Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Cheer and a Half for Giuliani

One of the most interesting things to emerge out of the mess in the state senate was Rudy Giuliani’s op ed in the Times yesterday, one of the few serious efforts to go beyond calls for throwing the rascals out and thinking about how to throw the entire system out. Now, being Rudy Giuliani, his good suggestions were outweighed by the scary ones, but still, it’s a start. Let me start with what I agree with.

I am glad to see a major NYS politician call for new constitutional convention; it clearly is the only way of our current morass, completely rethinking the way our government is organized. There has recently been some reluctance on the part of progressives to entertain notions of a new constitutional convention, out of fear that conservatives would take the opportunity to undo some of the more liberal features of the state constitution, particularly those provisions dating from the 1938 constitutional revision. The fear is real, but I think we have no real choice. Certainly, Giuliani’s suggestion that an independent commission establish district lines is a basic desideratum, and I certainly agree as well that something has to be done to allow a lieutenant governor to be appointed in case of a vacancy.
Less salutary are his suggestions for term limits. By all accounts this has little or no effect on the caliber or nature of the legislative process. Look at California. And supermajorities for revenue increases is even a worse idea. Once again, and a fortiori, look at California.
But the most interesting suggestion made by Giuliani was that the governor have an increased role in the budget process, similar to that of the mayor of NYC. I think that Giuliani saw this op-ed as a first statement in a possible gubernatorial race next year, and of course, being Giuliani, he wants to strengthen the powers of the executive, and no doubt sees himself as a potential man on horseback, a strongman coming into to replace a tottering government. Well, I hate to say it, but that is perhaps what the state needs. Look if Giuilani or some other future governor wanted to eliminate the legislature entirely, and just rule directly by emergency decree, I would seriously consider it. A bit of constitutional dictatorship (lets compare the current situation to the French Fourth Republic rather than Weimar Germany, if you will), might be just what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

World Focus on Iran

Blogs, tweets and YouTube videos give us an up-to-the-minute sense of what is happening in Iran, but to make sense of it all you need a historical perspective. That's why it is great that World Focus on PBS has been airing interviews with Ervand Abrahimian, a history professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

Check out his most recent appearance, and previous interviews, on the World Focus homepage.

World Focus, which combines international coverage from outfits like Deutsche Welle and Al Jazeera, blogs from around the world, and analysis from commentators in the the US, has become one of the best ways of keeping up with international news and perspectives. In an age of diminished international reporting on the US networks, it is indispensable.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Watergate Day

There are a lot of interesting little holidays around the middle of June. June 14th is Flag Day. June 15th is not the Ides of June—that takes place on June 13th, but in ancient Rome June 15th was Quinquartus Minuscalae, when all of Rome’s pipers were supposed to roam around the streets of the city masked and in women’s clothing, singing drunkenly in the Forum, after which they were obliged to clean the Temple of Vesta. It was also the day, in 1215, when King John and the barons reached formal agreement at Runnymede, later recorded in the Magna Carta. June 16th is of course Bloomsday, the day in 1904 that Leopold Bloom spent walking through Dublin in Joyce’s Ulysses. (And the day after the General Slocum disaster in the East River, a fire that claimed 1,000 lives, duly noted by Joyce.)

June 17th is Iceland Independence Day (from Denmark, in 1944, an event that did not garner that much attention at the time), and is also the saint’s day of Nectan, a sixth-century Welsh hermit who was killed by pagans, and then proceeded to walk home half a mile, carrying his head in his hands. It is also the day of revolt of the East German workers against their Soviet imposed government, leading to Brecht’s famous lines “would it not be easier/in that case for the government/to dissolve the people/and elect another,” and was celebrated as the Day of German Unity in West Germany until unification really occurred.

But June 17th should be a holiday not only in Iceland and Germany. June 17th should be celebrated in the United States as Watergate Day, to commemorate that glorious day when in the early morning hours of that day in 1972, security guard Frank Wills twice found a piece of tape on a door in the Watergate Complex in Washington, setting up a chain of events that lead to the eventual resignation of Richard Nixon. Have we forgotten the meaning of Watergate? I think so. Watergate might have helped elect Jimmy Carter, but certainly did not prevent the general swing to the Republicans. And so many scandals have been “gated” that perhaps the impact of the original Watergate has been lost. Perhaps we should have a holiday to return it what is what; the great moment when an evil presidency began to crumble, and when, if only for a moment, citizens were able to paraphrase William F. Buckley, stand thwart the growth of executive power, and say stop. Dick Cheney spent his entire career trying to undo and unravel the consequences of Watergate, to great effect. President Obama, and the rest of us, need to be reminded what Watergate was all about. Happy Watergate Day!!

