Friday, November 26, 2010

Remembering the Alamo

Texas is a state with a long memory, and nowhere more than at the Alamo, But on a recent visit to San Antonio, I found that the story of the battle of the Alamo is getting a more nuanced and truthful treatment that takes into account Mexican perspectives.

As a child in the early 1960s, I worshipped Davy Crockett. With my coonskin hat and long rifle, I spent many hours reenacting my last stand. For me, Davy Crockett and his comrades died defending freedom against overwhelming odds. I could not imagine a more honorable death

The chapel at the Alamo, which I visited, maintains this narrative. But exhibits outside the chapel, and in the Alamo's Long Barracks, tell a more complicated story. They depict the Texan war of independence as a struggle between a centralizing government in newly independent Mexico and supporters of a federal system. The Texas war, in this version, was one of a number of rebellions against authority in Mexico City. Exhibits also recognize Tejanos who fought for Texas independence.

What gets lost in this, of course, is the fact that Texans from the USA wanted to establish slavery. Once that becomes part of the story, the Alamo becomes something less than a full-blown fight for freedom.

That doesn't make the Alamo any less worth visiting. I made a point of standing at the site of the low wall defended by Davy Crockett and boys from Tennessee. I also read a plaque bearing the words of commander William Barrett Travis' letter from the Alamo that concludes "Victory of death," an recalled how many times I was stirred as I read those words.

But what most heartened me was a guide who told visitors that the story of the Alamo was not a story of good guys and bad guys, but a story of politics written in shades of grey. I'll take that over the old version any day. And I'll make a point of reading some more Texas history

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

First City, Second Edition

The Encyclopedia of New York City has been very important to me. When I joined its staff in 1989 I was still searching vainly for a direction in my career as a historian. I eventually became its managing editor, and every success I have had in my subsequent career, directly or indirectly, comes from my involvement in the Encyclopedia. I owe it, and its editor, the redoubtable Kenneth T. Jackson, my deepest and most humble thanks.

And now, fifteen years after the encyclopedia appeared, a second edition has appeared. (A thanks to Ken and Lisa Keller for including the entire staff page for the first edition.) I have had very little to do with this second edition, and if I can offer my unbiased opinion, it is great. One of the truisms of the reference editing biz is that second editions of reference works are often more difficult than starting fresh, without any existing text as a constraint. One has to integrate the older edition into the new edition, and make it all seem seamless, and often, as is the case with the Encyclopedia of NYC, add a ton of new material, while keeping everything the same size. Ken starts his introduction by saying September 11th transformed all of our lives, and it hangs heavy over the book , though the general impression the book provides is one of continuity with the past, and that the city of 2010, despite 9/11, and such dramatic changes as the drop in crime and the financial crisis of 2008, is much the same as the city of 1995, in some ways more so, and in some ways less so.
There are a few errors in the updates. Chase Manhattan bank hasn’t gone by that name for over a decade, and is no longer located in NYC. Over two pages were added on the winners of the Forest Hill/Flushing Meadows tennis championships (perhaps a little too much), dating back to the late 19th century, but contrary to the table headings, they were only open championships after 1968. There were some nice additions, such as a table of retail establishments—Dunkin’ Donuts is in first place, with 341 in the city, beating out Subways, McDonald’s, and Starbucks, and one on executions of NYC criminals (which perhaps was modeled on a similar table in the Encyclopedia of New York State.)
I don’t know if print encyclopedias are essentially obsolete or not. Certainly Wikipedia has profoundly changed the nature of reference publishing, but it is a pleasure to be able to hold an encyclopedia and all of its contents in one’s hands, and I urge people to pick one up. Ken, Lisa, et al., congrats on a job well done.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Problems in Albany

My friend Trish Barbagallo, who I heard a few days ago give an excellent paper on Poor Relief to the Oneida Indian nation, and a Ph.D candidate at SUNY Albany, asked me to post this on Greater New York, which I am happy to do. And of course Prof. Pesko is correct. The waves of cost-cutting on the part of the NYS government that will wash over us in days to come will denude us of much that is vital to our collective identity. If I may quote Virgil Facilis descensus Averno, Easy is the way down to the Underworld. Of the American university, increasingly dedicated solely to business, technology, and defense related work, we may
soon say, Arma virumque cano, Of arms and the man I sing. Trish alerts us to a very dangeroous and troubling trend.

Peter Eisenstadt

An open letter to George M Philip, President of the State University of New York At Albany
Dear President Philip,

Probably the last thing you need at this moment is someone else from outside your university complaining about your decision. If you want to argue that I can't really understand all aspects of the situation, never having been associated with SUNY Albany, I wouldn't disagree. But I cannot let something like this go by without weighing in. I hope, when I'm through, you will at least understand why.

Just 30 days ago, on October 1st, you announced that the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts were being eliminated. You gave several reasons for your decision, including that 'there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs.' Of course, your decision was also, perhaps chiefly, a cost-cutting measure - in fact, you stated that this decision might not have been necessary had the state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed your university to set its own tuition rates. Finally, you asserted that the humanities were a drain on the institution financially, as opposed to the sciences, which bring in money in the form of grants and contracts.

Let's examine these and your other reasons in detail, because I think if one does, it becomes clear that the facts on which they are based have some important aspects that are not covered in your statement. First, the matter of enrollment. I'm sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn't have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn't required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy: humanities, social sciences, the fine arts, the physical and natural sciences, and to attain minimal proficiency in at least one foreign language. You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it's because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs - something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

Young people haven't, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it's hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky's parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.

That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I'm sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it - if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don't.

Then there's the question of whether the state legislature's inaction gave you no other choice. I'm sure the budgetary problems you have to deal with are serious. They certainly are at Brandeis University, where I work. And we, too, faced critical strategic decisions because our income was no longer enough to meet our expenses. But we eschewed your draconian - and authoritarian - solution, and a team of faculty, with input from all parts of the university, came up with a plan to do more with fewer resources. I'm not saying that all the specifics of our solution would fit your institution, but the process sure would have. You did call a town meeting, but it was to discuss your plan, not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing 'unfortunate', but pleaded that there was a 'limited availability of appropriate large venue options.' I find that rather surprising. If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don't have much clout at your university.

It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn't have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn't want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

The Inferno is the first book of Dante's Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There's so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders - if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don't.

And do you really think even those faculty and administrators who may applaud your tough-minded stance (partly, I'm sure, in relief that they didn't get the axe themselves) are still going to be on your side in the future? I'm reminded of the fable by Aesop of the Travelers and the Bear: two men were walking together through the woods, when a bear rushed out at them. One of the travelers happened to be in front, and he grabbed the branch of a tree, climbed up, and hid himself in the leaves. The other, being too far behind, threw himself flat down on the ground, with his face in the dust. The bear came up to him, put his muzzle close to the man's ear, and sniffed and sniffed. But at last with a growl the bear slouched off, for bears will not touch dead meat. Then the fellow in the tree came down to his companion, and, laughing, said 'What was it that the bear whispered to you?' 'He told me,' said the other man, 'Never to trust a friend who deserts you in a pinch.'

