Monday, March 30, 2009

Awesome civilization

On the chains that bind,

a long way at home

SEATTLE—When I woke from a nap and saw the Cascade Mountains through the window of the plane, I realized I was somewhere a little unfamiliar, and far, far away. This awareness of displacement remained sharp as I sat on the airport shuttle bus while it made it way to the hotel: there was more pine vegetation than I expected to see inside city limits. More shipping containers, freight train lines, and, as we approached downtown, a bustling port: the shipping industry here hasn’t migrated like it has from New York to New Jersey. I noticed more Asian faces, too, in subtly different varieties: This one looks Japanese; is that other one a Pacific Islander of some kind? People seemed a little friendlier as well. Lost on Sixth Avenue, a middle-aged woman walking with her elderly mother volunteered to help orient me on a crowded sidewalk. And people actually wait until they see the WALK signal before they cross the street.

Didn’t take long for the force of the familiar to assert itself, however. I'd guess that the Sheraton lobby could as easily be in Hong Kong or Buenos Aires. But it was in walking toward the Pike Place Market that I knew I was, in fact, at home: The Cheesecake Factory across the street. The AMC cinemas a couple blocks away (I resolved then to see I Love You, Man, which I liked, even as it troubled me in a way I can't put my finger on yet). And, of course, the ubiquitous Starbucks (the bus driver pointed out the corporate headquarters on our way in, which looks like a nineteenth century mill). Needing to find a drug store, I discovered a Walgreen’s near the market, and when I went in, I was able to find the distilled water quickly, because the layout was just like that of the one a mile from my house. The dollar bills I paid with, drawn from an ATM machine, were accepted without question. The cashier and I communicated in colloquial English.

It was in heading back to my room, walking past the panhandler leaning against the office building, past the McDonalds on the corner, past the ACLU activist looking for signatures, in the general direction of the Roman Catholic cathedral not too far in the distance, that I was suddenly hit with a sense of awe at the vast, continental scope of American civilization. Twelve hours earlier, for a little more than a day’s wages, I had arrived at a destination that was once most easily reached by sailing around South America. Even more striking was how entirely unremarkable this was. Nothing particularly notable about the commerce, the language, the currency. Nor the gathering of hundreds of historians who meet each year to discuss their work—a national professional class that uses these meetings, whether in Atlanta, or Chicago, or Boston to socialize, to network, and, more often than not, to chronicle the very real failures, viciousness, and destruction, past and present, made their very gathering possible. For better and worse, an empire is an astonishing thing. There are spirits sitting beside me in the lobby bar who are smiling, some wryly, as I write this.

And they’re smiling, almost exactly the same way, as you read this. Because not even the Internet can entirely conquer time or space. Maybe someday an iteration of this post, or your keyboard, will end up in an archive or museum, like a piece of Roman ceramics that turns up in Britain or Vietnam. Something will be lost in translation, of course, in the unlikely event either survives. But it's nice to think so. At least we understand each other, do we not?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Helping Ida

In which we see that giving advice to a melancholy activist is no simple matter

The Felix Chronicles, #13

“I need your advice, gang,” I tell the class. “It’s about my friend Ida. Truth is, she drives me a little crazy. But I’m worried about her, and very conflicted about what to say. I figure maybe by talking with you I might get a better idea about how to start a difficult conversation.”

“Are you serious?” Ellen asks.

“Sure,” I say.

You’re asking us for advice?”

“Sure he is,” Joey says, tartly.

“All right. So here’s the deal. My friend Ida Wells is born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862.”

Oh,” Ellen interrupts with a pained look on her face. I can’t tell whether she’s more irritated with me or her own credulity.

I push ahead, which means looking at some notes. “Ida’s parents consider themselves married before the Civil War, and marry legally as freedpeople after it’s over, having a total of eight children, of whom Ida is the oldest (two die in childbirth). The parents and yet another brother die in a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1878, leaving Ida an orphan. Though only as old as you are right now, she insists on raising them as primary parent with the aid of friends and family, taking a job as a schoolteacher.”

Kim raises her eyebrows.

I continue: “But she also has greater personal ambitions. Having attending a public school established by the Freedmen’s Aid Society after the war, Ida enrolls in nearby Rust College. For reasons that remain unclear, she is expelled sometime around 1880, though she will later write that she bears no hard feelings against the president of the college who made the decision. In that diary entry, Ida laments ‘my tempestuous, hard-headed willfulness.’ She relocates the family to Memphis.

“In September of 1883 Ida buys a first-class train ticket. She is sitting in the first-class car when the conductor tells her she must move to the second class car because she is a Negro. She ignores him. The conductor leaves to collect other tickets, but returns to remove her luggage and umbrella, telling Ida he will treat her like a lady if she will act like one. She replies that treating her like a lady means leaving her alone. He grabs her arms; she bites his hand, drawing blood.”

“That is so great!” I hear Becky tell Ellen.

“The conductor leaves to get help while a crowd forms to jeer at her. She is forced to leave the car. Because the train is stopped at a station, she departs it entirely rather than move to the second-class car. She defies the crowd, but ends up by herself.

“Ida gets a lawyer and sues the railroad over the incident and a similar one the following year. The company tries to settle out of court; Ida refuses. The judge, an ex-Union soldier from Minnesota, awards her $500 in damages for discrimination in December of 1884. But upon appeal the Tennessee Supreme Court rules her suit ‘wasn’t in good faith’ and reverses the verdict, requiring her to pay $200 in court costs. ‘I had hoped for such great things from my suit for my people generally,' she writes, describing herself as ‘utterly discouraged.’”

“Ida continues teaching but also tries to launch a journalism career. In an 1891 article for a Memphis newspaper, she reports on poor teaching conditions in the segregated city and names teachers whose work she regards as professionally deficient. When, following the objections of the owner of the paper, she insists on using her own byline (some of her pieces had a pen-name), her contract is not renewed, and the decision is given as the reason why. Yet she is less upset about this than the failure of black parents to respond to the situation she reports in the story. She has always assumed African Americans would support those who fight on their behalf. She now sees this isn’t necessarily true. Still, she retains her feistiness. When a local minister expresses suspicion that the loss of her job is attributable to her character, she tracks him down and demands he read the apology she has written for him from the pulpit. He complies.

“Nothing bothers Ida as much as the epidemic lynching in the South in the decades following the Civil War. This hateful practice of white men intimidating African Americans brazen acts of murder, some of it committed in public view, has been rising steadily to hundreds of cases a year in the 1890s, and when it’s commented upon at all, is done so in a glib or dismissive way (an 1891
New York Times editorial suggests it’s less of a problem than illegal alcohol production). Ida reacts with fiery rage. ‘Had it occurred in the wilds of Africa, there would have been an outcry . . . against the savagery which so mercilessly put men and women to death,’ she writes of a Mississippi lynching in 1892.

“The following year, lynching becomes personal to Ida. The brutal murder of three men in Memphis, one a close friend, stirs her to new heights of fury. She has recently scraped together the money to buy a small community newspaper that would allow her to work full-time as a journalist. Reporting on the lynchings, she challenges the widely accepted assumption that such measures are required to protect white women from black men’s’ predatory sexuality. She writes, and I quote:

Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.

