Sunday, January 31, 2010

Howard Zinn

People seem to be of two minds about Howard Zinn, and I guess that’s okay. Subtlety was never his greatest strength, so I suppose it is fitting that his work is usually either loved or hated. Those who love it, see it as radical truth telling, speaking truth to power, exposing dark underbellies, naming things that others would prefer not to be named. Those who hate it see it as hamfisted history, caricaturing both the heroes and the villains in an effort to reduce the complexity of American history to a ten-point political program. Me, I’m sort of in the middle. I can see his limitations, and his tendentiousness, but I tend to like his political program. His immensely popular book, A People’s History of the United States, should be a way into American history, and not a stopping point. But if people read only one general history of America in their lives they could do a hell of a lot worse than a People’s History of the United States.

Zinn’s history, to its very title, is redolent of the strengths and weaknesses of a strain in history derived ultimately from the Popular Front of the 1930s, one that sees capitalism and capitalists as perpetually warring against “the people.” Many of Zinn’s critics, such as Michael Kazin, argue that “the people” don’t really exist, and are complicit in what actually happens, and are not a passive force screwed over again and again by the forces of capital. The enemy is us.

Fair enough, but let us consider the current health care debate. Is the fact that the single-payer option, the public option, and almost all of the reforms that progressives wanted died on the committee room floor the fault of the long hands of capital, manipulating the debate and debaters like the expert puppeteers they are, or is it because the people themselves are too implicated and imbricated in the existing system to ever be an effective agent for change, and what “the people” want, above all, is to disaggregated, to fit into their various slots and cohorts, and be left alone?

You can make an argument either way.. With Zinn you have a clearer sense of what and who the real enemies are. With Zinn’s critics, you have a clear sense of the challenges and impediments to transformative change. What do we need? We need a historiography that can explain both why Charlie Brown keeps on trying to kick the football, and a historiography that explains why Lucy keeps on pulling it away. There is a role for both Zinn style history and anti-Zinn history, and they should be combined in ways that do not cancel each other out, but transcend the limitations of both approaches. We need a historiography that can explain why Americans are both so self-satisfied and so unhappy, a historiography that is ironic enough to transcend its own irony, that has a problem telling the difference between triumphs and tragedies. Anyway, this rhetorical effusion aside, let me continue to eulogize. Howard Zinn fought many good fights over a very long career, and he will be missed.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Structure of Political Revolutions

I suppose all bloggers worth their salt this week have to try to provide an explanation for the current Democratic debacle, stand among their ruins, and prophesy. Here goes. Let us return to grad school and the first time you read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I’m sure you remember it, with that pink cover, and the famous argument that most of the time science tends to go along quite nicely, with a self-confirming worldview, confirmed again and again by the experiments of those who share it. Now, there are occasional things that do not fit neatly into any world view. These are explained away as anomalies, and do not threaten the architectonic of the worldview, until the anomalies accumulate with sufficient number and gravity, leading to what Kuhn called a “paradigm shift” (he is responsible for popularizing paradigm in middlebrow argot), and uses the example of the paradigmatic paradigm shift, the Copernican revolution, overthrowing the Ptolemaic geocentered universe.

Okay. Enough astronomy. To make the analogy, we have lived under a Reaganite paradigm for lo these thirty years; government is bad, taxes are bad, the military (which is somehow seen as not really part of the government) is good, and free markets are good, and everything confirms this, except what doesn’t, and those become the anomalies, such as Medicare and Social Security, which do not count as being government. And since the people who control the paradigm get to declare what is and what is not anomalous, the Republican departures from these standards, as frequently happened under the two Bushes, get a free pass, while the Democratic departures are condemned as wrecking the system.
Well, under the second Bush, the anomalies piled up, fastly and furiously, until it seemed that the underlying system was beginning to crack and falter, and we were in the presence of a paradigm shift, heralded by the election of Obama. But I don’t think this has happened, and the old paradigm, though shaky, is beginning to recoalesce. And the main reason is, though Obama was elected as a Copernican, his governing style has been Ptolemaic, and without giving a clear enough alternative, too many Americans have engaged in retrograde motion, and returned to their Reaganite epicycles. There are always anomalies, things that don’t fit, but only the person who controls the paradigm gets to announce the anomalies, and that person is not yet Obama, and it is no longer clear, alas, that he ever will be.