I first learned that fable, and its valuable lesson for life, in a freshman classics course. Aesop is credited with literally hundreds of fables, most of which are equally enjoyable - and enlightening. Your classics faculty would gladly tell you about them, if only you had a Classics department, which now, of course, you don't.

As for the argument that the humanities don't pay their own way, well, I guess that's true, but it seems to me that there's a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I'm not saying it shouldn't be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do 'old-fashioned' courses of study. But universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I'll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world's number 1 health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the USA and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs. My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern Studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern Studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn't - well, I'm sure you get the picture.

I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I've just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I'm willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word 'university' derives from the Latin 'universitas', meaning 'the whole'. You can't be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.

I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It's your job as President to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is 'God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh'). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I'm sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don't.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly 'dead' subjects. From your biography, you don't actually have a PhD or other high degree, and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I'm now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn't just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

One of the things I do now is write a monthly column on science and society. I've done it for over 10 years, and I'm pleased to say some people seem to like it. If I've been fortunate enough to come up with a few insightful observations, I can assure you they are entirely due to my background in the humanities and my love of the arts.

One of the things I've written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn't a question for science alone; it's a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including - especially including - the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It's also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You've just ensured that yours won't be one of them.

Some of your defenders have asserted that this is all a brilliant ploy on your part - a master political move designed to shock the legislature and force them to give SUNY Albany enough resources to keep these departments open. That would be Machiavellian (another notable Italian writer, but then, you don't have any Italian faculty to tell you about him), certainly, but I doubt that you're that clever. If you were, you would have held that town meeting when the whole university could have been present, at a place where the press would be all over it. That's how you force the hand of a bunch of politicians. You proclaim your action on the steps of the state capitol. You don't try to sneak it through in the dead of night, when your institution has its back turned.

No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it's performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get - well, I'm sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don't, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It's awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That's the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven't given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

Disrespectfully yours,

Gregory A Petsko



Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Independent Historian

This is a big week for me. I have a new book out from Cornell University Press, described below, and two pieces on the History News Network. In this one, I talk a lot about myself, and like most of us, I find myself to be a very interesting topic of conversation.

I have never been a big fan of the term “independent historian.” It always struck me as a subtle form of professorial condescension to those of us going through our careers without benefit of academic position, as if we had to prove to our tenured friends that we were “real” historians. Moreover, our independence largely seemed to consist of freedom from steady employment. But perhaps I was being just a wee bit too sensitive. I have come to embrace the term , with reservations, as I have come to understand that my career as a historian will never involve regular employment at an institution of higher learning. Of course, we are all entitled to our sour grapes. I sometimes think my academic friends really get paid to be teachers, administrators, counselors, etc., while they try to squeeze in a little history writing on the side. If we were to be accurate, their job title might be “academic teachers of history.” Me, I’m a historian. Writing history is my job and profession, and writing history is all I do.

None of this is to my credit, exactly. After all, when I came to the realization that there was apparently no history department in North America that wanted my services (save in the peonage known as adjuncting), I probably should have listened to the good advice of friends and family, to say nothing of the prudential spirit within, and retrained, and adopt a different profession. But I was just too stubborn and foolish. I had decided that a historian I would become, and a historian I would remain, regardless of the collective opinion of my peers about my employability.

Really, I have no complaints or regrets. And I have had a diverse and satisfying career. I choose my own topics to write about. I never report to a boss or supervisor. And every day, I get up, turn on my computer, and get to write about history. What could possibly be better?
For a number of years I worked as a historical reference editor, editing encyclopedias. It’s a perfect job for anyone like me, a Jeopardy contestant manqué with pretensions to omniscience. My work as an encyclopedia culminated in my stint as editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York State, which I directed from beginning to end, working with a staff of fifty, and a corps of contributors numbering well over one thousand. Unfortunately, too many historians still view editing encyclopedias as harmless drudgery, and as not a fully “serious” species of history, and most encyclopedias remain underappreciated and underreviewed. I hope this attitude changes. I know the Encyclopedia is one of the most comprehensive, and I don’t think it is immodest to say, one of the most important works ever published on New York State history.

But to return to the independent historian theme, one of the problems with working as an encyclopedia editor is that day by day, you are slowly laboring to put yourself out of work, and sooner or later you accomplish this great task. And it never gets any easier finding the next gig. So it was when then Encyclopedia was finished. Serendipitously, I found work as an editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, Howard Thurman being the most significant African American religious thinker of the 20th century. I moved up from New York City to Rochester in 1995 to be an editor on the papers project, but things didn’t really work out, and we parted ways in 1997. I never imagined I would ever return, but in 2005 I needed a job, they needed an editor, things were different, and it’s been much better the second time around. We have published one volume of his papers, others are on the way, and with a colleague, Quinton Dixie, I have written an introduction to Thurman’s life which we hope will introduce him to historians, and place him where he belongs, and as a prime creator of the tradition of African American radical non-violence.

And when I left the Encyclopedia, having accomplished all I ever wanted to do achieve in the world of reference editing, I left it behind, tired of chopping up the world of knowledge into 750 or 1,000 word chunks. I started writing a book about the housing cooperative in Queens in which I grew up, Rochdale Village, after becoming involved in a chatroom for former residents. Rochdale Village was unique in many ways, especially in that it was the largest experiment in integrated housing in New York City in the 1960s, if not all of the United States. The book has just been published by Cornell University Press. It covers a lot of topics; race, civil rights, black power, black/Jewish relations, crime, the teachers strike of 1968, the need for affordable housing, and the continuing rehabilitation of Robert Moses, but though it is not a memoir, it is primarily about the historical forces that shaped my early life. Researching and writing it was a thrilling experience, the most powerful involvement with a project in my career, and I found myself using my historical skills to ask and try to answer the most basic of existential questions, “who am I?” I would urge every historian to consider a similar project. I am sure you will find it as rewarding (and surprising, and confounding, and moving) as I did.

Parting advice to would-be independent historians? Money isn’t everything, though try to find a partner with a well paying job, preferably one at a major research university that will give you access to the library and the propriety databases that institutions of higher learning try to keep from the grubby fingers of independent historians. Purge your soul of bitterness, envy, and jealousy. Be happy with your lot in life.

Independent historians are outsiders, and we’re similar to other groups of outsiders. We underestimate our numbers, and we tend to isolate ourselves from those similarly situated. And we often feel badly about ourselves and our careers, and we search out and probe for internal flaws and limitations, when the real problem lies not in our capacities, but in the harsh, pitiless, and dog eat dog market for academic historians that we all have endured for our entire careers. And even if we independent historians are the dogs that were eaten, we are all dogs, and I think that more and more of us are going to spend our careers as independent historians. (We once were naught, we shall be all.) And I hope a day comes, in the not too distant future, when all us will just be called historians, and we will be judged by the quality of our scholarship, and not by the condition of our employment. That’s all any of ever wanted to accomplish.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Viva Nueva York

Nueva York, the new exhibit at El Museo del Barrio, explores Gotham's relationship to Latinos and Spanish-speaking countries from 1613 to 1945. It's a fine show that will have you thinking "I didn't know that" soon after you enter and "tell me more" by the time you reach the end of the exhibit.