“Wait,” Susan says. “Can you repeat that?”

I do. Susan asks: “Is she saying what I think she’s saying?”

"Yes." There’s a flurry of whispering. I have an impulse to draw it out and be explicit about the oblique reference to white male anxiety about white female desire for black men, but then decide this kind of surreptitious talk is actually useful. A whispering sense of scandal seems about right.

In any case, Becky again chimes in: “I love this woman!”

"Well, you might, Becky, but to say that white men in Memphis do not like this editorial is putting it mildly. One writer suggests the proper response to the author of the notorious editorial is ‘perform[ing] on him a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears —

—“Oh my God!” says Beth, simultaneously shocked and amused.

—“not realizing that ‘he’ is a woman.” (I keep reading to rising laughter.) “A mob descends on Ida’s newspaper—she has left Memphis, never to return—and tears the office to pieces.”

“That’ll teach
him!” Joey says.

I resume: “Ida continues her anti-lynching campaign. She travels the country—and to heighten her country’s embarrassment, travels abroad, lecturing rapt audiences on American racism. Along the way, she marries a Chicago lawyer named Ferdinand Barnett, and as Ida Wells-Barnett, settles there and has children. She continues her activism, winning the admiration and support of old Frederick Douglass. But Ida’s sharp elbows get her in trouble, too, with allies in the black and women’s suffrage communities. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois disagree about a great many things, but one thing they have in common is low regard for Ida Wells-Barnett. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People takes shape in 1909, Ida is shunted aside.

“These slights hurt Ida deeply. She knows all along that that she has a temper, and recognizes that she pays a price for it. ‘Oh my God! Can such a thing be and there be no justice for it?’ she writes as a young woman in her diary in the aftermath of another lynching (the image below is from the lynching of a woman in 1911). ‘It may be unwise to express myself so strongly but I cannot help it & I know not if capital may or may not be made of it against me but I trust in God.’ By the time of her death in 1931 she is actively battling despair. ‘I hadn’t anything to show for all those years of toil and labor,’ she writes in an unfinished autobiography (one that will be published in 1970 by her daughter). She spends decades in obscurity, refusing to give up, but not making much headway, either.

Susan is getting impatient. “OK,” she says. “We get it. So what’s your dilemma?”

I nod, indicating I’m getting to the point. “So here’s the situation," I say. "I’ve told you about my friend Ida. Let me be clear about my own feelings: I admire her tremendously, even as I see her do things time and again that make me cringe on her behalf. I love her energy, her fierce moral fervor, and her angry sense of humor. But I worry, too, not only because some of the things she does seem counter-productive, but also because I know she gets discouraged and could really use some emotional support. The question I’m struggling with is: How? Do I say to her, ‘You go, girl! Keep it up! Don’t let the bastards get you down!’

“Or do I say, ‘Ida, Ida, Ida. You know I love you—and that’s why I’ve got to tell you that you’re shooting yourself in the foot.’

“Or do I say: Ida, you’re killing yourself. I understand the value of the cause. But you’ve got to take care of yourself a little better. Please: Cool it.’ What is doing the right thing here, kids?”

There’s a long pause. I’m pleased. I think of this as a pretty good question, and I’m happy that so many of them are taking it seriously. The first person to raise her hand is Mindy. I acknowledge her.

“I think I would tell her that I admire her, she says, and that what she’s doing is important. But I think I would try to tell her to tone it down.”

Chris is shaking his head; he disagrees. “No,” he says. “She should keep up the pressure. She has to keep at it.”

“I agree,” Joey says.

“What do you mean, she has to keep at it?” I ask them.

“I mean that someone in her situation has to speak out against the injustice she’s dealing with,” Chris says.

“Again, Chris: I still don’t quite understand what you mean by
has to speak out. I’ll point out to you that there were plenty of people in her situation—hell, there are plenty of people in her situation—who don’t have to speak out, and don’t.”

“He means that they have to speak out as a matter of moral obligation,” Roy says.

“Well, I’m not even sure that’s true, I continue. Remember, the NAACP is forming in the years that Wells is active, and no one is going to tell me that W.E.B. DuBois is less committed to the cause of African Americans than Wells or anyone else. The NAACP will come up with a legal strategy that’s admittedly slow—it takes decades to overturn the doctrine of segregation affirmed in the
Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896 that cements the concept of segregation we’ve come to know as ‘separate but equal.’ But that slow approach ultimately works. So why isn’t his approach better than hers?”

“Hey, wait a second,” Alec says. “I thought you said you were her friend.”

“I am.”

“So why are you dissing her like that?”

“I’m not really dissing her.”

“Oh no? Then why are you backing the NAACP strategy?” He’s reveling in the role reversal.

“My point, Alec, is that Ida’s approach is not necessarily the best or only way. And I say that because maybe Mindy is right and I should be trying to get her to dial it back a little bit. That’s not dissing. That’s
caring. You and Chris and Roy and Joey: You don’t really care about Ida. You’re willing to allow her to get chewed up! You’re a bunch of heartless bastards!”

Some laughter. But Kim is looking quizzical, even dissatisfied. What is it, Kim?

“I dunno,” she says. “I mean, if it’s really her mental health you’re thinking about, then I might say that you should tell her, you know, to get out of politics and activism altogether. I mean, is it really worth it? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it’s bad to be involved. But I’m trying to take you seriously here. If you’re telling me that she’s really upset, and you’re also telling me that the politics of it all is really ambiguous, then I really have to wonder if it’s worth it. But maybe that’s just me.”

“Fair enough,” I say. “Whether you’re right or wrong, I do appreciate that you’re thinking about her as a person here.”


Mindy raises her hand. “I understand what Kim is saying. But I think you could use some of the same logic to go the other way. Clearly, this is a woman has a certain kind of personality.”

“She’s hard-wired for controversy,” I say.

“Right. Hard-wired for controversy. It’s her nature, her DNA. To tell her to dial it back or get out altogether would probably be even more depressing. This is who she is.”

“And if, in the process, she really does get chewed up, if it actually finally kills her, maybe you’d say that isn’t all that bad, because she gave it her all for a truly worthy cause?”

“That’s what
I was trying to say,” Roy interjects. “You called me a heartless bastard, but what I think I was saying was to honor her for the path she’s chosen.”

“Give ’em hell Ida!” Becky shouts, short-circuiting another tetchy, yet productive, exchange with Roy. Ellen, sitting next to Becky, is engaged, but just as clearly is holding back. I see an opportunity here.

“How do you feel about my friend Ida, Ellen? Are you as gung-ho about her as Becky is?”

“Yeah, I think so,” she says, firmly yet dispassionately.

think so?” Susan responds, both curious and amused.

“Yeah,” Ellen repeats. Becky smiles at her.

“You know, Susan, I think Ellen is a little like W.E.B. DuBois in her temperament here, while Becky is very much an Ida Wells girl,” I say. “But I also think Ellen has an appreciation for what we’ll call Becky B. Wells’ precisely because she
isn’t like her. My guess is that it’s at least a part of the basis of their friendship. You think?”

