Saturday, November 29, 2008

My Favorite Work of American History

I’m a professional historian. I am not really supposed to have a favorite book. I read American history for quantity , not quality. My favorite book is the one I have just finished reading, another notch in my belt, and I move on. Love and leave ‘em, I always say. Favorite books are like best friends, something suited to one’s intellectual adolescence, not to one’s historiographic maturity, where you have a group of books you value more than others, but singling one out seems a bit, what to say, overwrought and precious. Besides, when you’re a professional historian, the better the book, the more “important” it is, the more likely you are to want to take notes, evaluate it in terms of other books in the field, to study it, to admire it, rather than really like it. And important books are generally read only once, and thereafter only occasionally consulted, while it gathers dust on your book shelf.

The most important quality of a favorite book is that it is read often, repeatedly. It is a book that you want to read, not merely a book you have to read. At the same time, a favorite book has to have some depth. I have found myself, in a year of sorrows, repeatedly reading the Bertie and Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse this past year; very funny but quite insubstantial. Not enough there for a “favorite book.”
But despite all these structures, I think I do have a favorite book in American history, and I was reminded of it this past week, reading a wonderful review of a reissue of it by Christine Smallwood in the Nation (have you noticed that the book review section in the Nation is getting better and better?) And the book is Names in the Land, by George R. Stewart, originally published in 1945, a history of geographic naming practices from first European contact to the middle of the 20th century. I have read it, I suppose, four or five times, and have heavily thumbed a companion volume of sorts, American Place Names, a sparkling short encyclopedia of 11,000 place names published in 1970. George R. Stewart was not a historian, but a professor of English at Berkeley, a fairly well-known novelist in his time (“Storm” and “Fire,” gripping reads both, are probably the best known, accounts of men and women in extreme circumstances), along with some first class historical narratives on westward expansion, of which the best known is his 1936 Ordeal by Hunger, a still unmatched account of the travails of the Donner Party. And Names on the Land, while it certainly is non-fiction, is probably best taxonomized as historical geography than history proper.
So why do I like Names on the Land so much? I can’t think of any other work that quite captures the teeming heterogeneity of American history, the slice after slice of early settlers and their practices that left an onomastic mark on the physical landscape of America, Indians, Dutch, French, Spanish, English in several varieties, places named after great persons, great events, things very real and things imaginary, names graphic and euphemistic, people who left only their names, and people who went out of their way to eliminate all traces of their predecessors. America’s place names captures this chaotic complexity perhaps better than any other single marker. Of course, since the frontier has been closed since 1890 or so, the pace of naming has perhaps slowed down a bit, though with new streets and subdivisions, there will be never a lack of new things to name, or old things to rename.
Names on the Land has a bit of a WPA feel to it, inclusive and broadly non-judgmental, a popular front in which Indians and conquistadors, slaves and their masters alike all had their roles to place in naming America. It is a story in which accident and happenstance play as big a role as the big determining forces of history. I think that more often than not, this is how things actually happen, and Names in the Land is a history of America somewhat distractedly and eccentrically putting itself together and naming itself. My favorite chapter, “Of Ancient glory renewed” is on the vogue of classical place names that got its start in 1790 when the New York State settlement of Vanderheyden’s Ferry rechristrened itself Troy. (Another good chapter, on the myriad Columbii and Columbias that dot the American landscape, is called “American discovers Columbus.”) Perhaps the accumulation of odd facts that fill the book can best be loved by a compiler of encyclopedias, but I think it remains one of the best introductions to the cultural history of the American people ever written. Anyway it was has been reissued in a new edition by the NYRB press, and I urge anyone who has never cracked its pages to give it a try.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Allison's Bat Mitzvah

Rob probably is too polite to boast and play the doting father, but the social event of the season, heard all cross the Upper East and Upper West Sides, was his daughter’s Allison’s Bat Mitzvah last Saturday. For this unbiased and neutral observer, a more stylish Bat Mitzvah was never seen, and I have never heard a perkier D‘var Torah. She just swept all before her. Allison’s parents, Rob and Clara, have every reason to be extraordinarily proud of their daughter, and everyone who was there discovered, if they did not know already, that Allison is a very special young woman. Mazal Tov.