Do you remember Tycho Brahe, the greatest astronomer in the generation before Galileo, who had a golden nose, and wrote about the supernova in Cassiopeia? Well, he also tried to combine the Ptolemaic and Copernican models, and argued that the earth was indeed in the center of the universe, and the sun revolved around the earth, but all the other planets revolved around the sun. This was an act of scientific bipartisanship, and Tycho Brahe was half-right. But sometimes, in politics and celestial mechanics alike, being half right can be the same as being completely wrong.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Visions of Haiti on Television

To be honest, I don't usually turn to television in a time of crisis: as a wise friend of mine at the Media Studies Center observed, it makes you dizzy and is less reliable than the newspapers. Still, I dip into tv to see what my fellow Americans are seeing. For all the breaking news from Haiti on television, it is striking to see how quickly the medium falls into formulaic patterns of coverage. A desire to console, and an inadequate appreciation of history, are both apparent.

The desire to console was apparent in an exchange between an anchor and a reporter. The reporter had just finished trying to describe the depths of the devastation he had seen. The anchor then responded that while it was awful, perhaps this was a time for Haiti to finally overcome its problems. The reporter looked skeptical, but the anchor kept prodding him until he said the equivalent of "perhaps."

Another aspect of the consoling role is the medium's addiction to high emotion and strong graphics. This tendency leads to plenty of air time for rescues that work out. Unfortunately, as we're learning, the ones that work out are a rarity. The result is a false send of consolation from happy stories of rescue.

Amid all this, it would be good for Americans to learn more about their country's long involvement in Haiti. The fine author Tracy Kidder made the shrewd point that this earthquake was not a natural disaster, but a disaster that wreaked devastation because so many human actions had made so many people vulnerable. Americans are part of this. As one of the networks recognized in a thumbnail sketch of Haiti's history, the United States has been deeply involved in Haiti for many decades.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I feel a need to say something about the Haitian earthquake, if only to bear witness to the suffering of untold hundreds of thousands. But I really don’t have much to say, or add, to what has already been said to this latest chapter in Haiti’s long, proud, sad history. Let’s not to be quick to condemn people who trying to survive as looters. Let’s not be too quick, following Rebecca Solnit’s excellent recent book on the subject, to assume that in the absence of government, that people will revert to their supposed animalism, rather than help one another to the best of their abilities. And let’s not try to blame Haitians, or like David Brooks in the Times yesterday, their culture, for their basic problems. (Neither I wouldn’t lay the blame for Haiti’s poverty on America’s sorry history of imperialist involvement in Haiti, though the Aristide years, but that is at least as compelling a narrative.) Let’s not to be quick to praise our own generosity, though I must confess that in using the US military to aid the Haitians, we have finally found a use for our oversized military that I can approve of. Fighting natural disasters is the true moral equivalent of war. Great natural disasters should be a reminder that we are all, in some fundamental sense, equal in our fragility, and equal in our mortality, but once the earth stops shaking, we find out once again, alas, that our equality was only temporary. In any event, God have mercy on Haiti and Haitians, and let us see if the oldest republic in the western hemisphere can use this horrible occasion to find, after two centuries, a constructive way of relating to the second oldest republic.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On Carpetbaggerism

So the talk is there is going to be a race for the Democratic nomination for the New York Senate seat between a white woman and a black man. I don’t know if the first time this happened, in recent years, it was a tragedy, but the second time is definitely a farce. Kirsten Gillibrand has been a relatively anonymous figure for her year in the US Senate. I am not sure if I could recognize her face or voice. She has moved from a moderately centrist Democratic politics to moderately liberal. Good for her, but I can’t say that I have strong feelings about her candidacy, either way. Harold Ford Jr was understandably a moderately conservative Democrat when he was running for the US Senate from Tennessee. But the same politics makes him far too conservative for New York State. He is beginning to move to the center, but basically New York State is one of the most liberal states in the country, and if it is not represented by a true liberal, it is a great opportunity wasted.