“Yeah, I think,” Susan responds. Becky is beaming as if I’ve complimented her. Ellen is smiling with a wry expression, as if I just barely made a good shot in a squash game at her expense or took a clever trick in a game of Hearts. I don’t want to push my luck, or the limits of propriety, any further, but do want to use this exchange to turn a corner in the conversation.

“You know, I’ve telling you about Ida Wells, and asking you for advice in such a way that invites you to think about her life and work on her terms, as well as to compare her with her contemporaries. But I’d like to close by asking you what her life shows you about yours—about your values and priorities, where you fit into the scheme of things. I think it’s safe to say that few of us would make all the same choices she did, though we might have a range feelings about those choices of hers. In other words, what have you learned from my friend Ida?”

“Beth raises her hand. "I think what she shows me is the value of persistence. I guess I’ve come around to Roy’s view of her, that her life has meaning from commitment to a cause. But the key is that her commitment is her consistency. She took on a role, and she kept that role.”

I’m a little surprised and disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be any follow-up to that. I was kind of hoping to end the class on a cadenced note. Then Liza raises her hand. This cheers me; she hasn’t said anything in a while. “It’s really hard to say what lesson she offers me, because her life is so different and long ago from mine,” she says. “It might even be disrespectful.”

I nod silently, taking her comment in. “That’s true, I say. Her life was different than yours, and there’s always a risk in presuming really understand anyone else’s life, particularly when we’re talking about a kind of oppression that’s far removed from anything most of us have ever experienced. But the fact that there’s a risk doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take that risk. Actually, to my way of thinking, that’s exactly what history is—a series of attempts to imagine your way into the lives of other people. That’s the business
I’m in, anyway. And while, as you say, Liza, it might be disrespectful, if done right it can represent the most important kind of respect you can pay to someone.

“But that’s not really why you’re here today. You’re here today because I believe that trying to make sense of Ida Wells’ life is good for
you, not her or me. That the attempt to do so will make your world bigger, that it will expand your sense of the possible, not only or simply by widening your notion of what might be termed realistic activism, but more in the sense of appreciating the mysteries and varieties of life. I want you to know about Wells—someone who lived and worked for a cause, and who really suffered for that cause even as she accomplished something. Who knew pain and isolation" (to my surprise, I find myself a bit choked up), "and who died frustrated and with a sense of urgency that she did not achieve more. Because I hope that you will be able to learn from her experience—whatever that may finally mean.”

I exhale sharply. “That’s all for today. See you tomorrow.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The end of History?

It has now been about forty years since one could say with any plausibility that landing a job as a professor of History is not especially difficult. The Baby Boom of the 1950s, combined with the massive infusion of government spending in the early postwar decades, made academia a growth industry through the 1960s. Since the late seventies, however, a relative ebbing of American economic prosperity, gradual demographic shifts, and a receding public-sector commitment to higher education – all three of which, of course, are deeply entwined – have made a career in academia an increasingly unattainable dream. It is a dream, moreover, complicated by the same kind of insidious inequities that have marked U.S. society as a whole since the Reagan era. Graduate school apprentices often find themselves trapped between struggling to complete their degrees while serving as cheap labor for their universities. Those universities, moreover, have increasingly turned to adjunct faculty to avoid paying for full-time positions with benefits. This generally bad situation only gets worse when economic downturns, like that of the early 1990s, leads to cutbacks of existing positions. Those downturns also spawn periodic stories in the media about how professional scholars feel compelled to discourage prospective students from embarking on an expensive degree that at best afford uncertain economic benefits inside or outside the academy. So it is that the New York Times reported recently that “Doctoral Candidates Anticipate Hard Times.” Not that such prospects have ever entirely stopped aspirants. Didn’t stop me.

And it’s not likely to stop aspirants even now – indeed, many young people may even regard a graduate program as shelter in the economic storm. What may eventually change this time is not the entrance, completion, or even the placement of history graduate students in particular at the nation’s colleges and universities, but what is expected of them – or, more to the point, what they can rationally expect to be doing. Actually, this has been a source of tension for some time. Young historians are trained in research methodology, are educated about historiographic debates in their fields, and are coached to produce original scholarship. They get some pedagogic practice as teaching assistants, and in recent years there has been more effort to think harder about what good teaching entails. But the structure of the profession is such that teaching is regarded as the price a good scholar pays for doing what matters most: research. Yet the production of original research, however vital it may be to the future of the academic profession, has always been something of a luxury – supporting it has been the price a good school pays for its reputation. This friction has worked well in some cases, particularly at elite colleges and universities, since research and teaching can have a symbiotic relationship, even if they are not inextricably entwined. But it has also engendered structural frustrations on the part of professors who feel impossibly bogged down by the demands of their institutions and administrators who feel like professors behave as cosseted employees who seek to shirk their obligations.

The current economic downturn has put tremendous pressure on this professional model. Should it continue, it will also raise some fundamental questions about what institutions whose primary mission is the education of students can truly afford by way of sustaining a now century-old professorial model based on academic specialization, primary source research, professional conferences, university press publishing (university presses, increasingly subject to market conditions, can no longer easily justify publishing insular scholarship), and other components of an intellectual apparatus that many scholars have long taken for granted. The cultural implications of this economic upheaval do not yet seem widely engaged, much less understood. Can we assume, for example, that the production of academic monographs will remain the basic unit of intellectual currency in the profession? Will History continue to be primarily a print medium? Will older narrative (as opposed to analytic) strategies reassert themselves? Merely posing these questions may sound heretical. But for those on the margins of the profession, they seem natural, even inevitable.

In my more sardonic moments, I’m reminded of an R.E.M. song that came out in my first year of graduate school: “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” But I understand that the end of History as we know it, whenever that moment inevitably arrives, will be an occasion for sorrow for more people than academic historians. Nevertheless, it seems plausible, legitimate and even necessary to hope that change will create opportunities for the past to be made anew.

I plan to attend the Organization of American Historians conference, which begins tomorrow in Seattle.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A blessing from The Boss

Springsteen redeems a Catholic vision of life on The Daily Show

Jon Stewart began the last Thursday’s Daily Show with a detour from his current round of well-justified bashing of journalists, politicians, bankers, and other enablers of our financial mess to satirize the folly of another ripe target: the Roman Catholic Church. The first news item in his opening news segment noted the widely reported story that Pope Benedict XVI had asserted that condoms have worsened the AIDS crisis, leading Stewart to a cascade of gags culminating with a tart observation that, after all, the celibate Pope should know when it comes to matters of sex.

Yet there was a sharp change in tone when Stewart introduced his guest for an unusual two-segment appearance on the show: Bruce Springsteen. Lampooning himself as a starry-eyed fan, Stewart began by shoving a piece of paper and pen at Springsteen asking for an autograph for a Swedish buddy of his who spelled his name “J-o-n.” What followed was a largely standard celebrity interview (for all his caustic humor, Stewart is an assiduous, softball-tossing host) in which Springsteen genially compared the dark public mood with that of the Watergate era in which he emerged on the rock scene, described his old-shoe relationship with his band, and explained the blueprint for the shows in his upcoming tour, which will combine old favorites, new songs, and a sense of the moment for his heterogeneous audience. The two proceeded to discuss the appropriate responses to the national mood, with Springsteen observing that “President Obama is struggling to find the moral center of the argument.” For those unfamiliar with Springsteen’s work, it must have seemed a bit odd for a rock star to be weighing the moral dimension of political problems, and even more so that Stewart listened so attentively, given the pageant of mendacity, venality, and hypocrisy that are the usual fare of The Daily Show. But Springsteen tends to have that effect on people.