But this is a blog of political commentary , not a jotting of social notes, so to remain on message, the question must be asked, what does Allison’s Bat Mitzvah have to do with the election of Barack Obama? In her excellent D’var Torah, Allison spoke about the first meeting of Isaac and Rebecca, and their love at first sight. Allison was of course correct to suggest that falling in love at first sight is a tad superficial, and that those who form connections solely on the basis of first appearances and impressions are generally condemned to a romantic life of disappointments and ephemerality. And yet the paradox of first impressions is that sometimes (as the book of Genesis certainly intended for the initial meeting of Isaac and Rebecah) our first impressions are true, and form the basis of lasting commitments.

Most Americans met Barack Obama on the basis of his keynote speech in 2004. Four years later he was elected president. No one in American politics, perhaps since William Jennings Bryan, has gone further on the basis of a first impression. Of course, in romance and politics, all you really gain from a good first impression is the chance to make a good second impression, and onto the third, the fourth, and so on. So far Obama has passed all the tests, and we have made a real commitment. If, as Allison points out, there is reason for skepticism for a relationship based on early impresions, there is also reason for much optimism. If this is not our time, our time will never come. But to return to the main theme of this post, whether or not, in the person of Barack Obama, the American people have a rendezvous with destiny, Allison’s rendezvous with her growing maturity was carried off with her usual aplomb. Mazal tov.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ministry all of Talents

This was the sobriquet attached to the British government formed William Wyndam Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville in 1806, after the death of Pitt the Younger. A wartime government, it drew on Whigs and Tories alike, though fervid Pittites eschewed the chance to join. It was short-lived, lasting only through 1807, and was a fairly progressive government, with its greatest achievement the momentous decision to end the African slave trade, which went into effect in 1808. And there is much evidence that Obama is planning on constructing a ministry of all talents to accompany him to Washington, with much talk about giving Hillary the State Department. (Was this part of Obama’s plan back in the summer when he refused to seriously consider Hillary for the veep slot?)

People are comparing this to Lincoln’s cabinent, with Seward and Stanton, and that is an important precedent, but I would rather look to Britain. In a responsible country, where we recognized that we elect not just individuals but parties, this should happen all the time. Hillary is the second most important and best known Democrat in the country, why shouldn’t she get the equivalent of the chancellor of the exchequer? Of course there are vast differences between the two systems. In this country, everyone, including Hillary will serve at the pleasure of Obama, and there is a long history of secretaries of state being undermined by national security advisors (Dean Rusk, William P. Rodgers, Cyrus Vance, Colin Powell.) Presumably this won’t happen if Hillary gets the nod. All of this speaks to Obama’s maturity, and his recognition, I think, that his victory is a victory for the Democratic Party and its values.

At the same time, the decision by the Senate Democrats, evidently with the covert support of Obama, to allow Joe Lieberman to retain his chairmanship of the Homeland Security committee seems to be comprised of two parts magnanimity and three parts pusillianimity. There is a way in which calls for bi-partisanship—we see this in David Paterson—all too easily become excuses for keeping the status quo in tact. If there is anything worse than the two parties going at each other like cats and dogs while dispensing calumnies by the box full, it is when they are trying to get along, and carrying on like the love feast of the apostles. At best you can say that the Democrats wanted him, in the immortal words of Lyndon Johnson, inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, and presumably Lieberman will be his best behavior ,and I can only hope that if he tries in any way to retard or challenge the Democratic agenda, , they will waste no time in calling for head on a silver platter. Or so one might hope.

Speaking of British prime ministers and Jews, I was reading the latest issue of New York Review of Books (which can IMHO, go jump in a effing lake—the editor of the NYRB promised to publish a letter I wrote about Obama and Howard Thurman in early July, and Thanksgiving in upon us, and still no letter) which had an interesting article on the endlessly fascinating Benjamin Disraeli. Now it seems to me that if there one person in the past two hundred years of democratic politics that can be compared to Obama, it is Disraeli. Since Disraeli in the 1870s climbed, in his famous words, to the top of the greasy pole, what other member of a despised outsider group, still suffering from the effect of civic and social disabilities, has overcome remarkable odds to become the elected leader of the most powerful country on earth? To answer my rhetorical question, I can’t think of anyone.