Collaboration, Resistance and France in World War II

The moral swamp that was the German occupation of France during World War II is the subject of a fine exhibit at the New York Public Library, Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation. Developed in France, and presented in New York with the help of of guest curator Robert Paxton, the great historian of Vichy France, this probing show establishes the clear perfidy of the collaborationist Vichy regime and the murky responses of countless other French people--literary figures included.

As the show makes clear, the ugliness of the Vichy regime had deep and immediate sources. The deep sources were a mix of conservatism, nationalism and anti-Semitism that surfaced in the Dreyfus affair and in rightist attacks on the French left in the years between World War I and World War II. The immediate source was the regime's desire to retain a shred of "autonomy" in the aftermath of the swift French defeat at the hands of Germany early in World War II.

Driven by their own desire to remain at the helm of France, and a deep strain of anti-Semitism, Vichy French officials carried out the Germans' work for them--thereby preserving the illusion that Frenchmen, and not Germans, were in charge of their country. This led to the awful spectacle of French police rounding up Jews for deportation to concentration camps.

Wartime France was a country of heroes and villains. In well-written labels and well-displayed artifacts, the exhibit shows the responses of both. Nakedly anti-Semitic tracts, and Resistance publications are compelling elements of the show. Yet "Between Collaboration and Resistance" also makes the important point, in the ordinary and literary lives chronicled in the exhibit, that most people fell somewhere between.

Neither the collaborators nor the resisters survived the post-war years intact. Collaborators were initially punished with death, imprisonment loss of civil rights or demotion. In the Fifties, however, remaining collaborators benefited from amnesty laws and rehabilitation. Communist activists and literary figures benefited from their reputations as members of the Resistance, but the politics of the Cold War and battles over Stalinism split the broad alliance of the Resistance in the postwar years.

Former members of the Resistance who expected to transform postwar French literature with their idealism were disappointed, the exhibit concludes. That is understandable. It is hard to look at the occupied France portrayed in this searching exhibit, however, and expect much else.

Between Collaboration and Resistance is on exhibit until July 25 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Unicameralism Now

I have made this point before, but it seems more relevant than ever. Please, please, can we abolish the New York State Senate? It is a gerrymandered swamp, which has existed for many decades solely to bolster the declining fortunes of the Republican Party, to multiply the opportunities for patronage, and to establish a veto point from which to extort favors. The short tenure of the Democrats as masters of the Senate has not been very impressive and part of the problem is certainly that David Paterson has proven to be a weak governor, and a strong governor is needed to hold the fractious hordes at bay.

But let us focus on the cupidity of the Republicans, who engineered this profoundly dishonest deal, at the behest of Tom Golisano, a Rochester area billionaire who has plastered his name over all of his benefactions. (Andrew Cuomo needs to start an investigation immediately on whether any untoward influence was exerted.) My wife Jane, works at the Golisano Children’s Hospital, and I guess we can all call this the Golisano State Senate.

Golisano’s beef with the Democrats is evidently that they decided, in an effort to cut the state’s huge budget deficit, to raise taxes on the wealthy. Golisano recently announced his decision to move to Florida, where all New Yorkers eventually go, and may he take the entire membership of the state senate, or at least the Republican caucus, with its tax cheats and girl friend beaters to some deep spot in the Everglades.

If this tawdry episode proves anything, it is that the moment for “reform” of the governmental process in Albany is a fool’s errand. The newly engineered Republican majority in the Senate is touting a "reform agenda." Wanting to "clean up the mess in Albany" has become the last refuge of scoundrels. We need a constitutional revolution now—Abolish the State Senate now.

All New Yorkers should demand an immediate constitutional convention to change the form of government in our state. All power to (a fairly and equitably apportioned)the state assembly. This is the sort of last-minute coup by revanchist forces that foretokens the assumption of power by the people. To the barricades! To the Plaza!!

Wage Theft

From Kathleen Hulser, writing on the New-York Historical Society blog, comes word of an interesting new book by Kim Bobo, Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—And What We Can Do About It. This book covers an issue of interest to all Americans, including historians.

Kathleen, who became sensitized this issue while working on the slavery show at the Historical Society, writes "This modern form of stealing work time is a hidden scourge that labor economists say costs America billions of dollars a year. If the Department of Labor were to crack down on these widespread practices, a great deal of earned income would flow to those most in need — all without raising taxes or creating new programs."

Historians enter this picture under the heading of scholarly work. Getting published in academic journals and books is an important part of getting recognized as a historian. But most of this writing is unpaid. For tenured professors, this isn't a big problem. But for public historians, who have to make their time pay to earn a living, writing for free can seem like a cruel use of valuable hours.

The first time I heard the implications of this recognized clearly was when I was a graduate student, eking out a living on a combination of a scholarship, adjuncting and moving furniture. I was wrapping up extensive revisions on my masters essay, which was to be published in American Jewish History, when my mother asked me what I would be paid for all the work I was doing.

Nothing, I replied.