In the closing moments of the interview (the next segment would feature Springsteen singing “Working on a Dream”) Stewart described the source of that effect by explaining how much Springsteen meant to him as a striving young man trying to make his mark on the world:

I must tell you on a purely personal basis [that] people always talk to me about ‘who are your influences, who made you do what you do.’ I can say I draw a line, [that] I do what I do because of you, Bruce Springsteen, and I’ll tell you why. You introduced me to the concept of the other side. You introduced me to the idea that you go through the tunnel, and you take a chance, and you can work to get away from your circumstance. And by working to better your circumstance, you can make something of yourself. What I loved about what you do and your music is that it’s complex. It’s that you can work to change what you do, but when you get to the other side you may be in Iraq (laughs) and you may get gunned down in the street. But you know what? The joy of it is chasing that dream, and that was my inspiration for leaving New Jersey.
Springsteen began to respond by a sign of the cross, and saying “Amen,” but Stewart wasn’t done yet. “I just wanted to thank you personally,” he went on, as Springsteen tried, and again failed, to get a word in edgewise. Stewart picked up Springsteen’s verbal cue and made the sign of the cross at him. "God Bless you, Bruce Springsteen.”

When the tribute was complete and audience cheers subsided, Springsteen repeated the sign of the cross and said, “All I can say is, ‘well done, grasshopper.’” As Roger Catlin of the Hartford Courant noted the next day, the “well-done grasshopper” was like “real Zen for your 'Moment of Zen'” that has long been a staple of the end of The Daily Show (Catlin noted that the line appears in The Karate Kid and Kung Fu-Panda, which are as likely a place for Springsteen to have encountered it as anywhere else, as American popular culture is an emporium of spiritual gold and dross).

The gesture of crossing, which of course had an element of irony in that Springsteen surely knew as well as anyone else that Stewart is Jewish, was a richly resonant moment. It was not only an expression of ecumenical good will, a truly catholic —i.e. universal—blessing, but one rooted in Springsteen’s own complex Roman Catholic heritage, one into which he was born, wrestled with, and in recent years has affirmed with growing power and grace. Has there, for example, been a greater expression of a decisively Catholic Christology anywhere in American culture as resounding and powerful in the 1990s as “Streets of Philadelphia” or in this decade as “The Rising?" (For those who seeking more clarification on this , see my chapter on Springsteen's Catholic vision in my 1997 book Born in the U.S.A.) At a time when American Catholics struggle to contain their dismay, embarrassment, and anger at some clergymen, and the irrelevance (at best) of a pontiff who can leave even the most humble of the faithful feeling utterly bemused, it is among the flock of sinners that our faith flickers most compellingly to life. That’s where we’ve always found Bruce Springsteen. And that’s where we’ll find ourselves.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Getting Unruly (Again?)

Woody Holton's latest book is a timely reminder that a restless populace is not necessarily a bad thing

The spirit of Charles Beard (below right) is alive, well, and as relevant as ever in the work of Woody Holton. Not that Beard’s iconoclastic vision ever disappeared. Or that Holton agrees with it entirely. But in his new book Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, recently published in paperback (Hill & Wang), Holton reaffirms a much-contested tradition in the historiography of the Founding Fathers, one that takes on particular resonances in this age of bank bailouts.

In its forthright assertion that class conflict was the key engine of the Revolutionary era, Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution has generated controversy ever since its publication in 1913. A scholar in the Progressive tradition, Beard not only insisted that economic considerations were central to the development and ratification of the Constitution, but also that it was framed and promoted by people who, on close analysis, were creditors seeking to advance their financial interests amid the Critical Period of the 1780s, when state governments were relatively lenient with debtors. Beard's analysis was both controversial and influential in its own day, and animated the The Rise of American Civilization (1927), the bestselling book he wrote with his wife, Mary Beard

Later generations of scholars have argued against Beard’s view, not only in asserting that legal, constitutional, and cultural issues were at least as important as economic ones in the making of the Constitution, but also in asserting that Beard’s findings were inaccurate. This line of thinking was advanced by Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s (an at least partially admiring critic of Beard), and more recently by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, who have emphasized the role of ideology in their highly influential works of the last forty years, among them Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) and Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), a title is that is perhaps misleading, since Wood’s larger point is to emphasized the relatively stable (if not entirely predictable or even gratifying) outcome of the Revolution for the Founding generation. Other scholars like Gary Nash and Ray Raphael, for their part, have carried the Progressive torch into the 21st century and even popularized it works like Raphael’s A People’s History of the American Revolution (2001) and Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution (2005), which foreground social conflict and mass protest.

Holton, for his part, arrived on the historiographic scene in 1999 with Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. That book emphasized the degree to which Founding Fathers like George Washington were forced to respond to tremendous pressure from below, including challenges to their own authority, in navigating their way though the Revolution.

Holton extends this line of analysis into Unruly Americans, depicting the volatile political and economic situation of the United States – but also questioning whether the situation was as ever as dire as is commonly believed. Like Beard, Holton believes that the push for a new Constitution was driven largely by those with a strong financial interest in levying taxes to pay interest and repaying bond holders with hard (as opposed to rapidly depreciating paper) currency. But Holton also explores subtleties that address some of the evidence that Beard’s critics cite to challenge what they consider a simplistic, even crude, proto-Marxist analysis. Holton acknowledges, for example, that James Madison, who engineered so much of the creation and ratification of the Constitution, was hardly a deep-pocketed investor seeking repayment from multiple creditors. But he wanted to be. Until foreign investors felt like the United States was truly a safe home for capital, Madison would be unable to borrow money to speculate on the scale of someone with his contacts and interests. And he was only one of a a number of Founders in a similar position. (Later of course, Madison ended up with a bad case of buyer’s remorse, transforming himself from Hamilton’s ally into a formidable adversary.)

One of the most striking aspects of Unruly Americans is the way it shows familiar people in a new light. Take Abigail Adams. We tend to think of her has the loyal wife of John Adams, or the prototypical feminist who admonished her husband “Remember the Ladies” when he was working on the Declaration of Independence. But Adams was also an aggressive, even greedy, speculator, when she managed family finances during her husband’s absences representing the United States in Europe. Resisting John’s instructions to invest in real estate, Abigail snapped up bonds at a discount – very often sold by war veterans who believed they would never be repaid – and then complained when she didn’t get interest on them at face value. (Holton is apparently working on a biography of Mrs. Adams, which should be interesting.)