Having said this, there doesn’t seem to a hell of lot in common between Obama and Disraeli, except that both men were superb writers—Disraeli the best writer of any prime minister, the platitudinous Churchill included, and Obama the best writer of any American president, with only Theodore Roosevelt really in the conversation as an author of literature—and both men used their status as somewhat exotic outsiders to their political advantage. Disraeli would have written a fine novel about the dark skinned man with an African name who conquered Washington poltics, to the astonishment of all.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reversals of Fortune

Elliot Spitzer broke his year long silence in the Washington Post over the weekend, with an excellent op-ed on the financial follies that have unfolded since his personal follies exploded, offering a cogent analysis of what when wrong, and what will be needed to correct it. Certainly Elliot Spitzer’s tenure as attorney-general and governor are looking better and better in retrospect. His downfall was applauded by his many enemies on Wall Street (and for some conspiratorial minded persons, perhaps in some way aided or abetting by strategic leaks by Wall Street people in the know.) At the time of his downfall, last March, some speculated that the growing financial crisis Spitzer’s fault (his investigations had damaged Wall Street precious “liquidity” ), though this never made any sense, and if anything his effort to rein in deceptive and unsafe practices at bailed out insurance giant A.I.G were not searching and hard hitting enough. His voice was ultimately a lone one, crying in the wilderness, against the voices, Democrat as well as Republican, that tried to stop anyone from getting too close to the golden-egg laying goose. This should have been his time, his hour, his vindication. He has been missed, and if Spitzer’s op-ed was an effort by his to angle for the SEC chairmanship and his redemption, he gets my vote.

Meanwhile in the Times today was an interview with the man most responsible for the financial crisis we face today, former Senator Phil Gramm, who has left the senate to porkily enjoy Wall Street lucre. For fifteen years, from the late 1980s through about 2000, Gramm spearheaded congressional efforts to free financial institutions from sensible oversight. From the S & L crisis, when the ability of mortgage derivates to wreak havoc was amply demonstrated, to his successful effort to prevent the Commodities Future Trading Commission (headed for a while by his wife) to regulate derivatives, to his overturning of Glass-Steagall in 1999, no one played a bigger role in encouraging our financial services to engage in greedy, irresponsible behavior, and to encourage our regulatory bodies to look elsewhere. Gramm tries lamely to defend himself, arguing that deregulation was not at the heart of what has gone wrong, but it will convince few. (Even Gramm acknowledges in the interview that there might be a need for greater regulative scrutiny from here on out.) All in all, if I were worrying about my legacy, and how I will be viewed by historians, I would rather be Elliot Spitzer than Phil Gramm.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Eisenstadts I Have Known

Actually, not that many. Our family is small, and has experienced negative population growth in recent years. I have very few relatives named Eisenstadt, and I have had, in my fifty-plus years only a handful of conversations with unrelated Eisenstadts. When I lived in Park Slope, at 576 5th street, there was a woman living at 578 5th Street named Jane Eisenstadt, and we chatted a few times. Then there are the famous Eisenstadts, whom I only have read about. Probably topping the list is S.N. Eisenstadt, the Israeli sociologist and dedicated Weberian, who like the great Max himself, seems to have written or edited volumes on every possible arena of human social endeavor. In my field, there’s Abraham S. Eisenstadt, a distinguished American historian who taught for many years at Brooklyn College, and who is an expert on historiography. We spoke once. There’s the novelist Jill Eisenstadt, who was very fashionable in the 1980s and early 1990s, but seems to have less productive lately. And there are the talmudists, such as Meir ben Izkak Eisenstadt, known in the trade by his acronym, the Maharam Esh, one of the most gifted writers of responsa in 18th century Europe, and not to be confused with his 19th century successor, Meir Eisenstadter, another peerless talmudist. (My branch of the family has spent less time in the cheder, I am afraid.) And then there are the variant spellings, such as Stuart Eizenstat, an advisor to Jimmy Carter, and active for many years in obtaining financial justice for Holocaust survivors, and the most famous Eisenstadt (or Eisenstaedt) of them all, the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, he of Life magazine, and the famous photo of the V-J day embrace in Times Square. Perhaps my favorite variant spelling is the mellifluous Oona Ajzenstat (pronounced Eisenstadt), who has written on the important French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. And then there are translations into other languages, most commonly Hebrew, and there are many Israeli Barzalis who have an Eisenstadt somewhere in their family tree.