But the real question about Ford, who has lived in New York State for only three years, is why does New York State attract carpetbaggers so frequently, from Robert Kennedy to Hillary Clinton? First let me say that a carpetbagger is an honorable calling, and goes back to a time when southern politics desperately needed the assistance of outsiders, and the tragedy was that they didn’t stay longer and accomplish more. Carpetbaggers respond to a need, and the need that New York State Democrats have is that over the past few decades they have done a spectacularly poor job in producing likely candidates for top positions. The whole controversy over Gillibrand and Caroline Kennedy was a reflection of the lack of obvious candidates for the senate position. The basic problem is that NYS’s dysfunctional politics has produced few viable candidates for higher office. One can look at the difficulties that both Elliot Spitzer (leaving his assignations aside) and David Paterson have had in being effective governors, where the basic problem seems to be that Democrats in the legislature, secure in their seats, have no reason to come to the aid of their party’s governor. And for reasons I will let those who follow NYC politics more closely explain, Democrats have had relatively weak candidates for mayor of NYC for several cycles. So as a result, the candidates for statewide office often emerge from congress, and they are by definition not well known around the state, and most of them, lacking statewide reputations, seem too small for the task of representing or running something as big and complex as NYS. So it seems to me that if NYers wants to prevent more carpetbaggers descending on their elections, they need to start by creating a state politics which works, and which can produce politicians of which they can be proud.

The Negro Problem

I guess we have all heard about the current hoo-hah over Harry Reid’s perfectly sensible remarks about Obama, and how this has become a minor scandal, with some comparing his remarks to Trent Lott’s support for Strom Thurmond’s segregationist Dixiecrat campaign for the presidency in 1948, which is of course asinine. I have two remarks to make. First, the remarks in question come from what is perhaps the least useful genre of political reportage ever invented, the unsourced trolling through the detritus of recent events, of the sort Bob Woodward has perfected, the book that gives the illusion that you are in the room with the policy makers when they are making real decisions. And illusions are what they provide.Though I don’t doubt that future historians will find the occasional stray remark to be useful, I think they provide a navel’s eye view of the world, from the vantage of campaign staffers with scores to settle, and who think that campaign staffers are the real story of the campaign. Such sleazy compilations of meretricious gossip, that consistently eschew any bigger issues, add little or nothing to the understanding of politics, and just further debases an already debased political process.

But what really has interested me is the anger about Reid called Obama a Negro. Negro is archaic, and hasn’t been an accepted term for persons of African ancestry living in the United States since about 1970 or so. Those of us who work in African American history know this, and live with it, but it complicates our task. When you are working, as I currently am, on black history of the 1930s and 1940s, and when every black person you quote uses the term Negro, you are constantly paraphrasing, and when someone says “Negroes will demand their equal rights” and you don’t want to quote it, you write “he called for blacks to demand their equal rights,” which is not quite saying the same thing. It always seem a bit sad, when refering to someone who proudly called himself or herself a Negro, we are not allowed to honor their chosen designation.