Most international understandings of New York are oriented on an east-west axis. Alter this to north-south, as historian and curator Mike Wallace observes, and a different perspective emerges. (Full disclosure: I'm a friend of Mike and the exhibit's main curator, Marci Reaven.) In this view of things, New York becomes a center for trade with the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean during the 18th century, a center for Latin American patriots plotting to liberate South America from Spain in the early 19th century, and a home for Latino writers, artists, immigrants and activists by the early twentieth century.

There are many things to be learned from Nueva York, but none more important than how the growth of the imperial United States changed the city's relationship to Latin America. Before the Spanish American War, and the U.S. rise to power in the Caribbean, Gotham was a city where Latin Americans worked to advance their own liberation and economic interests. After the Caribbean became an American lake, New York was more of an imperial city in a hemispheric empire. The relationship between less equal, more lopsided. Thus were some of New York's best traits as a city compromised by its presence in the larger United States of America. But not forever.

As the ending of the show and an afternoon walk around almost any part of New York makes clear, the migration of Spanish-speaking residents of the American empire to New York City since 1945 has transformed the culture and population of Gotham. While the show anticipates these changes, they really call out for an exhibit of their own.

Nueva York, produced in a collaboration with El Museo del Barrio and the New-York Historical Society, is a fine show that deserves a post-1945 sequel. The exhibit is on display at El Museo del Barrio until January 9, 2011.

Friday, September 24, 2010

George Steinbrenner's Monument

They dedicated a monument to George Steinbrenner this week in monument park in the new Yankee Stadium, the Yankee’s Valhalla of heroes. Steinbrenner’s tablet was placed in the center of the area, and at about 1,500 pounds dominates the other monuments, twice the size of those afforded such minor baseball immortals as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. Perhaps this is only fair. The old Yankee Stadium was the house that Ruth built. It was also the house that Steinbrenner demolished, and if the new stadium has an “only begetter” it is George Steinbrenner.

When Steinbrenner passed away this July the eulogies set some sort of record for maudlin insincerity. Steinbrenner was, of course, a greedy and avaricious man, a bully and a tyrant, who used abused his position of authority to abuse his underlings mercilessly, occasionally appeasing his bad conscience by acts of sporadic generosity. It is the very definition of a paternalist, who treats people like dirt, demands loyalty, and then wants all to be forgiven because he throws his peons a Christmas party.

He was lucky enough to have purchased the Yankees in 1973 when the team and all of baseball was in a trough, and he rode the upturn of the market to his fame and fortune, and it would have more or less turned out identically, if one may play a counterfactual hunch, if Steinbrenner had remained in Cleveland or Tampa.
His baseball prowess was greatly exaggerated. He was the first owner to really understand the changed terrain of baseball after free agency, and he soon acquired some of the prized properties, like Catfish Hunter, Goose Gossage, and of course Reggie Jackson, and they led the Yankees to victories in the 77 and 78 World Series.

But other teams soon caught up, and Steinbrenner spent the next decade and a half acting as his own general manager, bullying his staff into trading away prospect after prospect for over the hill stars entering the downward inclines of their careers.

The turning point came in 1990 and 1991 he was kept out of baseball for trying to spy on Dave Winfield, and in the interim, his baseball people, loosed from his tyranny, started to make their own decisions, and cultivated a crop of prospects such as Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter that formed the core of the great turn of the 21st century teams, while Steinbrenner, happily for all, largely stayed on the sidelines.

But his arrogance remained undimmed and as always, unearned. Any boss who wants to be called “the boss” is only interested in being the Pharaoh of a land of prostrate sycophants. What is most disturbing about the legend of Steinbrenner is that it fits sp neatly with recent trends in American culture, the valorizing of the entrepreneur to such an extent that it reduces workers to insignificance, and the belief that leadership, with all of its authoritarian resonances, rather than collaboration of equals is the way to get things done. I suppose Steinbrenner really thought the Yankees were an extension of him, and that he was the most important Yankee of them all, the Babe not excepted.

To me his monument will always not be the new plaque, or the New Yankee Stadium itself, a $2 billion tribute to his vanity, an unnecessary boondoggle that New Yorkers will be paying for until the Yankees decide its time to build a third Bronx stadia, but the reality that the most famous sporting venue in all of the United States, one at which, as a Bronx inductee into the cult of Mickey Mantle I worshipped at with all of my youthful fervor by the age of six, has been reduced, by Steinbrenner’s whim and a snap of his fingers, to a rubble strewn future parking lot.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Unmitigated Horror from Buffalo

Reactions to the New York primaries from Peter Eisenstadt
So after a century, we have moved from a form of voting in New York State where you only had to do one thing—go into a booth and pull some levers—to one where you have to do two things, fill out a form, and then feed it into a computer—and the possibility of making a mistake in voting has greatly increased, since now it is far easier to vote for two candidates for the same office. I would hate to see what happens in a crowded polling place in November. I suppose this is progress. But the other story of the day is Carl Paladino trouncing Rick Lazio for the Republican nomination for governor.

Paladino is a Buffalonian, and though I live just an hour away in Rochester, I never heard of him until he decided to run against Lazio. He is an unmitigated horror, a vile racist who had the most extreme take of any NYS politician on the Lower Manhattan Muslim Cultural Center, and a candidate of undisguised white rage who offers nothing but his anger against Albany, and NYC, a walking collection of biases and prejudices.

Democrats are happy that the Tea Party surge is moving the Republicans further rightwards, supposedly leaving that ever-elusive vital center up for grabs. Perhaps, but my big fear that whether by winning elections directly or scaring the moderates, the Tea Party will just push the debate further rightwards. What is most upsetting about the Tea Party and people like Paladino they have energized is that the lesson they have taken from the past decade is that the Republican Party has not been conservative enough, that white people have to regain their rights from an America run by immigrants and minorities

I suppose Andrew Cuomo will still win easily, but he is not terribly exciting. There is much to be done, and the hour is late. Democrats and democracy in New York State are still recovering from the downfall of Elliot Spitzer, and four lost years of governance. Whatever happens, I fear our state will be far worse off for having to listen to Paladino’s frothings and foamings for the next two months.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Playing Into Bin Laden's Hands

At his best, Ted Koppel represents the finest of the old American network news system. He's smart, informed, and deft in his judgments. His recent piece in the Washington Post about Osama Bin Laden brilliantly makes a point that can't be made loud enough

Bin Laden deserves to be the object of our hostility, national anguish and contempt, and he deserves to be taken seriously as a canny tactician. But much of what he has achieved we have done, and continue to do, to ourselves. Bin Laden does not deserve that we, even inadvertently, fulfill so many of his unimagined dreams.