All of this is to say, that Eisenstadt is a sufficiently uncommon name that when I hear of a new Eisenstadt, my ears prick up, eager to add another number to our smallish ranks. And this week, a new Eisenstadt was added to the list of famous Eisenstadts (sort of), Martin Eisenstadt. As was revealed a few days ago, Martin Eisenstadt was a creation of two hoaxers, who invented Martin Eisenstadt as a senior fellow of the non-existent Harding Institute for Freedom and Justice (named after Warren G. Harding, one of the least distinguished of American presidents, though if you ask me I prefer him to his predecessor). And Martin Eisenstadt had a blog, where he confirmed tidbits such as Sarah Palin’s ignorance of the status of Africa as a continent, and his blog posts were read and followed up by a host of other bloggers, and the little flares of rumor were soon fanned into a conflagration of hearsay. And the point of the hoax, like all hoaxes, is to demonstrate the credulity and gullibility of those who had been suckered. Or so argued the hoaxers, that living in a 24-hour news cycle, no filters remain within our news gathering apparatuses, which sucks anything that floats by into its ever-open, ever-insatiable maw.

This is no doubt true, but I will leave to our media critics and analysts, prime among them my dear friend Rob Snyder, to explore the finer and deeper points of this scandal. But my concern is more parochial. Why, invent an Eisenstadt? Why not, say, a Snyder? For starters, there is a Michael Eisenstadt, who toils at a neo conservative think-tank for Middle East policy, who perhaps gave them the idea. The hoaxers said that Jewish neo-cons tend to have very Jewish last names and very un-Jewish first names (Paul Wolfowitz, Jack Abramoff, Michael Chertoff.) I suppose that is true. Eisenstadt is a very Jewish name—I have never heard of a non-Jewish Eisenstadt—but not so ostentatiously Jewish to call attention to itself (Cohen, Levy, D’Israeli.) And many Eisenstadts, starting with myself, have rather un-Jewish first names, starting with mine, first belonging to the rock on which Jesus built his church, the humble fisherman in the Galilee that heard the good news right from the horses’s mouth, as it were. All I can say is that I am grateful the hoaxers did not invent a Peter Eisenstadt. (My phone would still be ringing.) And those who are reading this blog and have never met me, you will have to take it on my shaky assertion that Peter Eisenstadt exists beyond the occasional blog post.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Times Hoax

A hoax edition of the New York Times appeared on the streets of New York yesterday, its lead story announcing "Iraq War Ends." Produced by a group of political pranksters called the Yes Men, according to Reuters, the edition sparked thoughts about a better future and the place of journalism in our politics and culture.

Reuters reported that 1.2 million copies of the fake edition, which took six months to produce, were handed out in New York and Los Angeles. The Reuters report included a statement sent from the Website of the fake edition:
"We've got to make sure Obama and all the other Democrats do what we elected them to do," Bertha Suttner, identified as one of the newspaper's writers, said in the statement. "After eight, or maybe twenty-eight years of hell, we need to start imagining heaven."

The 14-page issue is packed with "stories" that I'd like to see come true, from the construction of more bike paths to announcements of free public universities to efforts to build a "sane economy."

For me, one of the interesting questions in the whole episode is why it took the form of an edition of the Times. The pranksters could have printed up their own press release announcing the same thing, but obviously that would not have had the same impact. So why does the Times have the impact that it has?

Answers will vary. Some will tell you that the Times enjoys its authority because it is a uniquely credible source of information. Others will say that the paper is simply a megaphone for power.

I'm too skeptical to accept the first explanation and too disturbed by the Times' coverage of the run up to the Iraq war to categorically dismiss the second.

Instead, thinking back to the writings of the historian Edward Thompson on law and the courts in eighteenth century England, I am inclined to think of journalism as contested terrain: something worth fighting over. Its virtues are not innate but its purposes and actions are not automatically determined by whoever holds power at the moment. Journalism has to be thought about and fought about, year in and year out, if it is ever to live up to its best possibilities.

Surely one of mainstream journalism's enduring traits is its tendency to report the world according to the common sense of its time. For the last eight years and more, that common sense has been skewed far to the right.

The hoax edition of the Times distributed yesterday helped us imagine a tomorrow that looks different from today. With luck and hard work, we might even see that reflected someday in the real Times.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Pathways to Empathy at the African Burial Ground Memorial

Over the weekend, on a walking tour of lower Manhattan with my students from Rutgers-Newark, we visited the African Burial Ground Memorial on Elk Street. For me, the memorial is one of the most moving sites in the city. But on this visit, a ranger explained to me that I've been walking through the site backwards.

I've always entered the memorial from left to right. I walk down a spiraling ramp, past African spiritual and religious symbols that remind me how the people buried here were people of heart and mind, with their own faiths and traditions.