Negro was never a slur. Black nationalists like Marcus Garvey, of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, used it freely, and the big linguistic campaign by blacks in the mid-century was to ensure the capitalization of Negro in print. (The capitalization of black is far less consistent than Negro, in large part because capitalizing Black would seem to call for a balancing capitalization of White, which many deem ugly.)
Is it offensive to use an archaic term, that was never offensive, to refer to a racial or ethnic group? Probably more weird than offensive, like calling a Jew a Hebrew, an Israelite, or person of Mosaic persuasion. (Actually calling someone a Jew, as opposed to calling someone Jewish, strikes me as a bit archaic as well.) Negro survives as an adjective, in such terms as Negro spirituals, but otherwise has left the living language. This is a small price to pay for the tremendous positive change wrought by the upheavals of the 1960s, but I guess I wish those of us who write in the field could occasionally use Negro as a substitute for black or African American, especially when writing of a time when it was ubiquitous. But linguistic conventions are remorseless, and spare no one. In 1986 Ralph Ellison dedicated his second book of essays, Going to the Territory, somewhat cryptically, to “that vanished tribe into which I was born, the American Negroes.” I think I know what he means, and one of the things it means, as Harry Reid’s comments demonstrates, is that American may have a black president, but it will never have a Negro one.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Extraordinary Life of Ernest Bokor

From the 1960s to the 1980s, when Ernest Bokor worked in the gold district of New York City, he didn’t talk much about his past. By day he used his mechanical skills and an artistic streak to make jewelry molds. At night, he went home to his wife and two daughters in Passaic, NJ. Nothing suggested that he was a man of extraordinary courage, nerve and resourcefulness who saved his fellow Jews from the Nazis in Hungary during World War II.

I knew him only in passing through his daughter Raya, one of my college friends from the 1970s. When he died recently, she wrote a short chronicle of his life and gave it to friends and family. The story astounded me.

Born in southern Czechoslovakia in 1920, Mr. Bokor went to Budapest in 1939 to look for work. When Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, he was sent to do forced labor. Sensing imminent danger, he had his identification papers altered to conceal the fact that he was Jewish.

One desperate improvisation led to another. Eventually he used his forged identify, and his blond-haired, blue-eyed “Aryan” looks, to help the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg rescue Jews from deportation to concentration camps. Armed and dressed in fascist uniforms, Mr. Bokor and his comrades tricked real Nazis into releasing their prisoners into their custody. Then, they set them free with “Sheuss Passes” from Wallenberg that placed the holder under the protection of Sweden.

Mr. Bokor related one of his rescues as follows.

One day, Raoul Wallenberg called a meeting and gave us instructions. We were to take two open back trucks and go to a cinderblock factory where Jews were being collected for deportation on a death march toward Austria. We were to tell the guards that we had orders to get workers to help clear rubble from the streets so that the military could move trucks and supplies. We were to pick up as many as we could possibly fit into the two trucks.

It was already late fall, rainy and cold. Many people were without shoes or coats. When we arrived and the prisoners saw us they became very frightened thinking we were there to round them up, take them away, and kill them. There were old women, young women with children, and old men.

In order to seem convincing we shouted anti-Jewish slogans at them. At first it was difficult to get the people onto the truck.

As we got them on, they tried to jump off and run back into the crowd. I had to get some real Hungarian Nazis to help. One of them said he would help if we promised not to bring them back but to kill them all. We assured him that he would never see these people again.

They surrounded the truck and we squeezed in as many as we could. The people were terribly frightened as we packed them in tighter and tighter. We packed them in like pickled herrings and when we couldn’t fit any more, we drove away. They kept screaming and trying to escape.

I sat on top of the cab holding a submachine gun at the prisoners and yelled at them not to move or they would be shot. This was very harsh but necessary in order to fool the Nazis. If anyone suspected or looked carefully at our papers, we would be lost.

When we got far away fro the factory we stopped the trucks. It was late in the day, rainy and dark. Many people were crying in anticipation of being shot. Finally we could tell them the truth—that we were Jews as well and were there to save them. We gave them the Sheuss Passes, instructed them to fill in their names, and released them to go into hiding as best they could.

We didn’t have a place for them to go, but, at least for the moment they had a new chance to survive.

Ernest had more such experiences, and his share of sorrows, before the war ended. In peacetime he met Helen Lebovic, who had been in Auschwitz. They married in 1948. In 1949 they immigrated to Israel and in 1958 to the United States.