Unruly Americans also illuminates other dimensions of the push for a Constitution. A good example is the connection between economic and military considerations for its proponents. Nominally, the United States controlled western territory extending to the Mississippi River, land that it could sell for revenue. But the value of this land remained in question while the government was not securely in control. A stronger federal government would have the financial resources to raise an army that could – and at the Battle of Fallen Timers in 1794, less than a decade after ratification, did – pacify this territory to the degree it could be sold, generating revenue for the government and relieving pressure on taxpayers back east. Thus it was that a strong military would pay for itself and more, the way empires, whether empires for liberty or not, always have. Holton is not the only historian to have made these connections, of course, but he connects the dots with notable clarity.

But the point Holton is most interested in making – the people he’s most interested in drawing our attention to – might be termed the silent majority of the eighteenth century. Many histories of the Constitution emphasize the complex series of compromises that went into the document, compromises which presumably demonstrate that its framers were not of one mind with regard to their financial interests. Yet Holton asserts these compromises did not so much reflect disagreements among the Founders on principle so much as it did their perceived need to moderate, even hide, their powerfully anti-democratic consensus for the sake of selling the document to a skeptical public. They knew if they overreached they would fail, and so they adopted subtly elitist strategies (like very large Congressional districts, which would dilute popular power) while emphasizing their commitment to The People. Their biggest concession was the Bill of Rights – a literal afterthought. The irony here, Holton emphasizes, is that this is actually the most cherished part of the Constitution, the one most Americans today will most instinctively invoke.

Holton is careful throughout to note that the people we have come to know as Federalists were not necessarily wrong in their assessment of an ailing American economy. Nor were the Anti-Federalists, however ineffectual their strategies, necessarily right. Instead, he asserts, both their positions made sense both from the perspective of self-interest as well philosophical consistency. His objection is a view that the Federalists not only won the argument in 1787 but have pretty much controlled history ever since, and he wants to challenge that. “Historians err in echoing the Framers’ belief that they had transferred power from the greedy to the selfless,” he concludes.

Holton, of course, was working on this book years before it was first published in 2007, just as our current economic crisis was emerging. In some fundamental respects, this crisis is different from the one he describes, most fundamentally because that one revolved around wealthy creditors while this one revolves around wealthy debtors (a term that is perhaps both paradoxical and an illustration of just how far we have come – fallen? – since 1787). The key similarity, though, is that we again live in a time when we are being told by our leaders that the collective security of all depends upon supporting, at great public expense, the wealthy and powerful. It wasn’t necessarily so then, Holton tells us. And it may not necessarily be so now, either. Yet now no less than then, the fix seems to be in. The spirit of Charles Beard may still be alive. But the realities of capitalism, whether of a mercantile, industrial, or finance economy, are as forceful as ever. It is, nevertheless bracing to be reminded that there was, and is, an alternative.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Charity Case

The Felix Chronicles, #12

In which we ask: Who paid for those libraries?

“So," I ask the class in attempt to fight off post-lunch torpor, "what did you think of that Andrew Carnegie reading?”

“Well, I guess he’s the classic American Dream story. Immigrant comes over, works hard, gets rich,” Lisa says.

“To be sure.”

“And screws everyone else in the process,” Joey observes.

Everyone else? What do you mean, Joey?”

“OK, maybe not everyone else. But what he did at Homestead, locking out those workers – that was cold.”

“Well yes. There was some unpleasantness there. But let’s not dwell on that now, shall we? Tomorrow we’ll talk about that horrid little man, Eugene Debs, who had some peculiar ideas about the role of capital and labor that you would apparently find attractive, Joey. But today I want to talk about charity, Carnegie style.”

“You keep saying ‘Car-nay-gee. Is that the right way to say it?” Kim asks.

“Yes. Car-nay-gee. Like Thorr-row.”


“Maybe so. Anyway, as you know, Mr. Carnegie becomes the dominant figure in the American steel business. Which puts him right at the center of the industrial revolution. Because steel is absolutely crucial. A man-made material derived from iron – like crude oil, which has to be refined before it can be a workable fuel, iron must be manipulated at very high temperatures to become steel – it has all kinds of applications. It’s indispensable for the railroad business, for example. Steel was to the industrial revolution what fiber optic cable is to the Internet. You don’t always see it behind the walls, but you’re nowhere unless it’s there.”

“Isn’t it also important because it’s light?” Samantha asks. She’s writing her research essay on the skyscraper.

“That’s right. The fact that steel is both incredibly strong and relatively light makes it possible to erect really tall buildings, for example. Steel is so important, in fact, that it becomes a measure of a nation’s industrial prowess – a country’s place in the international pecking order was often ranked in terms of how much steel it produced. That was true well into the twentieth century, when the ruler of China, Mao Tse Tung, essentially starved his own people in a mad quest to boost steel production. But that’s another story. The point is that Carnegie is a very rich man, and he becomes even richer after J.P. Morgan buys him out in 1901 for something like a billion dollars.”

“Pocket change,” Joey interjects.

“Maybe so. But one thing you can do with that kind of money is charity. And Mr. Carnegie is a charitable man. But he’s not content simply to give money away. He thinks it’s important to help people help themselves.”

“That ‘give a man a fish versus teach him to fish' thing,” Susan says.


“So Carnegie makes an offer to small towns all around the country. He says that education was the key to his success, and that the key to his education were public libraries. That’s why he says he will – and does – build hundreds of libraries and stocks them with books. But he has a condition: the recipients of these gifts must promise to maintain the libraries and staff them appropriately. My question is this: Does this seem like a good deal to you?”

There’s a pause. A long one. At first I’m glad. Then I start to get a little nervous.

“Well, sure,” Susan finally says. “I mean, why not?”

“I agree,” Nate says.

“Yeah,” says Alec. “After all, it’s his money.”

Aha. My opening. “But is it?”

“Well, yeah,” Alec says. “I mean, he earned it, didn’t he?”

“Well, I dunno, Alec. What do you mean by ‘earn?’”

“What are you talking about, he ‘earned,’ it?” Joey says irritably. “He stole it!”

“Look: it was his company,” Nate says. “The whole thing was his idea. I mean, yes, he had people working for him, but without him the company wouldn’t have happened. He was a talented guy.”

“Yeah, he was talented at ripping people off.”

“It’s like he’s Alex Rodriguez,” Chris says. “Yes, he makes a lot of money. But he packs the stadium. Carnegie here sold a product that a lot of people wanted to buy. Some people are like unbelievably valuable.”

“It depends what you mean by valuable,” Susan replies. “I think I’m changing my mind on this. There’s a lot of people who do incredibly important things who don’t make a lot of money. Like policemen.”

“Or day-care workers, I say. They help make people who make money. But there’s not Hall of Fame for Day-care providers. No play-by-play for the incredible stroking technique – ‘Did you see that? The move she made with her wrist? That gentle turn. Let’s watch it again on the replay.’” Some smiles and laughter, which dies down into a pause.

“I don’t disagree with Joey,” Kim says. “Carnegie wasn’t really a nice guy. You don’t become as successful as he was without stepping on people along the way. Still, he was trying to help people here. I mean, not every rich person of the time did this kind of thing, did they?”

“No,” I answer. “Many did not. Carnegie was not alone. John D. Rockefeller, for example, also did a lot of philanthropic work. We still recognize those names today for the hospitals, research centers, and other institutions they founded. Then there were other people, like James J. Hill, who were scoundrels. And happy to be known as such. ‘At least I’m not a hypocrite,’ they would say.”