Then,in a subterranean space, I read the engraved messages about the physical remains of the people buried there: that in one plot was found a man aged 22-28 years, in another a woman 18-20, in another a baby. For me, this makes the dead a living presence.

Then, I enter a tight chamber with only one exit, through a narrow door at the opposite end. My heart runs cold every time I do this, because I think of the millions of Africans who passed doors of no return before they were shipped to the Americas.

Through door and I'm in an open space, with all the memories of the passage and ambiguities for freedom before me.

It turns out, according to the ranger, that I have it entirely backwards.

As she explained, the memorial should be experienced first with the entry through the door, then the confinement of slavery, then the engraved identities of the interred, followed by an ascent alongside religious and spiritual symbols.

Frankly, I think the memorial is so good that it works either way. But next time, I'll try the preferred route. And if you haven't been there yet, visit soon.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Changing History

The headline in the local paper is “Changing History.” And that is of course just what Barack Obama’s election has done. Epochal events not only change the present, they change the past. This happens all the time. In 1953, Queen Elizabeth, good Queen Bess, scourge of the Catholics, and whose Royal Endowment for the Arts supported a few struggling playwrights, got a new name, some 350 years after her death, Queen Elizabeth I. Less trivially, in 1939, the Great War became World War II (I’ve long wondered why it wasn’t called Great War II.) There is a whole era in American history, the ante-bellum period, that is defined by what came after it. Does German history from Luther onwards somehow naturally culminate the disaster that began in 1933? Does colonial American history ineluctably lead to July 4th, 1776? And will we able to, ever again, write about African American history without our knowledge of what took place on Nov 4th, 2008? I don’t think so.

Obama has not only changed the world we live in, and the world we will live in. He has changed the world we used to live in. It will be far more difficult for the detractors of the civil rights movement, on whatever side of the political aisle, to deny that was wrought by Howard Thurman in India, by Martin Luther King in Montgomery, by the Brown decision, by the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, were so much window dressing for gullible liberals, leaving the basic racial problem unaddressed and untouched. By the same measure, I hope, by providing a definitive and emphatic statement on what has been accomplished, it will shine an even brighter light on the remaining gap, the yawning abyss, between our ideals and the reality. No one will ever be able to say again, when any racial problem is discussed, that solving it is impossible.
Overwrite this text with the rest of your post

Friday, November 7, 2008

The First Negro

By the 1930s, it was already a cliché. This, from a 1939 article about Howard Thurman in The Crisis, the distinguished African American theologian whom I have been spending a great deal of time writing about as of late, on his many engagements to speak at white colleges “In most of the engagements filled by Howard Thurman, he is “the only Negro” or “the first Negro” (with apologies for these overused terms.)” But anyone who writes about the history of African American achievement in this country will reuse the phrase again and again. In some ways, the easiest barrier to breach in the ending of racial discrimination in this country was recognizing persons of extraordinary talent and ability. (In comparison to say, the tangled questions of inner city poverty and welfare.) To be sure, there was nothing easy or straightforward about minorities winning this basic right, but even before the combined efforts of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, there had been positive results. In 1949 William Hastie, a onetime colleague of Thurman at Howard was appointed the first federal judge. In 1967, in a selection in which the person chosen was as symbolically powerful as the act itself, Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the US Supreme Court. Appointments have been relatively easy; Johnson named Robert Weaver to the cabinet in 1965, and ever since there have been minority faces at the highest echelons of power. And even the current miserable excuse for a president saw fit to appoint two African Americans to what was traditionally seen as the most important cabinet position, secretary of state.

Elective success, certainly elective success outside of “black” districts, has been much more halting. Starting with Edward Brooke, elected senator from Massachusetts in 1966, few blacks have been elected to predominantly white constituencies. Black mayors were elected in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago in the 1980s. So far, all of their successors have been white (and in one case, Latino.) Obama was only fourth or fifth black senator elected since Reconstruction. (And even Obama started on his path the usual way for black politicians, representing a predominantly black district in the Illinois legislature. )

But now, a black American has been elected to the highest position in the American government, and will become the de facto most powerful person in the world, and we are scrambling to understand what it means. Obama will become only the second person who is not a white Protestant male to become president. (We’re still working on that male part, and John Kennedy, the first non-Protestant, has now been succeeded nine anti-Papists, and the first non-Christian president is nowhere in sight, though Barack Hussein Obama is as close as we have ever come, with a non-Christian parent—perhaps now he can get his beautiful middle name back.) For Thurman citizenship was about possibility, about not being limited by artificial distinctions, about recognizing that a radical equality between all people was a precondition for true democracy. Today, if all barriers are not breached and eviscerated, I hope we can finally say that nothing is impossible.