She thought for a long time and then said, "Well, they must assume that all historians are rich. Because only a rich person could afford to work that much for free."

Enough said.

Friday, June 5, 2009

New Amsterdam/New York

Efforts to trace the character of the United States to one or another of the early colonies usually lead to oversimplifications. Are we the greedy Englishmen of Jamestown, New England Puritans building a City on a Hill, or the cosmopolitan descendants of New Amsterdam? Amsterdam/New Amsterdam: the Worlds of Henry Hudson, now at the Museum of the City of New York, wisely steers clear of such generalizations. Still, it makes a good case that "the issues that the Dutch experiment tested on the continent centuries ago are still relevant today, as New York works to sustain a society that is ever more diverse, adaptive, inventive, and--in its own way--as tumultuous as New Amsterdam ever was."

Amsterdam/New Amsterdam is a rich and satisfying show that situates New Amsterdam in Dutch and North American contexts. Organizing themes such as "Living," "Cultural Crossroads," "Centers Of Commerce" and "Authority and Resistance" admit a wide range of objects and a strong analysis.

Presented in a space that that brings to mind a sailing ship, Amsterdam/New Amsterdam explores New York's Dutch antecedents without worshiping them. The vaunted Dutch sense of toleration, the exhibit argues, was more an urban phenomenon than a rural one. The Dutch of New Amsterdam kept slaves. And at the bottom of New Amsterdam's diversity was something more economic than is always recognized: the Dutch encouraged different kinds of people to come here because the colony wasn't enough of a moneymaker to attract people from Holland. Hard-headed business judgments, in addition to cosmopolitanism, made New Amsterdam a seaport for men and women of many nations.

The show is so rich in artifacts that it sometimes seems crowded, but at its best the curators have used objects and voices in creative ways. I was especially touched by recordings of readings of testimonies and reminiscences written down by inhabitants of New Amsterdam centuries ago.

What emerges for this show is a city that is more than a monument to greed and less than a shining city on a hill. If that sounds like New York City today, then perhaps we have inherited a great deal from New Amsterdam. Amsterdam/New Amsterdam is open until 27 September 2009.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Aptheker Redividus

As I follow up my recent blog and teeny tiny furor over the somewhat disingenuous presentation of the works of the historian Herbert Aptheker, I thought I would get around to reading Bettina Aptheker’s much discussed memoir of a few years ago, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel. Well, it’s a very interesting book, about her complex relationship with her complex parents (though, to paraphrase Tolstoy, every family is unhappy, and every family is unhappy in different ways, and that is what we have in common), the Communism of a dutiful daughter, her feminism, her coming to terms with her lesbianism, her Judaism, and her discovery of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama and spirituality.

However the book is best known for her accounts of how, when she was a very young girl, she was regularly sexually abused by her father, who masturbated on her naked body. The account of this is utterly convincing, and if the account of actual incidents comprise only a small portion of the book, her dealing with its consequences dominate the latter sections of the book. Her father is not presented as a monster, and the account of how she finally was able to talk about it with him, is quite brave and moving, and quite forgiving, both towards her father, and towards herself. If it doesn’t do much to increase one’s admiration for Herbert Aptheker as a person or scholar, neither is it a mean-spirited daddy dearest sort of attack.

The main quality that comes across in Bettina Aptheker’s account of her father is that of obliviousness, an indifference to seeing the world as it actually is, and the deep conviction that if one tries hard enough and uses sufficient force, the world can be crammed and stuffed into one’s pre-existing mental categories. This is of course the way Herbert Aptheker and other doctrinaire Communists approached life, dividing everything into things that either were illustrations of underlying truths or anomalies to be explained away. The only question to ask of every fact is “which side are you on?” And it is clear that when he came upon an inconvenient fact or inconvenient person, his basic strategy was to yell and scream and attempt to intimidate his opponent into silence, or at least into not want to talk to him any more. One can judge ex-communists in part by evaluating the length of time it took them to become exes. Aptheker essentially never left the party. (Bettina, who left around 1980, didn’t set any land speed records either.)

And this obliviousness to the anomalous carried over to his personal life, where he had largely forgotten or obscured his sexual crimes against his daughter, and used his anger to ward off difficulty people and situations, and from this arose his daughter’s conviction that spirituality was an essentially component of any political problem; only those have dealt with their souls, and their own suffering, can address the suffering of others. Bettina Aptheker writes that much of his father’s problems was perhaps be traced to the fact that when he was a young man, his beloved brother had committed suicide, something he had never discussed with anyone. ( If I were a Marx today, looking for a key that would unlock the secret of human history, it would not be class struggle, but suicide.)

Aptheker comes across as a man who really did not know himself, and because of this, hurt himself and hurt others. In the end, when he died, this man who had always scoffed and mocked his Jewish background, asked his daughter to say Kaddish over his grave. She complied.