Only in his retirement years did he begin to speak publicly about his wartime experiences. When he did he deferred to his wife because she was an Auschwitz survivor.

Frank Yusko, a high school history teacher in Spotswood, NJ who worked with Mr. Bokor on Holocaust education, called him "a good friend and a great man" who should be remembered because he “made the choice to place himself in harm’s way to help others in desperate need. People such as these should serve as an example for all of us.” I can't think of a better way to sum up his heroism in World War II.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Learning From the Liberal Party

A guest post containing some very sage advice from Daniel Soyer, who is both an active member of the Working Families Party, and a leading historian of the Liberal Party.

The Working Families Party (WFP), having displayed considerable muscle in this past year’s elections and legislative session, is now facing scrutiny from sections of the media and federal investigators concerning its rather complex finances. WFP leaders, of course, deny any wrongdoing, and argue that many of the accusations come from those who consider working people and the poor to be “special interests.” And indeed, the party’s legislative agenda from an increase in the state minimum wage to the recent green jobs bill has been a progressive one and its touted candidates largely of high quality (purist leftist quibbles aside).
But the Working Families Party needs to take care that it doesn’t follow the path of its predecessor on the New York left, the Liberal Party. Given its sorry end, it is often forgotten that when it was founded in 1944, and for several decades thereafter, the Liberal Party was a genuinely progressive force for civil rights, labor, affordable housing, fair taxation, universal healthcare, strong public education at all levels, and, yes, even good government. (The Liberals called for the abolition of the state senate more than half a century ago.) Sure the party was always a top-down affair, bossed by union leaders Alex Rose and David Dubinsky. But the bosses were personally honest and made sure the party stayed true to its liberal/social democratic principles. The Liberal Party also had a large social base, with dozens of local clubs and an ability to mobilize thousands of members from Dubinsky’s International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

The ILGWU was also the Liberal Party’s largest source of money. Its party affiliation meant the Liberals had a steady income to work (as the WFP now proudly does) not only as a campaign operation but also as a year-round pressure group and incubator of progressive ideas. The Liberals also attracted many idealistic young people, some of them looking for jobs that would enable them to make a living while fighting for a better world. From the start, the Liberal Party was a clearing house for patronage government and otherwise. Rose used to argue that there was nothing wrong with party activists getting jobs as long as they were principled liberals of high caliber, as they usually were.

But things started to change for the Liberal Party in the late 1960s. After Dubinsky’s retirement as president, the ILGWU disaffiliated from the party, taking its money and members with it. The Liberals were now left without much of a social base and the need to scramble for funds. Then, at the end of 1976, Alex Rose died. Raymond Harding emerged as the party leader, and by the early 1980s, the Liberal Party was shaking down candidates for cash and jobs. Liberal positions on issues became nothing but an afterthought. By the time it lost its ballot line in 2002, the Liberal Party was little more than a shell--- a lobbying firm with a ballot line (for sale).

The lesson for the WFP? It is at least that if they intend for the party to be a lasting force for good, party leaders, veterans of the movement left and the progressive labor movement need to think about the future, when they are gone. As James Madison put it long ago in a message to the people of New York, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Instead, structures need to be put into place now to prevent abuses.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On Caricatures

The point of a caricature is to capture the essence of a person through exaggeration. It’s a neat trick. Too often a caricaturist errs on one side or the other of the equation, either its all exaggeration, and the person and the real personality is overwhelmed, or it is too much of a portrait, and the person’s essence is submerged. I don't know enough to provide a good history of caricatures or caricaturists, but the growth of the art is clearly connected to the rise of mass circulation magazines and newspapers in the 19th century, and can be separated from the cartoon in that a caricature generally doesn’t have a caption or an accompanying joke, but the image itself needs to be clever and amusing. If Daumier, who I confess might be my favorite French artist of the 19th century, all of your Delacroixs, Manets, and Seurats notwithstanding, the great master of the early 20th century was Max Beerbohm. ( Beerbohm was also probably the most gifted parodist in the English language, and my Christmas reading this year was Beerbohm’s A Christmas Garland, his famous collection of parodies of English writers c. 1912—the one parodying Henry James late, circumlocutionary style is perhaps the best—and my edition was illustrated by about 25 of his wonderful caricatures. And Beerbohm reminds us that a good caricature is a visual parody of someone’s face and personality.)