A common comment in the past few days has been the wish expressed by many that their parents or grandparents had been alive to see this day. It is a wish perhaps most fervently expressed by blacks, but shared by many. I wish my father was around to see this, and that my mother was not so addled by dementia that she could understand what was happening, or that brother, a big Obama supporter, hadn’t decided to take his own life this past year. Indeed, I wish everyone was alive to see this event, Martin Luther King, Howard Thurman, Frederick Douglass, Denmark Vesey, back to the first slaves brought to Virginia in 1619, and every black man and woman who ever suffered under Jim Crow and slavery And for that matter, I would love to hear what Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Robert E Lee, Thomas Jefferson (with or without Sally Hemmings) all the Founding Fathers had to say, and lets not forget Sitting Bull and Geronimo, Fred Korematsu and all the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, and every one who has ever felt disinherited in America or wondered how the American experiment would turn out. It has always struck me as unfair that history is so asymmetrical. Everyone who studies American history from this day forward will know what happened on Nov 4th 2008. It is a pity that those who came before will never know what happened this week, though I would like to think that somewhere, their spirits are absorbing the news, with a shared incredulity.

There are no make-ups or do-overs in history, and no preordained happy endings, no restorations to an earlier status quo. Europe was the center of Jewish life for some 1900 years, until European Jewry was destroyed in six short terrible years. It will not be restored, nor will New York State be returned to the Iroquois, California to the Mexicans or Indians, or the descendants of the Africans ripped from their homeland during the slave trade to the mother continent. But for a moment, the United States seems to have reached what Thurman and many others have dreamed about, the realization of true and radical meaning of genuine citizenship.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Election in Maine

One thing sums up the 2008 election in Maine for me: signs. Political signs seemed to litter every street corner and yard, which seems ironic in a state that bans roadside billboards. But in this rural state, the plethora of signs speaks to our enthusiastic, independent-minded electorate. Voter turnout in Maine is high, and involvement in town councils and boards is common. It is this local energy that struck me as inspiring and truly American in this election year.

When I lived in New York City, it felt hard to separate state and local politics from national politics. City issues were national issues and vice versa. Often city leaders are seeking the state or even national spotlight, giving them remote, untouchable quality.

In Maine, local politics has an intensity that I’ve not experience elsewhere. The makeup of small towns and districts means you’re almost always voting for a neighbor or friend of a friend. It’s truly the politics of handshakes and knocking on doors Take my own small mid-coast town. My neighbor across the street ran for our local house seat in the Maine state congress; my other neighbor ran for school board director. In the house race, her opponent lived a few neighborhoods over; they share friends, acquaintances and business relationships.

Another example of the personal canvassing was when our democrat candidate for the state senate pulled up to my house one day in an unassuming Honda Civic. I literally did a double take when he handed me the brochure with his picture on it; I thought for sure he was there to solicit donations to some local boys’ scout troupe or sports team.

Political signs in Maine belie this sense of local interest. While there were certainly a fair number of Obama/Biden signs, and a lesser, though notable, number of McCain/Palin ones, the lion’s share of political messaging on street corners and in front yards went to local races. I marveled at the efforts by some to bombard you with signs on one candidate or issue; did the candidate with 5 signs really offer better solutions to our everyday issues than the one with 3? The campaigns must have thought so.

Maine promotes itself as a “vacationland” full of a range of outdoor recreation offerings. It combines a rural natural landscape with a rich New England history and culture. Towns work hard to draw tourists and maintain a sense of charm and “mom and pop” quality to their downtowns and main streets. All of this makes the excess in political signage all the more ironic.

But political races in Maine are about the individual and not the party; signs strive to achieve that name recognition that makes you choose Joe Smith versus Joe Jones; party affiliation alone is not enough. Independent-minded voting makes its way up the ranks from local to national elections here.

While in recent years, the state has voted Democratic for president, it did help elect both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the latter of whom maintains a large summer home in Maine. Both Maine senators are Republicans, albeit moderate ones. Northern Maine, or district 2, was seen by the McCain campaign as potential ground for 2 electoral votes this year (Maine is one of 2 states that can potentially split electoral votes by congressional district). Nonetheless, despite visits from both Sara and Todd Palen, Obama handily won the state’s entire electoral offering.