“Kim’s right,” Beth avers. At some point you have to be willing to say a good thing is a good thing. No one made Carnegie build those libraries. They surely did some people some good.”

There’s no quick rejoinder for this. But Lisa’s brow is furrowed. “You look like you’re struggling with something,” I observe.

“I am,” she replies. “I understand what Kim and Beth are saying, but it doesn’t quite sit right with me. There’s something about the way this guy gets to decide where and how he’ll do something, the way he can dictate his good deeds.”

“Well I can’t imagine what your problem is,” I reply. “I mean it’s not like this is a democracy or anything.”

“Exactly! That’s it. Why does he get to decide?”

“ Because it’s his money,” Chris replies. And yes, he’s rich, but that’s what rich people do – what they want.”

“Well maybe voters should get to choose,” Lisa replies, annoyance in her voice. “Taxpayers, right?”

“Yeah,” says Joey. “We should tax the hell out of people like Carnegie. Who’s looking out for the rest of us?”

Ted, who’s been quiet for the whole class – no doubt because he didn’t do the reading – looks puzzled by Joey’s vehemence, perhaps because he’s begun paying attention in the waning minutes of class. “What about unions?” he asks.

I seize on this. “Unions? What’s a union?”

Now Ted looks even more confused. “You know, unions. For workers.”

“Why Ted, I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Fascinating concept, though. An organization that looks out for the interests of workers? Hmmmm. Let me look into that and get back to you. That’s all for today, people. When we meet again on Thursday, maybe we can have a little investigation into this union business.”

Monday, March 16, 2009

Revising Ginger

The Felix Chronicles,# 11

In which a struggling student reveals the limits of her befuddled teacher

Ginger has come to see me to talk about her latest essay. This is a meeting neither one of us particularly wants to have – she’s surely dreads it; I’m knee-deep in the middle of recalibrating my spring semester syllabus when she arrives. But now that our unplanned encounter, largely orchestrated by others, is happening, we’re both doing our best to make it worthwhile.

I’ve known for weeks now that Ginger is a weak student. Utterly silent in class, she never handed in her first essay of the new semester, and when I asked her about it a couple days after it was due, she said that she had a bad Internet connection. That’s fine, I said. Just give me a hard copy tomorrow. When that didn’t happen, she said she was having printer problems, and would drop it off later that day. When that didn’t happen, I sent an email to her parents. The essay materialized the next day, along with apologies for the delays from them and her. Minimally acceptable in terms of content and structure, I decided that this was not a good time to tell her to do it again – I inferred I’d already caused some tumult in her household, and establishing a reputation as a remorseless stalker would not be the best way to promote a working relationship. But clearly, I was going to have to keep an eye on her.

Her next essay, handed in on time, was even weaker. In my comments, I beat around the bush a bit, commending her for her evident engagement and willingness to grapple with the question, but finally confessed that I found it – hesitating to use the word, but deciding it was best – “incoherent.” I asked her to come and see me so that we could plot a course for revision. I felt both justified and guilty for this approach. Justified, because I felt it important to both be willing to help as well as ask her to take responsibility for her work, and guilty because I was asking her to demonstrate a level of maturity she’d already shown she lacked. I always feel a tug between trying to nudge my students along and protecting my time, and at some level I knew that if I wasn’t more proactive with Ginger, she’d slip my mind. As indeed she did.

It was her parents who pushed the process along, sending around group emails to her teachers asking for feedback about her work a couple weeks later. A flurry of email exchanges with her advisor followed, which culminated in a phone call from the school learning specialist telling me that she happened to be with Ginger as we spoke and wondering if she could send her my way. Yes, I said, turning back to my work with the added fervor of knowing it was going to be interrupted momentarily.

Now she’s here at my desk, backpack at her feet, awaiting her fate. Dark hair, dark eyes, she’s pretty, maybe even striking, but her sense of vulnerability is so palpable that it overrides any other attribute. I try to set her at her ease. Where do you live, Ginger (Hudson Heights), what do you your folks do (they’re both on the business side of the television industry), do you have any siblings (an older half-sister from her father's previous marriage). Her answers are direct, earnest, and dead ends. This is not a conversation.

“What do you do for fun, Ginger?”

“I dunno,” she replies. “Nothing, really.” Then, brightly, as if she’s suddenly realized the solution to an algebra problem that’s been posed to her: “I decided this week to work on sets for the spring musical!”

“That’s great,” I say, wishing I could make that ember flare. But I don’t have the presence of mind to ask her what she’s making, how the show is going, or something to keep the momentum going. The only thought that comes to mind is that she'll have one more reason to put off grappling with her academic difficulties. And I think, not for the first time, that I have a worse track record with girls than boys when it comes to dealing with struggling students.

We proceed to talk about her course work. Usually math and science are harder than history and English, but this year it seems to be the other way around. Last semester’s history teacher was different, she tells me. More facts and dates and smaller, more manageable, assignments. From another kid, this would be barely veiled criticism. I don’t think she means it that way, though perhaps she should. But we need to get down to the business at hand.

“So what did you understand my message to you to be in my comments?” I ask. This is a standard gambit of mine; it’s helpful for them to interpret what I said in their own words, and for me to be prompted, dozens of essays and days later, about what I said to one kid in particular.

“That I was incoherent,” she replies. Ugh. She got that message, all right.

I prompt her to tell me what she was thinking about when she was writing the essay, and once she gets launched on a little soliloquy, things get easier. I jot down some notes as she talks, structuring her various points into a simple outline. The essay she’s narrating is rudimentary, and doesn’t quite answer the question I ask. But if she can actually execute what she’s saying on paper, we’ll be making a discrete step forward.

I show her the outline. “Does this make sense to you?”

She looks at it intently. “Yes,” she says. “I had a pretty clear idea when I sat down, but I felt like I had so many ideas in my head, and I have attention deficit issues, and I dunno . . . .” her voice trails off. I don’t think she wanted to surrender the fact of a learning disability to me. But this is apparently what she’s supposed to do, and she’s going to play her part.

“I understand,” I tell her. “I have a kid with learning disabilities. I won’t tell you I know what that’s like, but I think I have some notion of the issues.” She looks me in the eye for the first time. She understands my gesture for what it is, and her acknowledgment feels like one in its own right.

My problem now is that I don’t know where to go with this. I know it’s very easy to say the wrong thing, promise too much, offer too little. Our silence is awkward. Ginger pulls together the two sides of the unzipped hoodie she’s wearing over her scoop-necked shirt, something she’ll do repeatedly in the remainder of our meeting. This saddens me.

Back to the task at hand. She’s going to work off this blueprint. She asks when I want the revised version. I ask when’s good for her. She tells me to tell her. How’s Friday. All right, then. We agree to meet again before an upcoming test. “This is going to work out fine,” I tell her. “I know it’s hard – it’s hard for everyone – but it’s going to be fine.” She smiles at me, hopefully and doubtfully, as she returns her papers to her backpack and zips it up. Our meeting is over.