For those of us growing up in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, there were only two caricaturists; Al Hirschfeld, whose illustrations, primarily of theater people, adorned the Arts and Leisure section of the NY Times for decades, and David Levine, the caricaturist in residence for the New York Review of Books, and whose images covered an astonishing range of people in cultural and politics, from the golden age of Aeschylus and Euripides to the bronze age of George W. Bush. Well, of course I liked Hirschfeld, and counted Ninas with the best of them, but compared to Levine, his caricatures were often superficial, capturing and exaggerating visual aspects of his subjects faces, without providing a deeper sense of who they were. Levine’s were different, with their huge heads and noses, and always seemed to be a commentary on the person in question. He is perhaps best remembered for his political caricatures, though he probably was best in his depictions of literary and artistic folk. And even when he was political, as in the famous one of Lyndon Johnson showing off his scar, but even in this image, the point was as much about Johnson’s personality, and his all-encompassing egocentrism and self-centered personality, as about the war in Vietnam. Levine could at times be mean, but he was never nasty. Now, a few years after Hirschfeld departed at the age of 100, Levine has left us as well. We might imagine what Levine’s Obama, or Palin might have looked like, but we will never know. The NYRB hasn’t been the same since Levine’s caricatures stopped appearing, and it will be further diminished.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Joe Ades, RIP

Joe Ades, who peddled potato peelers on the streets of New York in a delightful British accent, was a pleasure to watch and mystery to behold. Now that he's gone, he turns out to be even more fascinating then I imagined.

As a fine piece by Dan Bergner in the Times explains, he was a native of Manchester, England who peddled goods in Britain and Australia before he moved to New York and fell in love with the city. His handsome suits and smooth patter carried him far: he earned a good living and spent his after-work hours sipping champagne in the piano bar at the Pierre.

And his potato peelers were no joke. I bought one years ago and it serves me well today, although I never mastered Joe's technique of turning whole carrots into sunflower sculptures.

At their best, the sidewalks of New York are the best show in the city. Surely Joe Ades was one of our stars.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Apologies to the Shinnecocks

So the Shinnecocks finally have achieved federal recognition as an Indian tribe, only about 230 years or so belatedly. The basic criteria for federal recognition was whether or not you were fierce enough or formidable enough to require the federal government to recognize you in a formal treaty, and since the Shinnecocks were no longer a military threat when the Federal government came on the scene, they were allowed to languish for centuries without federal status, only with state recognition, But the Shinnecocks have been in the records of the English and Dutch since the 1630s and have managed to hold onto a reservation of about 800 acres, with about 500 residents, despite the best efforts of developers to despoil then of their land over the centuries.

The Shinnecocks want to build a casino, or somehow profit economically and I don’t blame them, though I hope they come up a more creative way of profiting from their new status than gaming. And I also hope they also find new ways to publicize their existence, perhaps through a museum. Of all the Alquonkian-speaking Indian nations, tribes, and bands that once roamed Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley, there are only two small reservations left, both on eastern Long Island, the Shinnecocks, and the tiny Unkechaung Poospatuck reservation, at a mere 50 acres. The federal recognition of the Shinnecocks is a triumph not only for them, but for the Munsee, the Delaaware, the Lenape, the Raritan, the Wekquaegeck, the Hackensack, the Canarsee, the Kichtawank, the Esopus, the Mattinecok, the Montauck, and many others. Let us hope that the federal recognition of the Shinnecock is a first step to a more general acknowledgement of New York State’s Alquonkian heritage.