When I lived in New York, I voted at a local school in the neighborhood where I lived. This offered a sense of community in the face of such a large urban backdrop. In Maine, I vote on the grounds of our town’s annual agricultural fair, where livestock is traded and Ferris wheels spin. What’s interesting about this setting is that it brings the entire town together under one roof to vote. For our local politicians, the fair grounds are the uncontested last stand: and stand they did, all day long, shaking the hand of every town resident to cross the threshold.

I voted at around 5 p.m. on Election Day, on my way home from work. As I turned into the fair grounds, I marveled at the number of signs going up the hill to the main building where I was to make my voice heard. On one side were literally 10 signs in a row for one local candidate; on the other side as many for the opponent.

Did they really think I would choose one over the other because I saw their name more often or more prominently place? I suppose it’s the low-budget version of a barrage of TV ads on the day of an election. Regardless of its effect on my voting, the signs did add to the sense of magnitude in this year’s election, that is, until I parked the car.

Despite rumors of long lines and waits, I walked right in to my polling station. I gave my neighbor, stationed outside with other local candidates, a hug for luck in her house race, and cast my ballot, all in about a minute. It was somewhat anticlimactic on such an historic day, but I guess that’s what election days are all about: the end of the promises, slogans and signs and the beginning of the work to fulfill them. I just hope they clean up all those signs soon.

Cameron Myrick, a former New Yorker, lives in Maine.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama in Excelsis

Obama in excelsis. Obamamissio. The shot heard round the world. Let me quote the estimable sportswriter Red Smith, on the original shot heard round the world, Bobby Thompson’s 1951 home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.” But of course, no one outside the United States really cared who won the National League pennant in 1951. This was truly heard around the world, reverberating and vibrating with deep and profound resonances on every continent, and every corner of the world.

Do we have to stop and figure out what it means? Can’t we just enjoy it, and revel in its dimensions? I was feeling too elated this morning to have anything sad or depressed to relate to my grief counselor. Call it Obama therapy. Perhaps Obama can get his middle name back now. We should be proud that the next president of the United States will have a Swahili/Muslim name, Barack Hussein Obama. And I am proud to be an American, and not for something eccentric or minor, but for something that was wrought by a majority of Americans, acting decisively, in the exercise of their civil duties. Liberals and progressives have been afraid of democracy for decades, afraid that the people out of doors were inherently reactionary, and would if given a chance tear down the structure of civil liberties, and were a bunch of God-sodden jingoes lusting after foreign entanglements. We showed them. I’m not sure what it means for race relations, other than this does not, by itself, change anything. And that feeling good about yourself is an emotion that rapidly cloys. But this is the first great victory of liberal and progressive forces in this country since the mid-1960s. Everyone knows Marx’s famous aphorism about history repeating itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. I don’t know where 60s’s liberalism fits into this model—it probably was a combination, tragedy and farce at once. I hope the new liberalism, the new progressivism, the new populism, representing a profound rebuke for how this country has been governed in recent decades, and lead and epitomized by a brilliant politician who epitomizes its values, avoids those extremes. Rather than tragedy or farce, we need a politics of light comedy, a romance of inclusion, that resolves in a happy ending with everyone satisfied. God Bless America. Or, to quote Irving Berlin again: “Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my hearts beats so I can hardly speak.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Glory, Glory Hallelujah

In any decade, the election of our first African-American president would have been a historic triumph. But the election of Barack Obama to the presidency should be doubly celebrated because it also affirms something that was badly battered in recent times: American democracy.

Out of the stolen election of 2000, and all the wrongs inflicted by the Bush Administration since 9/11, the Obama campaign has built a democratic movement for change that has restored the Democrats to power and democracy to our politics.

There will be plenty of time for criticism and disappointments. President Obama will not be able to be all things to all his supporters. But on this night, it is time to savor the achievements and the possibilities wrought by Obama's campaign and Obama's victory.

Tonight, I cherish the images of my family's contributions to the victory. My children canvassed in Pennsylvania on Election Day. The sight of Allison scampering down sidewalks, and reports of my son Max standing up to a man who tried to stop him from leafleting for Obama and Congressman Patrick Murphy, give me great pride and hope for the future. I also love my wife's stories of phone banking in Greenwich Village, where Peter Yarrow led the volunteers in singing "We Shall Overcome."

