Saturday, February 26, 2011

Good News for Rochdale Village

Peter is too modest to crow about this in Greater New York, but I'm happy to report that his book Rochdale Village: Robert Moses, 6,000 families, and New York City's Great Experiment in Integrated Housing, has just been awarded the New York Society Library's prize for best work of history on the city published in 2010.

Rochdale Village
is a meticulously researched and beautifully written history of the cooperative where Peter spent part of his youth. In his analysis of the making and unmaking of integration in Rochdale, he tells us a great deal about race, politics and culture in postwar New York. Significantly, he takes on three big themes.

With regard to the 1968 Teachers’ Strike, he challenges the conventional understanding of the strike as a confrontation between liberal integrationists and radical nationalists. In fact, for all of the importance of black nationalism in 1968, he argues that the strike is best understood as an ideologically complex struggle over the meanings and possibilities of integration.

On housing, particularly high rise superblock housing, he shows that Jane Jacobs’ arguments--which lead you to believe that such housing inevitably produces blight and anomie--are much in need of revision. He also makes you appreciate the mixture of principles and pragmatism, in the persons of cooperative housing developer Abraham Kazan and power broker Robert Moses, that produced Rochdale. In a time when high housing costs are making life ever harder for low and middle income New Yorkers, that history is worth recovering.

Finally, in his honest but affectionate memories of Rochdale, which recognize both its strengths and its weaknesses, Peter resurrects the forgotten possibilities of integration. In an age when racial separation is the norm when it comes to residential living, Peter shows how radical, challenging and rewarding it was for the black and white residents of Rochdale to live together.

In winning this prize Peter deservedly joins some distinguished company, ranging from my sister Ellen Snyder-Grenier (who won the award for her book on Brooklyn) to my friend and coauthor Rebecca Zurier (who won the award for her book on the Ashcan Artists) to Josh Freeman, (who won the award for Working Class New York ) to Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows (who won for the first volume of Gotham.)

Rochdale Village is a great book for anyone who cares about New York, its best possibilities, and its enduring struggles for justice. This award is richly deserved.

Friday, February 11, 2011


When I first learned about the demonstrations in Egypt, I was skeptical about whether they should be accompanied by "The Internationale." I'm still not sure about the place of "The Internationale" in Cairo, but Mubarak's departure from power is clearly a victory for the people of Egypt. Moreover, their demands for democracy and a just economy that supports a decent standard of living are the kind of demands that the left, whatever its incarnation, can meet better than totalitarians and free-market fundamentalists.

The demonstrators, at least those that we saw in Tahrir Square, were determined, brave, and admirably inclusive. They have won a great victory.

Of course, Mubarak's handing over power to the military raises legitimate fears that this will become a defeat for Mubarak and a victory for rule by generals. That's something to be wary of, but I'm not sure that it will happen. The Egyptian military may prove to be just the force that provides the stability that will give Egyptians the breathing space to build a democratic government. If that happens, American aid to the Egyptian military will finally have produced something useful.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tea Party for Two II

I just read that Dick Cheney was hissed and called a war criminal by some Ron Paul supporters at the current CPAC convention. I think that’s splendid, and I guess its way I’m not nearly as frightened by the tea party as are most progressives. I certainly find much to admire (and much that I disdain) in the hard libertarian core represented by Ron Paul, people who take the idea of smallness seriously enough to hate the big wars that America has been waging in recent years. I don’t know where the political enthusiasm for the bracing, radical change America so desperately needs will come from. One thing that is clear, is that it won’t come from progressives, and Obama’s presidency has been an opiate, utterly stultifying the chances for a revived liberalism.

This brings me to Bill Kauffman’s recent book, By Bye Miss American Empire, a call for separation and division of the fifty states, into many more, smaller entities, and looks with favor on secession of Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico (though he seems to be a bit on the fence about a separate South.) Kauffman is a genial reactionary anarchist, living nearby in Batavia, New York, and has written many books on the need for a revived localism and a foreign policy to match, and has written an interesting history of the America First movement before WWII. His books are all witty, generally well researched, and convey a sense of optimism about whatever hopeless cause he is writing about at the moment, which in this case are the efforts of upstate New Yorkers to separate from the big, bad city far away, and similar movements. I knew something about NY efforts, but knew next to nothing about similar movement in western Kansas, far northern California, and the upper peninsula of Michigan and elsewhere. And I had never considered before how the statehoods of Alaska and Hawaii were really chapters in a broader Cold War policy to expand, wherever possible, the effective limits of American influence, in which the wishes of local residents were almost as unimportant to American policy makers as were, say , the Guatemalans or Iranians of the time.
Me, I like New York State just as it is, stretching from Montauk to the Niagara River, and I am not convinced of the necessary virtues of smallness in political units. For every more or less peaceful breakup of a Soviet Union, there’s a Yuogoslavia; give me the relative centuries long peace of the Ottomans, to the Sykes-Picoted-Balfoured Middle East of the past century. But as a thought experiment, or as Kauffman refers to it more than once, an eidolon, it is worth thinking about dividing America into itty-bitty pieces. I think I am atmy political core an anarchist, though of a very different version than Kauffman. Still, Kauffman’s work is imbued with a sense of populist possibility which is heartening and infectious. He makes several paeans to the Tea Party in the course of his book, and if there were more Kauffmans and fewer Palins and Bachmanns, the Tea Party would get a whole lot more interesting.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Digital Success Story?