It did not have to be this way.

As Koppel points out, the U.S. was perfectly right in crushing the Al Qaeda operation in Afghanistan after September 11. But since then, we have consistently blundered into wars, moral quagmires and errors of policy that weaken us and create recruiting opportunities for Bin Laden.

Read on.

Losing the Best of 9/11

September 11 is a difficult anniversary, but the bile that distinguishes this one is particularly troubling. Here are my thoughts on the matter of 9/11 and the proposed Muslim communty center, reprinted from the Sunday, September 5, 2010 Record at

Nine years after September 11, as debates rage over plans to build a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, we stand on the brink of losing one of the best things about our region’s response to the assault on the World Trade Center: the inclusive spirit that animated our first wave of rescue efforts and mourning rites. And that would be a terrible loss to inflict on ourselves.

I saw that inclusion as a survivor of the attacks and as a historian who tried to interpret our responses in essays, documentaries, conferences and public lectures.

Inclusion wasn’t the only one reaction to the attacks—there were stupid, ugly things said and done in all sorts of ways--but the determination to share our struggles and our griefs in public harmonized with our constitutional freedoms and our need to overcome terrible losses.

We need to remember that today. It’s not only a matter of freedom of religion and showing the world that our fight is against terrorists, not Islam. It’s also about keeping faith with what was best in us after 9/11.

When the South Tower collapsed in smoke and flames, I was standing on Broadway near Liberty Street. I ran for my life, expecting any second to be buried under a mountain of falling debris. Instead, I was caught in a cloud of smoke that choked me and blinded me until I finally caught my breath and my bearings.

As I staggered eastward through the smoke, I came upon one man who looked to be from South Asia and then another man whose ancestry seemed to be Latin American. We locked arms to support each other and plodded forward.

As we trudged down a narrow side street, someone pushed open a door to an ordinary building and hauled us inside.

There, in a food court, we were helped by one man who probably came from the Middle East, another who might trace his family to Ireland, and women with roots in Africa and Latin America. We did the best we could to help each other: we rinsed our eyes and throats, shared cell phones to call our loved ones, and soaked towels in water to make improvised dust masks for when we ventured into the murky streets outside.

There might have been a Muslim among us, but we never got around to asking each other’s religion. All we did was recognize each other as human beings who needed help.

Still, not everyone was helpful as I trekked home covered in ashes and dust. I had to ask twice before someone loaned me a phone to call my mother in North Jersey. Once, when I knocked on a restaurant’s door to beg a glass of water, the staff told me they were closed.

But I saw enough kindness to convince me of something I have believed ever since: the good people in this world outnumber the bad.

When I made my way home to East 81st Street in Manhattan, I impressed on my wife and children the most important thing I had seen: in a crisis, ordinary people had stepped forward to do incredible things—and that would see us through.

Foxhole solidarity eventually gave way to something more subtle. As the shock of the attacks yielded to the grief of mourning, the ecumenical spirit of improvised memorials was apparent throughout the metropolitan area. Walking the streets of New York, I saw sidewalk memorials jammed with Jewish yarzheit candles, Roman Catholic mass cards, and a typewritten prayer from a Muslim cleric.

In Union Square, patriotic memorabilia rested next to signs that said “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War.” The bitter smoke from the World Trade Center hung thick in the air, but never have I seen a better display of religious freedom and the right to dissent.

It was not all peaceful coexistence. In New York, and in Jersey City, some Muslim parents kept their children home from school for fear of attacks. Newspapers reported verbal abuse of Muslims in New York City. Conspiracy mongers and anti-Semites claimed that Israel was implicated in the attack.

Yet formal observances, both immediately after 9/11 and one year later, were visibly interreligious. “A Prayer for America,” a memorial service at Yankee Stadium held September 23, 2001, included Hindu, Muslim, Protestant, Sikh, Jewish and Roman Catholic devotions. One year later, at an interfaith memorial service, police officers, firefighters and rescue workers joined in as Muslim students from the Noor Ul Iman School at the Islamic Society of Central Jersey led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance.

As we wept together in the aftermath of September 11, we learned about each other’s responses to common experiences. We could even grasp that, for all our differences, each of us contained something of the other: a Jew’s injunction to remember; a Roman Catholic’s sense of communalism; a Muslim’s feeling of fear in a familiar region that suddenly seemed threatening; and a Baptist’s faith that the city would rise again.

The hijackers attacked us with indiscriminate hatred: they killed Americans, Muslims, and people of many more nationalities and religions. Our response should distinguish between terrorists and Muslims. It should also affirm humanity and freedom. And that includes freedom for religion in the shadow of Ground Zero.

As we struggle to maintain justice and security in our region, we should embrace people of all religions and nationalities who are willing to work for a better tomorrow. That surely includes the people who want to build a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. To do less is to violate the best spirit that our region displayed in the hell of 9/11.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Leaving Iraq, Remembering Frank Carvill

The latest changes in the US position in Iraq inevitably make me think of my friend Frank Carvill, who was killed in action there in 2004. Many words have been written and spoken about Frank, but none truer than those of Sgt. Bart Prouty, Jr. at the Fallen Heroes site.
I knew Frank only for a short time. He took me to chow my first few hours in Iraq. He kind of gave me the inside scoop of how things were there. He is the first soldier that I had any contact with outside of my unit in Iraq. But he made a lasting impression.

I was a medic with the 984th MP Co at the time. He was in a Combat Livesaver class that I was teaching at one point (kind of an advanced first aid class) and he was always asking me questions, trying to expand his knowledge as much as he could. That really impressed me.

Most of the kids in that class were there because they were told to be. Not Frank. He was a sponge, absorbing everything, even during the breaks when I just wanted to relax, always wanting more. He really seemed to be a selfless man.

I was in a class at Camp Victory with some medics from C Co. and Frank was one of the guys who picked us up to take us back to Camp Cuervo. We had lunch at Victory and I noticed he stayed behind with the vehicles as a guard while everyone else had chow. Always looking out for the other soldiers.

Sgt. Prouty's reminiscences are a great reminder that in the middle of a war, Frank remained the same person he always was: intelligent, generous, curious, and responsible.

The concluding thoughts in Sgt. Prouty's post speak for many.
I still cry to this day even thinking about him. He was the most selfless man I have ever met. He was a good man and everyone could learn something from him... how to be a better person.

Images from the war still haunt me every day, but I know Frank would not want that. He would want us all to do every thing we can to be better people.

I am a better person just for knowing him, I just hope that I can be a fraction of the man that he was.

