other thinker in Duneier’s study, Clark provided the term ghetto with a distinctly American meaning.  In the 1980s and 1990s, African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson rethought much of the received wisdom that had come from or through Myrdal and Clark.

            Wilson took into account the out-migration of African Americans from inner cities that had begun to gather momentum in the 1970s.  In understanding the plight of those left behind, Wilson argued that class had become a more significant factor than race. African-Americans were dividing into two major classes: a middle class, a “black bourgeoisie,” more and more often living outside the urban core – outside the ghetto – in outlying areas of the city, or in the suburbs, not uncommonly in mixed black-white neighborhoods. The black ghetto remained, concentrating and isolating the least skilled, least educated and least fortunate African-Americans, a “black underclass.”  In contrast to the African-American communities Cayton and Drake had described in the 1940s, those left behind in the 1970s and 1980s saw far fewer black role models they could emulate. A new form of American ghetto had emerged by 1980, Wilson argued, “characterized by geographic, social, and economic isolation. Unlike in previous eras, middle-class and lower-class blacks were having very different life experiences in the 1980s” (p.234).

        Wilson further posited that any neighborhood with 40 percent poverty should be termed a ghetto, thereby blurring the distinction between poor black and poor white or Hispanic neighborhoods.  Assistance program that target poor communities generally, Wilson theorized, were more likely to be approved and implemented than programs targeting only African-American communities.  For the first time since the term ghetto had become part of the analysis of Northern housing patterns in the early post-World War II era, the term was now used without reference to either race or power. With Wilson’s analysis, Duneier contends, the history of the idea of a ghetto in Europe and America “no longer seemed relevant” (p.184).

         Duneier devotes a full chapter to Geoffrey Canada, a charismatic community activist rather than a theorist and scholar. In the 1990s and early 21st century, Canada came to see early education as the key to improving the quality of life in African American neighborhoods – in black ghettos – thereby increasing the range of work and living opportunities for African American youth.  Canada was one of the first to characterize the federal crackdown on drug crime as a tragic mistake, producing alarming rates of black incarceration.  As a result, the country was spending “far more money on prisons than on education” (p.198).

        Two white theorists,  Patrick Moynihan and Oscar Lewis, also figure in Duneier’s analysis. Moynihan, an advisor to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and later Senator from New York, described the black ghetto in terms of broken families. The relatively large number of illegitimate births and a matriarchal family structure in African-American communities, Moynihan argued, held back both black men and women.  Lewis, an anthropologist from the University of Illinois, advanced the notion of a “culture of poverty,” contending that poverty produces a distinct and debilitating mindset that was remarkably similar throughout the world, in advanced and developing countries, in urban and rural areas alike.

         In a final chapter, Duneier summarizes where his key thinkers have led us in our current conception of the term ghetto in the United States. “By the 1960s, an uplifting portrait of the black ghetto became harder to draw. Ever since, those left behind in the black ghetto have had a qualitatively different existence” (p.219). The word now signifies “restriction and impoverishment in a delimited residential space. This emphasis highlights the important point that today’s residential patterns did not come about ‘naturally’; they were promoted by both private and state actions that were often discriminatory and even coercive” (p.220).

* * *

         Duneier has synthesized some of the most important sociological thinking of the post World War II era on discrimination against African Americans, producing a fascinating, useful and timely work.  But Duneier does not spoon feed. The basis for his hypothesis that the links between the traditional Jewish European ghetto and the black American ghetto have gradually faded is not readily gleaned from the text. Similarly, how theorists used the term ghetto in their analyzes of racial discrimination against African Americans seems at times a minor subtheme, overwhelmed by his treatment of the analyzes themselves.  Duneier’s important work thus requires – and merits — a careful reading.

          Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D. C.

July 27, 2017




Filed under American Society, European History, United States History

Becoming FLOTUS



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







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

Tension Ridden Thinker


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.

* * *

                  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


Filed under American Politics, American Society, Political Theory