Mom will follow up with an email; I promise to read multiple drafts. But it's been a few weeks now, and nothing has happened. Ginger avoids eye contact again whenever possible. Maybe she'll pull things together on my watch, or someone else's. She has the good fortune – if at times she surely regards it as a mixed blessing – of people looking after her, which is more than some kids even in this privileged school can say. But for me the whole encounter is a reminder of the limited ability of teachers generally, and this teacher in particular, to fill the unaccountable holes that riddle our lives.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Whose boy are you?

The Felix Chronicles, #10

In which we see that everybody belongs to someoneor something

“All right,” I ask the class as the lights come up and I raise the shades on the wan sunshine of a wintry Monday morning, “so what is Gangs of New York about?”

At the end three days of class screenings, I’m hoping I won’t simply be given a recital of the storyline. A bowdlerized version of the bowdlerized 1928 history of nineteenth century New York street culture, Gangs rests on a creaky patricidal plot in which a young gangster named Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks to avenge the death of his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) at the hands of the vicious William Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher, (Daniel Day-Lewis), only to fall to stumble into a role as virtual son. Marked by stylized violence that is brutal yet sentimentalized, the movie was widely criticized by historians and reviewers alike. Still, I teach it for a number of reasons, among the most important of which is Day-Lewis’s performance as the brutally charismatic Cutting, Bowery B’hoy extraordinaire. Both consumed and sustained by his hatreds—among them the Irish immigrants who swarm into the Five Points neighborhood he runs with an iron fist and celebrates in a patois of profane poetry (inspired by the angry white hip-hop artist Eminem, to whom Day-Lewis listened as he prepared for the role)—Cutting is a man out of time. The pressure is coming from a variety of directions: from those immigrants, whose numbers will soon render his particular brand of nativism obsolete; and from a new breed of politicians, represented by William (soon to be Boss) Tweed, who sees possibilities for power in the ballot box, even if it has to be bought; and from the gathering force of the federal government—temporarily enmeshed in the Civil War—which will break the power of the clannish local lords, whether on the plantation or in the ghetto. A lot to chew on here.

“It’s about this really intense relationship between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam,” Becky says. She proceeds to a long description of their intense psychological relationship. I sense mounting impatience, and jump into a gap.

“Yes, Becky I think you’re right. But now let’s look a little more broadly. When you step back from the characters and the plot, what is the movie really about?”

“It’s about ethnic tensions between the Irish and the native-born Americans,” Jason says.

Ethnic tensions, I write with a fresh piece of chalk on the blackboard. Actually, only half a board. The other half has been stripped, pending the installation of a high-tech Smart Board.

“It’s also about class conflict,” Tom says. I write that down.

“And racism,” Susan says.

“Yes, that too,” I say, scribbling it down with my back to her.

“The thing that really sticks out for me,” Samantha says, “is the corruption.”

I write that down and turn around. “At the risk of asking a dumb question, what do you mean by ‘corruption?’”

“Oh you know, some of the things we saw. Boss Tweed saying things like, ‘the appearance of law and order must be respected.’ Or some of those Irish voting two or three times.”

“Yeah, that was great,” I hear someone say.

“But that was so an Irish guy could be elected mayor,” Joey says.

“Sheriff,” I correct him.

“Yeah, sheriff. I mean, that was only fair.”

“Right,” Nate chimes in. “They deserved to have some power.”

“The thing that really scared me about the movie was the violence,” Becky says. I mean, the straight-out terror of those mobs. Breaking the windows of the houses of the people uptown—”

“—Yeah, did you notice that it was the firemen who actually started the riots?” Nate asks excitedly.

“— I couldn’t even walk the street without fear of being attacked.”

“Well, maybe not during the riots,” I agree. “But under normal circumstances you could.”

“No I couldn’t! “

“Sure you could. Bill the Butcher would take care of that. Remember how the policeman hung his watch in Paradise Square? He said it would be safe there because it was his beat. But we all understood it was the Butcher. He’d take good care of you, Becky.”

Some chuckles, even sniggers, at this.

But Becky isn’t buying it. “No! I wouldn’t be safe!”

“Yes you would,” Alec replies. “Don’t you see?”

“No! Because he’s just like, like—“

“—a monster,” Ellen says flatly.

“Right. Becky affirms, "a monster. I would never have any freedom!”

A light bulb goes off in my head. I know where to go with this. But not yet.

“Ellen, you call the Butcher a monster," I say. "But is he, really?”

“Of course,” Becky interjects. “Look how many people he killed!”

“Well, how many people did he kill? I ask. We see him kill Priest Vallon at the beginning. But who else? Amsterdam’s friend Vallon gets impaled on that fence, but Cutting doesn’t do that, or do it directly, anyway.”

“Remember all the people in that gang fight where Vallon dies,” Alec points out.

“True, I say.” (I had forgotten about that.) “Still, he doesn’t go around killing people at random. The Butcher maintains a kind of order, and order he wins as a result of that gang fight. The only other person we see him actually kill is Monk, the newly elected sheriff. The Butcher slices Monk’s back with a cleaver . . . .

“That was sooo gross,” Kim says audibly to Susan.

“. . . and then crushes his skull with the same club Monk used in his own gangster days. But that’s not a random act of violence. As a newly elected Democratic official, Monk represented a threat to the Butcher’s order.”

“He was a gangster! Becky insists. You make him sound like he’s running a business or something.”

“That’s precisely what he is doing, I say.”

“He’s just a cold-blooded killer.”

“Well, yes, I agree with you there: He certainly was cold-blooded. But he was also something of a murder artist, with an acute sense of propriety and ritual. Remember how he gave the dead Vallon back his knife for burial? ‘Here, take this, my friend,’ he said, almost lovingly. ‘You’ll need it on the other side.’ And how about what he said as he put the final notch in Monk’s club just before he finished him off? ‘See this?’ he said to the dying Monk. ‘This one here is the minority vote.’ And when Amsterdam killed the policeman the Butcher sent to kill him, the Butcher remarked with admiration of the skill in which Amsterdam arranged his body to suggest a crucifixion. Bill Cutting was a murder artist, a connoisseur of killing."

“Mr. Cullen!” Becky is feigning mock indignation. Or maybe non-mock indignation.

I push on. “He also has a way of cutting—pun intended—to the heart of an issue, I continue, pivoting to where all this is leading. What does the Butcher say when he himself is the target of an assassination attempt at that minstrel show? When Amsterdam, who plans to kill him, instinctively intervenes to save him? Anybody remember what the Butcher says after he retaliates against his would-be killer?”

Nobody does.

“He asks: ‘Whose man are you?’”

“Oh yeah,” Nate remembers. “But the guy doesn’t answer. He’s already dead.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I aver. “But that’s not what’s important here. I want to call your attention to that question: ‘Whose man are you?’ That’s the only relevant thing for the Butcher at that point. Because in the Butcher’s world, everybody is somebody’s man.

“And that means you, too, Becky. It would never even occur to you to assert your freedom, because you would never have had any. You’d be somebody’s man. You’d have to be to survive.”

“First she’d be her father’s daughter,” Susan says. “And then she’d be somebody’s husband. I mean wife.” Laughter.