SGT Bart Prouty, Jr. of 159 Med Co (AA), Wiesbaden, Germany

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ma-Nish Ta-Na

A brief comment on the Israel-Palestinian peace talks. There is no good reason for optimism, and many good reasons for pessimism. For starters, Netanyahu and his far-right coalition will almost certainly not renew the settlement freeze, which will likely lead to the talks collapsing before they get started. Between Netanyahu’s intransigence, Abbas’s weakness, the absence of Hamas, my fears of Obama’s cluelessness and deftlessness, and issues such as Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, which in the current context, seem unresolvable, it is easy to see ways for the talks to fall apart quickly. And at the various Oslos we have seen talks fall apart in the past, when the auspices were considerably brighter than they are now.

And yet the alternative is what, precisely? The Palestinians will not improve their bargaining position by not talking. I am deeply skeptical about the basic interest in the Israeli government and the increasingly conservative Israeli public in peace. And yet if there is hope of progress without mutual bludgeoning and bloodletting, the talks will be an absolute desideratum.
I see no chance that the Palestinians will get what they want from Israel, a final, permanent settlement of all outstanding issues. The talks will certainly end ambiguously, and it seems more and more likely the settlement of the Israel-Palestinian question will be ambiguous as well, neither a one or two state solution, but more of a one and a half state solution, or a two and a half state solution, with a de facto Palestinian state (or states ) unilaterally declared by the Palestinians. And the current negotiations, with an implicit if grudging recognition of the new reality by the US, would be the most likely positive outcome of the current talks. With Rob, if we look to Irish precedents, let us consider the famous words of Yeats:
What rough beast, its hour come at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Israel, the PA, Hamas, and the IRA

The need for a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians is so great that I'll hope for the best in the current negotiations while expecting something less. The obstacles to peace are many, and one of them can be illuminated by an example from Irish history--specifically the history of the IRA.

Carey McWilliams, my old professor, made the point in the 1970s: the IRA could never force the British into a settlement in Northern Ireland--but it could prevent any settlement that it did not like. Once, this was true of the PLO. Today it is true of Hamas.

The Israeli government may forge an agreement with the Palestinian Authority. But can the Palestinian Authority bring along Hamas? If it can't does that mean a civil war among Palestinians? Or a Palestinian state on what is now the West Bank and something else for Gaza?

The parallels between the two situations aren't exact, but the examples of Ireland, the IRA, the aftermath of the Irish war of independence, and the more recent decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, are sobering.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Arizona in Rochester

When I was working on the Encyclopedia of New York State for seven years, from 1998 to 2005, the Amtrak connection between Rochester and Albany was my second home. I knew all the conductors; the guy in the club car who always saved me the last can of sparkling water on the way home on Fridays. And train travel is my favorite means of locomotion. Jane would drop me off, all tired at 6 AM. Shut my eyes for a few minutes, and then I roused myself, and read blissfully for the next four hours.
Imagine my surprise, and my extreme consternation to read Nina Bernstein’s powerful article in the Times this morning on the role that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service now regularly plays on trains (and busses) on the Empire State corridor, on trains that never cross into Canada. Regularly going up and down the cars, asking people “what country were you born in?” a question that people are free not to answer, but rarely fail to give a response. And if you give the wrong answer—any country but the USA—you have to show your papers, and if you can’t satisfy the border guards, you are taking off the train In Rochester in 2008 over a 1,000 people were arrested. The numbers have dropped since evidently because immigrants are avoiding the busses and trains. In my seven years of traveling Amtrak, hundreds of trips, I was never once asked for my country of origin. Why have people been making such a fuss about Arizona when the same thing was going on in recent years in Rochester?
This will only end in one possible way, if the current trends continue. To avoid what is obviously going on, as Bernstein describes, wholesale racial profiling, everyone will have an internal national ID card, and everyone, on penalty of being taken away, will have to be able to produce it any time. And then this will be implanted with a chip, so the police and the government will be able to keep track of us. Okay, the latter is perhaps a bit paranoid, but we are going down the route of a permanent internal passport, sooner than later. Our native xenophobia, our unreasoning fear that every immigrant is a terrorist, our willingness to justify all sorts of abrogations of our rights in the name of security, will take away our rights, step by step. And unbeknowest to me, right here in little Rochester, the process seems well advanced.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Specters of Beck

In 1946 the distinguished African American religious writer Howard Thurman wrote an interesting (and somewhat uncharacteristically political) essay, “The Fascist Masquerade.” He was worried about the revival and extension of a native American fascism. This was a very common worry at the time among progressives. Vice President Henry Wallace, writing in the New York Times in 1944, wrote that a “fascist is one whose lust for money or power is combined with such an intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations as to make him ruthless in his use of deceit or violence to attain his ends.” With “several million Fascists in the United States,” Wallace claimed that one of the great challenges to face the United States after the war will be the fight against fascism “within the United States itself.” Thurman was broadly sympathetic to this perspective, and in his article, he pointed to several characteristics of an incipient American fascism, which was “committed to a fundamental inequality among men,” including a stalwart defense of Jim Crow, opposition to the rights of labor, a conservative Christianity, all wrapped in the mantle of an aggressive patriotism. Thurman identified certain organizations as manifesting these traits, including the revived Ku Klux Klan. They were pseudo-populist organizations, which had their support and sustenance from mid-sized and often large sized businesses who saw these reactionary groups as supporting and helping to institute their broader agenda. And these front organizations were useful in disseminating and obscuring the real source of this crypto-fascism. “Watch for the signs [of fascism] in your community,” Thurman cautions, “ whatever may be the banner or masquerade.”
This concern with fascism, and fascist subversion in the mid to late 1940s has sometimes been labeled the “brown scare,” an ironic precursor to the red scare, the irony being that many of those who were most concerned about fascist subversion, like Henry Wallace, found themselves subject to accusations of subversion themselves. If anything, the episode is a good reminder not to be too eager to make accusations of subversion. But Thurman was definitely correct that the Klan, and later the White Citizens Councils, were main bulwarks in the fight to retain segregation, and the “right to work laws” pushed by many of the groups he discusses played a major role in retarding the cause of labor in the post-war period.
So, is Glenn Beck a fascist? Was Glenn Gould a hypochondriac? Was Glen Miller ever not in the mood? This is a serious question, and Frank Rich in the Times this morning amasses evidence, quite similar to that assembled by Thurman and Wallace, to argue that Beck is in the end a self-promoting puppet for a vast right wing conspiracy. The answer to the question of Beck’s fascism is less important than posing it, and the need to be alert to the forces of reaction, which continue to be, even in the era of Obama, more resourceful and tenacious, it would seem, than anything the good guys can muster. Much has been made of the symbolism of the Beck rally on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. The tragedy of America since 1963 is that in many ways it is a far better, and far more egalitarian society in some ways; and far worse and less equal in others. Whether or not Glenn Beck is masquerading as a fascist is for the reader to decide; what seems beyond doubt is that he has become perhaps the leading spokesperson for what might be called the “new inequality.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Mayor, a Governor, and a Muslim Community Cener

The demands of my job directing the American Studies program at Rutgers-Newark have dramatically reduced my free time for posting on "Greater New York." However, the controversy over building a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan rouses me to post--in praise of Mayor Bloomberg and in condemnation of Governor Paterson.