The Obama victory also gives me a great opportunity to quote a poem that has inspired me for many years, a poem by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The long thread of sorrows in Irish history draws attention to the best and worst of human possibilities. In one of his poems, "Voices from Lemnos," written more than a decade ago, Heaney set down words suited to the Obama victory.

Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted or endured.

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

My Kind of Town; My Kind of President

I was in Chicago for a conference over the weekend. Shall I name drop? I shall. I was on a panel and had dinner with Cornell West. Needless to say there was only one topic of conversation, wherever I went. In Hyde Park, where Obama lives, every store front had an Obama sign, ever book store we entered had a display of Obamiana in the entrance to the store. I suspect in Hyde Park the only people voting for Mc Cain today will be members of the University of Chicago economics faculty. As we drove past Grant Park on Sunday afternoon, the police barriers were already up, and there were about fifty or so of those remote television trucks already lined up. I can only imagine the scene now. Although there was some nervousness about the results tonight, the main topic of conservation was not if he gets elected, but what happens next. Cornell West advised that Obama is not a black leader. He is an American leader, and if blacks expect anything special coming from an Obama victory they are likely to be sorely disappointed. Others suggested that West was too pessimistic, though I think the fantasy love affair that many, black and white, have been conducting with Obama is likely to be shattered in the aftermath of his victory. This is all to the good; fantasies are not the basis on healthy long term relationships, and that is what we will need to create, starting November 5th.

Anyway, it was very exciting being in Chicago over the weekend. Unless all the pundits and polls are wrong, and Dewey does defeat Truman, today will be the greatest and most memorable day in the history of Chicago since the Fire in 1871, and even Mrs. O’Leary’s cow didn’t start a blaze that has burned as brightly or with more energy than that ignited by Barak Obama. But as Cornell West said, it is not the elevation of blacks to high position that we should be celebrating, but the promise that democratic possibility has to raise the least and the smallest and most despised and disinherited among us.
PS It was sad that Studs Terkel didn’t quite survive to see this greatest of Chicago days. And sadder still that the “liberal” New York Times saw fit to offer a redbaiting appreciation of Terkel by Edward Rothstein that linked him to Bill Ayers that utterly missed the point of what made Terkel unique. Yes, Terkel was perhaps the last living representative of the Popular Front, but what made so special was his sensibility, a sensibility shaped but not beholden to his left of center politics, that celebrated what we shared in common, and had moved far from slavish adherence to a party line decades before the Soviet Union went the way that I hope and expect eight years of catastrophic Republican rule will go this evening.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Newark and Greater New York

While you can see the West Side of Manhattan from my building at Rutgers-Newark, on some days Newark's struggles to recover from bad government, collapsed capitalism and racism make the Brick City seem very far from New York. Yet a healthy future for Newark, a visiting scholar at the Ford Foundation argues, demands that we think of Newark as part of the New York metropolitan area. And that makes sense to me.

Mark Willis, who has worked for both New York's City government and JPMorgan Chase Bank, offered these thoughts at a recent forum at Rutgers-Newark organized by the Center for New York City Affairs of Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy. The event was titled "The New Newark: Part I: Maintaining Momentum for Renewal in a Slowing Economy."

Even in the current economic crisis, the Booker administration in Newark is arguing that the lower cost of doing business in Newark, along with the city's competitive advantages, can lure business to the city. Chief among these assets is location.

Newark has extraordinary transportation links. It is home to an international airport, an international seaport, interstate highways and national and regional rail lines. Yet part of what makes those assets valuable is their proximity to the vast New York metropolitan area. Seen in this light, Newark should be nurtured to grow as part of this region--not just by attracting residents or businesses from New York City, but also by attracting new people from all around the country and the world.

Doing the economic, social and political work that will make Newark attractive takes time, Willis observed. And as dt ogilvie, founding director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick argued, it will be best for Newark if development strategies embrace the needs of low and moderate-income people.

Economic development to serve the vast majority of New Yorkers is an issue in Gotham as well. That said, it is hard compare Newark and New York without concluding that New York is a wealthier, healthier city. But that shouldn't lead Newarkers to despair.

It is easy to forget, though, that as recently as the early 1990s people were arguing that New York City was finished. In retrospect, that was ridiculous. The New York experience, Willis argued, shows that cities can do well and that old cities can thrive in a new economy. Here's hoping that Newark and New York thrive together in the metropolitan area.