“Not me,” Becky says, shaking her head. “I’d be my own . . . woman.”

Ed grimaces and shakes his own head, suggesting disagreement and irritation.

I look down, as if collecting my thoughts, and count to three. Then I look up at Tom, and in a quiet voice, I ask him: “Whose boy are you, Tom?”

“What did he say?” Susan asks Samantha.

“Whose boy are you?” I repeat.

Tom squints and smiles, a wonderful expression that suggests both that he understands in a general way where all this is going, but uncertainty as to what the specific answer to my question is. “I suppose I would have to say my parents, he says after a moment. I’m David and Hannah’s boy.”

“And what gang do they belong to?”

“The Democratic Party,” Jason answers for Tom. “They’re like serious political people.”

“And you, Jason. Whose boy are you?”

“I’m Aaron and Roberta's boy, I guess.”

“Are you a free man, Jason?”

“Well, I’m not a man, and I guess I’m not free either.”

“Does that bother you? That you’re not free?”

“Not really,” he says. “Don’t really think about it much.”

“Well I do,” Becky says, with a surprising degree of bitterness in her voice. I’m definitely not free. I can see that she’s drawn a heart in ink on the back of her hand, but I can’t decipher the letters on it. “My dad is like Hitler.”

“So you’re not free now, but you will be someday?”


“How about the rest of you? Are you living in states of unfreedom? In tyranny?”

I get no answer. But Susan has a question. “What about you, Mr. Cullen? Whose man are you?”

“Well, right now, I belong to the Ethical Culture Fieldston School—it pays the salary that my family and I live on. Of course, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School is not a person; it’s an institution. In a way, this brings us back to what I think this movie is all about. For Bill the Butcher, everything was personal. He lived in a tribal world, and the United States was a tribal society, a collection of gangs—as Nate pointed out, even the fire departments were gangs. Among other things, what the Civil War did was make things impersonal. It created mighty institutions like a national economy, and a massive system for the distribution of goods and services to the Union army. And that army was itself extraordinarily powerful, steamrolling all opposition, whether it was the Confederate States of America or the gangs of New York. We rightly think of that army as a liberating force that destroyed slavery. Surely it did that. But it’s worth pointing out that from the standpoint of those who rioted at the prospect of being sucked into it, it army was a destroyer of liberty, and a destroyer of a way of life. I can’t say I regret the outcome. I’m a descendant of those Irish immigrants, who helped build the mighty political machine called Tammany Hall that we’ll be looking at again in a few weeks. But the Bill the Butchers of the world, with all their fiercely loving hatreds, can help us understand why the Civil War was such a hard-won struggle.

"See you tomorrow, folks. We’ll start reviewing for our upcoming exam."

There’s the usual familiar shuffle as they head out the door; a mere hour after a long weekend, I already feel like I never left. “Whose boy are you!” I hear Joey bellow down the hall as I look toward the e-mails waiting on my laptop. You’re my boy now, I think to myself as I open the first one. Or you’re my boy for now, anyway.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Old Deal

Over the course of the last four months – a period marked by the inauguration of a new president and that president’s response to an economic crisis increasingly comparable to the Great Depression – there’s been a steady stream of assertions from the political right that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of 1933-1938 failed to achieve its core objective of ending the economic crisis of the thirties. This line of argument appears to have been launched in the aftermath of Barack Obama's election to the presidency last November with a rhetorical question from Conservative columnist George Will on the ABC program This Week: “Before we go into a new New Deal, can we just acknowledge that the first New Deal didn’t work?” In January, FOX news analyst Brit Hume made what he considered an obvious assertion: “Everybody agrees, I think, on both sides of the spectrum now, that the New Deal didn’t work.” And in February hosts Mika Brezinzski and Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe made similar off-hand claims that the New Deal failed to stem the unemployment crisis. Multiple additional examples can be unearthed with a simple Google search.

Such remarks did not go unchallenged in the blogosphere, where they were rebutted with varying degrees of emotional intensity and factual detail. What has been largely overlooked, however, is the degree to which there has been a longstanding scholarly consensus – a consensus that very much includes liberal historians – that the New Deal was a failure, a reality that had become apparent to many if not most Americans by the time of the so-called “Roosevelt Depression” of 1937. No less august a figure than Richard Hofstadter noted in his classic 1948 book The Age of Reform that “as Roosevelt was aware, [the New Deal] had failed to realize his objectives of distributive justice and sound, stable, prosperity.” William Leuchtenberg’s 1963 study Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, still considered the standard treatment, concludes that “The New Deal left many problems unsolved and even created some new perplexing ones. It never demonstrated that it could achieve prosperity in peacetime.” In his magisterial 2005 study Freedom from Fear, David Kennedy describes the FDR of 1938 as “a badly weakened leader, unable to summon the imagination or to secure the political strength to cure his own country’s apparently endless economic crisis.” Columbia historian Alan Brinkley devotes an entire 1995 book, The End of Reform, to anatomizing the Roosevelt administration’s retreat from the liberal dream of reconstituting a vibrant new economy by the late thirties. On the right, Amity Schlaes emphasizes what she regards as the excessive cost of the New Deal to "the forgotten man" in her new book of the same name -- the man who was not the recipient of government largesse.

Of course, such examples beg the question of how one defines the word “failure.” Indeed many of these historians and others would hasten to object that while it is clear that Great Depression only ended with the coming of World War II – itself a kind of vindication of the Roosevelt administration’s intervention in the economy – statistical economic measures of the New Deal’s success or failure hardly tell the whole story. There’s a long tradition in New Deal history and lore, most recently extended by Jonathan Alter in The Defining Moment (2005), that the New Deal mattered most in the realm of psychology. It has long since been established that while Roosevelt had no clear program for dealing with the Depression going into the presidency, and indeed implemented some of Herbert Hoover’s policies with Hoover’s own people when he took office, his famous 1932 call “for bold, persistent experimentation” was in effect the core of a vision that he carried out in the presidency and that had value in its own right in ultimately engendering a sense of confidence that not only ultimately helped end the Depression, but which gave Americans an enduring sense of hope that government could indeed be a solution to some of the most pressing problems of contemporary life.

To the extent such arguments are valid – and I believe they are – they also represent a reminder that invocations of the New Deal should be used with care. The whole reason comparisons between then and now are made by supporter and critic in the first place, of course, is that there is an underlying assumption that the past is prologue – that President Obama’s economic program has a relevant precedent and that it will achieve measurable results, just like the New Deal ostensibly did. A sense of legitimacy that rests on empirical improvement is probably unavoidable, and to at least some extent necessary. But it is also risky and potentially misleading. No one knows for sure how to get us out of the mess we’re in, and assuming we ever find our way out, no one will ever really know for sure it why it was that we did so (one thing we can know for sure is that historians will be arguing over how it happened). If there is a principle that might do us some good here, it may well be one provided by FDR himself during his 1936 acceptance speech for a second term: “Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-blooded in different scales.” If we can’t quite practice charity for all, let us at least aim for malice toward none. Amid the uncertainty that always accompanies questions of public policy, perhaps a bias for equality, when the facts can't contradict it, that more than anything else defines the fallible heart of liberalism.