Mayor Bloomberg got it right: this is a civil rights issue in a city that thrives on tolerating differences. Back off from either of these and we'll be in a terrible place. The terrorists who staged 9/11 will have scared us into tearing up the Constitution and frightening us into abandoning the open, welcoming spirit that has long made New York a destination and beacon for people all around the world.

To his shame, Governor Paterson has not risen to the same heights. He acknowledges the constitutionality of the community center, but he understands the pain of the families who want to see it elsewhere. To ease their pain, he's willing to consider using state land to build the center elsewhere.

Mr. Governor, what part of the constitution and the history of our city do you misunderstand? In the days of Jim Crow, if someone got uncomfortable eating alongside a black person at lunch counter, would you have offered to build a separate lunch counter to spare them their trauma? Of course not. You would recognize that constitutional rights, like freedom of association and religion, aren't things to be bargained with. Stand up for the Muslim community center in lower Manhattan.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Health Care and the Political Future

The health care legislation that President Obama signed into law yesterday tilts American social policy in a more just and progressive direction that should bear fruit for months and years to come. Equally important, however, is the conservative reaction to the bill. In their fury at Democrats who voted for the bill, conservatives will alienate the very moderate Democrats that the Republicans might want as allies in the future.

Take the death threats against Bart Stupak.

Or Kathleen Parker's column calling Stupak a "backstabber."

Their single biggest consequence will be to remind politicians like Stupak that, for all their differences with their fellow Democrats, they have more friends in the the party of Obama than they do in the GOP or the Tea Party movement. That cements the opposition to the Republicans--a good thing for Democrats, but a bad one for the GOP.

As E. J. Dionne points out, Stupak in the end voted for the bill because to vote against it would have derailed health care reform--a cause that is big enough to include opponents of abortion who also value improvements in health care.

Dionne's thinking reflects the kind of broad-minded pragmatism necessary to sustain a Democratic majority. The Republicans and Tea Baggers who attack Stupak do not display the same cast of mind in support of their own cause.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Grateful Dead at the New-York Historical Society

I've seen some popular exhibits at the New-York Historical Society, but yesterday I encountered the first show that had me waiting in line to get into the exhibition gallery: GRATEFUL DEAD: NOW PLAYING AT THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

Admittedly, part of the explanation for the line is that the the show was mounted in a relatively small space. Still, it was the lure of the Dead that drew dozens of visitors to the museum on a cold and windy afternoon. What they found was a great taste of holdings from the Grateful Dead Archive at UC-Santa Cruz and interesting lessons on the band's connections to New York City.

You enter the exhibit by passing a giant photo of the Fillmore East marquee, taken in 1969, announcing shows by the Byrds; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Jimi Hendrix and the Dead. I was impressed, but even more impressed to learn, to my surprise, that the Dead played at the Columbia takeover in 1968.

The show does a good job of sketching out such associations between the Dead and Gotham, but it does an even better job of show the band's complex cultural history. The Dead's reputation for psychedelics and extended jams sometimes overshadowed the eclecticism of their music, their deep relationship to their fans, and their innovative business models.

GRATEFUL DEAD gets at all of this with intelligent labels that are enthusiastic without being worshipful. It also deploys an impressive array of artifacts that allow visitors to explore the band's complexity: Pigpen's harmonica and a Warner Brothers contract citing the name of one Jerome Garcia; plans for the short-lived but impressive Wall of Sound; and a collection of letters from Deadheads.

My favorite artifact was a folding pyramid built in memory of the Dead's concert at the pyramids on 16 September 1978. One day later, Anwar El Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel signed the Camp David accords, which led to a cool but real peace between the two countries. The pyramid reads, on one side, "The living thank the Dead for the first chance at peace in 30 years."

The Dead archive at UC-Santa Cruz is still in development. When it is fully open, it promises to be a great resource for researchers with interests in everything from the Dead to business to the politics of fandom. For now, your best bet is to visit GRATEFUL DEAD at the Historical Society. Open through July 4, 2010.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Bad Decision

The Obama administration seems ready to overrule Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try Khaled Sheik Mohammed (KSM) and his co-defendants in a civilian court and return the matter to a military tribunal. This would be such a bad decision on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. First, Obama will never be able to satisfy his Republican critics. If Obama agrees to a military tribunal his critics will insist that it take place in Guantanamo. (And the odds that Guantanamo closes by the end of the Obama administration are going down steadily.) If the tribunal is held in Guantanamo they will insist that evidence gathered under torture be admitted. If the Obama administration concedes on everything, his critics will just say why don’t we just do away with all these formalities and just assemble a firing squad and be done with it? Obama will not win. But far more importantly, this will legitimize military tribunals for any similar case in the future. Obama will mumble something about the limited scope of the military tribunals he is authorizing, but all it would take would be another Republican president to vastly expand the scope of military tribunals for all sorts of cases. The Bush-Cheney administration has won, and the rule of law in this country has been permanently damaged.

But Republicans will be Republicans, and easily cowed Democrats will be easily cowed Democrats. I want to focus on the real culprits in this, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the other NYC politicians who decided in a narrow NIMBY-ish fashion, despite the large number of civilian terrorist trials in recent years, that trying KSM would create to many traffic jams in Foley Square and so on. (And I don’t have a sense that Bloomberg’s decision is wildly unpopular with the average NYCer.) But, of course, if NYC doesn’t want to risk a civilian trial, why would any other municipality in the country want a trial that NYC thought was too dangerous? The logic will lead to a military trial in a military base, sure as shooting. It is Bloomberg’s decision to oppose civilian trials, and the acquiescence of all major NYC politicians, as far as I am aware, to go along, that has forced the easily forced hand of Obama. New York City politicians have done a grave disservice to the nation, and in real sense, to the entire world

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Eric Massa

The big news in our corner of western New York is that Eric Massa is not going to run for re-election. Massa is the first term congressman who represents a sprawling district (as are all upstate districts), from the outskirts of Rochester down to Corning, Hornell, and Olean. I am not in his district, but I can’t ride more than a few blocks without entering it. Massa is a former naval officer, resident of Corning, who first ran in 2006 to replace the retiring Amo Houghton, the longtime moderate Republican congressman and scion of the Corning Glass fortune . (Houghton was one of the few Republicans to vote against the Iraq war authorization in 2003.) Massa was defeated by Randy Kuhl an utterly undistinguished state senator, and then, in 2008, Massa, riding the Obama surge, narrowly defeated Kuhl.

Massa has been a lively energetic representative, a left of center Democrat in a right of center district. He held about twenty town hall meetings this summer over health care, and then was one of a handful of Democrats to vote against the health care bill in House from the left, though we will see what happens this time around. He continues to be, under Obama, critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been a general breath of fresh air around here. As part of an Israel pro-peace group, we met with his staff a few months ago, and then he called me a few weeks later, to see if I had any other concerns to discuss with him.
Yesterday, he announced he would not be seeking re-election. He said it was because he had terminal cancer. There are other reports that his decision is connected to a sexual harassment suit brought by a male staffer. Whatever the reason it is very sad. He has been an independent Democratic voice, vigorous and very much his own man, and I was looking forward to hearing him speak on matters of local, national, and international interest for many years to come. He will be missed.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Governor Paterson Should Resign

Governor David Paterson's announcement that he will not seek reelection is welcome news. Now the governor should take one step more and resign. Anything less will leave our state with a discredited, lame duck executive who can do little to improve the dismal condition of New York.

Pateerson's resignation would bring to the state's highest office Lt. Governor Richard Ravitch. In these awful times, with Paterson a badly discredited governor who assumed office after the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, New York needs someone of Ravitch's experience and depth to lead the state through difficult times.

After Spitzer and Paterson, it is easy to forget that New York once had a reputation for being a well-governed state. No longer. There is plenty of blame to go around the state's ills, but only a governor with credibility will have the slightest chance of fixing things.

Whether Ravitch serves for the next year or runs for a full term is something to think about later. Right now, the state is drifting. We need better executive leadership than Governor Paterson can ever provide. It's time for David Paterson to move over and make room for Richard Ravitch.

Paterson Falls

Another governor, another tawdry scandal that will probably force him from office. Spitzer and Paterson are probably the worst executive tandem since Nixon and Agnew. (And Paterson, I think, has to go. I can't imagine how he can be an effective or even marginally respected governor the rest of the year.) And where would New York State be without Richard Ravitch, who is the lieutenant-governor by the narrowest of margins, saved by the split vote on the Court of Appeals, after all the lower courts ruled that Paterson couldn’t appoint Ravitch in the first place, and all the state’s Republicans and many Democrats howled that appointing Ravitch was a terrible abuse of power. Otherwise we would be looking at the Senate Pro Tem, Malcolm Smith I believe, who I guess is a nice guy, but is a total political nonentity. (And of course a year ago if this happened, it would have been the now convicted Joe Bruno who would now be ready for his gubernatorialship.)

For me, the bad run of governors is almost a diversion from the state’s main problem, the utterly dysfunctional state legislature, and there seems little chance that things will change this November. As we are seeing in Washington now, the legislature can reduce even the strongest executive to the position of seeming irrelevance. The NYS legislature doesn't even need the filibuster to make passing significant legislation almost impossible. Spitzer tried to bully the legislature, Paterson tried to get along with it , and neither strategy worked, and the financial crisis of the past two years has brutally revealed the incompetence of both Paterson and his legislative peers. And now we will be reading articles about Andrew Cuomo, the reasons for his divorce from the daughter of Robert Kennedy, and whatever other dirt is in his closet. (If we go back to 2006, with Spitzer, Paterson, Cuomo, and Hevesi on the Democrat ticket, Cuomo is the only one who hasn’t or shortly will be forced from office, so naturally he is the front runner for the governor’s spot.) After Spitzer I am really suspicious of the ability of attorneys-general to assume high executive position. Its a very different job. I don’t know, Cuomo seems like a nice guy, but I am not sure that electing a fortunate son is the way to really change things in this state. But of course the problem is, no one else really knows either. But Rob and I promise to consider this in forthcoming posts.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Kingfish From Wasilla

So there’s this Democratic president, elected to turn things around as a dedicated reformer during a catastrophic economic turndown, largely the fault of his predecessor. Well, he does his best, but you know, the economy is a difficult thing to turn around quickly, and many think he hasn’t done enough, is exhibiting a characteristic timorousness, didn’t do much the help the average Joe and Jill in their extremis, and let the Wall Street fat cats off with a slap on their paws. So a populist insurgency develops, that says the president has done too much in some ways and not enough in others, that the president is out of touch with real America, and that he has yet to turn the glittering platitudes of his campaign into meat and potatoes for the American people. Yes, we can all agree, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a real problem on when his hands when it came to the Kingfish, Huey P.Long.

Historians still debate whether Huey Long, and his fellow insurgents, c. 1934-1935, Francis Townsend of the Townsend Plan, a senior citizen pension, and Father Charles Coughlin, represented progressive populism or American crypto-fascism. Long was assassinated before one could tell, Townsend was co-opted, and Coughlin did of course move far to the right, but before he discovered the international Jewish conspiracy his politics and proposals were surprisingly progressive. The main planks in their platforms consisted of much closer regulation on Wall Street, confiscatory taxes on the rich, a whole array of social programs. All in all, they were a far more impressive bunch than Sarah Palin and the tea partyers, but I guess every generation gets the populists they deserve, and our degraded political times certainly deserves Sister Sarah and the Palinites. First time as tragedy, second time as farce.

The point is, everyone makes too much of a big deal about FDR’s first 100 days, and they made much much too much of a big deal about Obama’s first 100 days, but the most progressive phase of the New Deal, the part gave us social security, the Wagner Act, the Wages and Hour acts came not in mid 1933 but in 1935, as FDR niftly co-opted the populist insurgency to his right, or to his left, or wherever it was. And this is what Obama has to do. There was no way he could met all the expectations that was raised of his presidency in his first year. What he has to do now is more focused. Respond to his political challenges and challengers. Obama needs to remember the most successful populist president in American history always spoke in the clipped accent of a Hudson River aristocrat. Elitists always make the best populists.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Charlie O'Hegarty

One of the great things about New York City is that it draws in talented people from all around the world, like Charlie O'Hegarty. Charlie's singing and storytelling cheered audiences at the Eagle Tavern back in the 1980s, where his sets might feature songs about long-ago sea battles, whimsical rhymes, and stories about his days in the Royal Marines. Charlie died recently in London, but one of his stories still has me laughing.

I'll leave it to my friend Dan Milner, to provide the informed assessment of Charlie's music. Dan ran the Eagle Tavern shows where I often saw Charlie, and I heard them together many nights.

Charlie was a great entertainer. When he had the mike, you stopped thinking about everything else and, at times, you felt as though you were alone in a conversation with him. But, because he was far funnier and had experiences way beyond your own, you only egged him on if you spoke at all. He was not a flashy guitar player but he had a great right arm, super solid rhythm.

The songs were clever, but not college-clever. They were well-crafted and precisely achieved the desired effect. "M-16" was about a guy who was mugged in the East Village (no doubt, Charlie himself) who got an M-16 "the Army made me a man with" and went back to sort out the gang who got his wallet. It was, of course, the fantasy of everyone who was ever mugged has had.

"It's a Beautiful Day" is a leveller, a common denominator. "We're all happy when the sun shines and it's a beautiful day." But it was vehicle for a gaggle of groovy little image rhymes too:

"There's faith healers and safe stealers, bar tenders and car benders
pawn brokers and pot smokers, red haters and head waiters
beer drinkers and clear thinkers, cello blowers and 'hello belowers'
rock 'n' rollers and save-your-soulers
and men who stuff hard boiled eggs into their mouths just to get their names in the Guinness book of records."

"Classic Yankee Clipper" was actually about a woman he met when he was working as a bartender:

"It was a dream to sail on her, to feel the breeze upon ye, to feel her responding to the wheel,
To feel the salt spray on ye as ye plowed through the water, the same way again, I know I'll never feel."

I still chuckle at the memory of taking a girl to the Eagle on a date. She turned to me as Charlie performed "Classic Yankee Clipper" and said: "That song is about a woman."

I still find myself singing Charlie's song "The Royal Oak," a great ballad of English tars battling the Turks on the high seas.

But most of all, I like to retell one of Charlie's stories from his days in the Royal Marines.

He was in basic training on a hot summer day, and a sadist of drill sergeant was marching Charlie and the rest of the troops up and down, bawling things like, "I'll make you beg for mercy. I'll make you curse the day your mothers gave birth to you. Leftrighleftrightleftright!"

Finally, the sergeant gave them a break.

From the back of the formation, in an impossibly proper upper-class English accent, came the words, "How beautiful is rest."

The sergeant jumped up and screamed, "Who said that?"

"I believe it was Shakespeare, sergeant."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Larry White

For some reason, our website has been inundated with spam recently, and our nice clean posts are getting besmeared with scads of gobbledygook. What to do? Who knows? I tend to be a technological fatalist; whatever will be, will be, and trying to divine the functions of technology is beyond my ken. Technology giveth, technology taketh away, blessed be the name of technology.

This was definitely not the attitude of my cousin, Larry White, whose mother and my father were brother and sister. As long as I knew him, which was as long as I have known anyone, Larry was entranced with technology, especially imaging technology. Larry was a child of the age of mechanical reproduction. Larry never had any doubts about what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be, and how he wanted to spend his life. He wanted to work with cameras, with video equipment, with computers. And that’s just what he did. He studied photographic technology in college, and became a photographic engineer, and for many years was in charge of the photographic laboratory at Modern Photography, measuring lenses, timing f-stops, evaluating all the latest innovations in imaging. It has been a remarkable thirty years as we have moved from film to digital imaging, and gone through God knows how many generations of computing technology. Larry was on top of it all. For me, technology is a necessary evil. Whenever I figure out how something works, I am loathe to change my routine, which means I am generally dragged, kicking and screaming, into whatever the latest generation of innovation, and generally adapt only when it is absolutely necessary. Larry always had to have the latest in everything, just because it was there. Technology for most people was a means to an end. For Larry technology was an end in itself. For some, technology acquisition is a sign of immaturity, e-braggadocio. Not Larry. He needed to get the latest technology the same way I need to read the latest book, not to show off, but just to add to his store of knowledge.

For most of us, for me, anyway, technology is a form a magic, of which I have no real understanding. I press a few buttons, things work, and I am satisfied. But Larry not only had to have the latest technology, he needed to understand it, how to manipulate it, how to make it work to his advantage. Technological ignorance is one of the besetting sins of our age. We learn from our technology how to be manipulated, and the lesson sticks. Larry was an exception. Larry loved and understood technology, and love begets understanding, and understanding begets love. And Larry was generous. He would always share his knowledge, his possessions, and always try to explain, again and again, how things work. He was a decent, a caring, a happy man, who loved his family and friends, and without, as far as I knew, an edge or a dark side.

Larry died last Friday. He was only 54, one year younger than me. He leaves behind his lovely wife, Esther, and his grieving and uncomprehending parents, Helen and Billy. He was diagnosed with cancer on Labor Day weekend last, but the cancer was virulent, and after a valiant fight, he succumbed. The Eisenstadts have seemed like the House of Atreus recently, with unimaginable tragedy piled upon unimaginable tragedy. I don’t know what to say other than he was taken much too soon, and that it seems unfair that if God grants me another decade or so, I will get to play with some new technical toy that Larry never got to see. All of the eulogies at his funeral mentioned his abiding love of Star Trek. What can one say? He has been beamed up, and all of us, in the wake of his passing, are a little more dematerialized. Goodbye, Larry. Cameras can do a lot of things, but they can never capture the essence of a good man.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Margaret Allison Hemphill

When Margaret Allison Hemphill retired from her career as a planner at the Windham Regional Planning Agency in Willimantic, Ct., a group of officials presented her with a plaque that identified her as a national landmark. It was a fitting tribute to a woman who combined a cheerful sense of civic engagement with a deep sense of history—above all her own, which linked the South and New England.

Mrs. Hemphill, my mother-in-law, was born in Minneapolis, Mn. in 1924 and lived more than half her life in New England. Yet both her parents were Southerners, and one of the persistent if muted story lines in her life was what to make of her Southern roots.

She grew up in Minneapolis, where her father was a doctor and her mother a journalist and later a botanist. She got to know the South on vacation stays with her aunts and by attending the boarding school of Ashley Hall in Charleston, S.C. Her family had deep roots in South Carolina. She counted among her ancestors Confederates and early members of the Klu Klux Klan.

In her teens, however, she rebelled against this inheritance and thought of herself as a liberal. In truth, she was on the left wing of liberalism. At Smith College during World War II, she led caravans of trucks across Massachusetts to collect supplies for Russian war relief. After the war, living in Minneapolis and working as a reporter at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, she was a member of the Farmer-Labor Party.

Her experiences in the Farmer-Labor Party, however, made her deeply skeptical of Communists. Over time she concluded that they would never be part of an alliance they couldn’t dominate and would wreck any coalition they couldn’t run. At the same time, she was viscerally hostile to McCarthyism.

She moved east with her husband George Hemphill when he took a job teaching English at the University of Connecticut at Storrs in 1954. After years of raising four children, including my wife, Clara Hemphill, she earned a Masters’ degree in public policy at the University of Connecticut and went to work as a planner. Always active in Democratic politics, she was an alternate delegate for Senator Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

During the Vietnam War, when income tax time came around, she consoled herself by saying that her taxes went to pay the salary of Senator Fulbright. And she insisted on flying the flag on Independence Day, saying that she wouldn’t let Lyndon Johnson spoil her Fourth of July.

By the time I met her in 1990, she combined a Southern sense of graciousness and proper manners with a staunch liberalism. An heir to the best of the New Deal and the Great Society, she worked to weave a social fabric that brought people together, protected them against injustice, and nurtured their best selves.

At the Windham Regional Planning Association, she worked on affordable housing, expansion of public transportation, historic preservation, and the protection of open space. In her own village of Hampton, she was a long-time supporter of the Fletcher Memorial Library and helped found the Hampton Gazette, a village newspaper.

Six months ago, she moved to an assisted living facility in Cambridge, Mass. When she was hit with a stroke last week, I went there with my wife and children to be with her in what turned out to be her final days.

In her apartment we found a copy of The New Yorker by the door, an 1869 map of Hampton on the wall, and a Charles Dickens action figure sitting on her dresser. The combination of past and present, along with urbanity and a sense of justice, seemed just right.

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.