Last night, on Channel 13, the usually admirable Frontline aired a documentary that lauded IS 339 in the Bronx as a school that rose from chaos to excellence by embracing laptops and digital media. The only problem is that the school's recent history doesn't bear out this rosy story.

Contrary to the story told in "Digital_Nation," the school is still very shaky. As reported on the website Inside Schools, founded by my wife,
the segment spotlighted the school's embrace of technology, including the extensive use of SmartBoards by teachers and laptop computers by students. It also reported the school's math scores for 2009, a year in which 62% of students scored at or above grade level in math. In 2010, after the tests were made more difficult to pass, only 19% of the middle school students scored at or above grade level.

Digital technology can be a great aid to learning, but it is no panacea. It needs to be used carefully, deliberately and with serious regards for its strengths and limits. By itself, it can't be credited with turning around a school in the Bronx. Frontline should know better,

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Fate of a Nation

The courage and tenacity of the Egyptian protesters are deeply impressive. But equally important for understanding the rebellion in Egypt is an old idea that has sometimes been dismissed in our age of globalization: nationalism. Both the protesters and the defenders of the Mubarak regime claim to be fighting for the fate of their nation.

Exactly what they mean by "Egypt" is up for grabs. The thugs who beat up protesters and journalists seem to be angry at protesters because they make Egypt look like a less than orderly and well-governed place. The protesters themselves are famously varied in their views; they seem to range from Islamists to secular democrats. But all of the people battling in Cairo and Alexandria, whether they fight for change or the status quo, seem to be motivated by a desire to shape the politics and government of the nation of Egypt. In this sense, the emergent issue in Egypt is not a simple, uniform nationalism but the appearance different nationalisms.

American concerns about Islamist radicalism have blinded us to secular forms of nationalism in the Middle East. Equally misleading is the babble that we often hear about "the end of the nation state" in a a time of global movements of people, money and images

Yet even in an age of globalization, people are willing to fight and die to define what their country might become. That's an old pattern in history, but a remarkably persistent one. We ignore it at our peril.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tea for Two: Part I

The political phenomena of the past two years, alas, has not been the triumphant agenda of President Obama, sweeping all before it as sugar plums of a renewed liberalism danced in the heads of his progressive followers, but the noisy emergence of the Tea Party, which is shaping the national debate to an extent that seems almost inconceivable to those who of us who watched, with incandescent anticipation, Obama and his family on election night in 2008 in Grant Park, in what seems to be an eternity or two ago.

I don’t know what I can do about this other than my usual response to crises in the Republic, which is to read books about them, which is what I have done. Let me comment briefly on two of them. One that has received a good deal of attention is Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. Lepore, an award winning historian at Harvard and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, has become one of the best-known historians in the country, and her short book, like everything she writes, is deftly argued, written, and researched, and she provides a history of the actual 1773 tea party, its subsequent historiography, and the connection between what actually happened and what people have thought happened to the rise of the new tea partiers.
The book has many virtues, but I found it a bit snarky, or to same thing in historiographicalese, a bit too Hofstaederian for my tastes, too intent on reducing the tea party to the latest version of the enduring paranoid style in American history, making fun of the tea partiers and the republic for which they stand. For Lepore they reduce the constitution to a version of fundamentalist originalism that relates to history the same relation to real science as astrology does to astronomy.
Now, I would be the last person to defend originalism as a theory of constitutional interpretation, but to attack it as anti-intellectual seems besides the point, and whatever one thinks of Antonin Scalia, as he would be the first to tell you, he ain’t stupid. Lepore blames the Tea Partiers for having a narrow one-dimensional view of the founding era, and blames academic historians for not writing enough multi-dimensional works of popular history to rouse the average American from their dogmatic slumbers, and then blames, somewhat bizarrely leftist historians in the 1970s, who tried to put a leftist tinge on the bicentennial, as the original presentist politicizers of the revolution. But this strikes me as being besides the point. But there is a difference between popular memory and history and the best history will never displace popular memory. What’s wrong with originalism, and what’s wrong with the tea party view of American history, is not that it’s illegitimate, but that’s its wrong. Originalism, states' rights, a heavy reliance on the 10th amendment, execration of the overuse of the commerce clause, all have a long history in this country dating back to 1790 or so. There are some crazy arguments, and some frothing conspiracy theorists (like Glenn Beck), but the core of what the tea party is calling for, smaller budgets, more localized governments, elimination of liberalism and all of its works, seems fully within the
field of acceptable discourse. I think those who disagree with the resurgent right need to try to listen to what they are saying, engage them, and not dismiss them a priori. I was going to comment on another tea party book, but this post is long enough, so stay tuned for my follow-up.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Vinson Court

Outside of Egypt, probably the most interesting story this week has been the Florida judge striking down the entirety of the Obama health care bill, in a decision that was a very original piece of originalism, a sort of abstract originalism, ignoring prior precedent with a free-hand Jackson Pollock- like splatter.

What is surprising about the ruling is that while all progressive pundits now expect a close 5-4 decision among the Supremes, a year ago they all predicted that the bill would not really face a stiff constitutional challenge. What has changed is not the standard interpretation of the commerce clause, but the united opposition of Republicans to the bill, and of course judges follow the election returns, and it never is difficult to come up with constitutional arguments for or against any position.
This is unfortunate, but I suppose not too surprising. And every piece of major legislation typically faces a similar trial by constitution, back to John Marshall and the Indians, Roger Taney voiding the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Dred Scott, the Lochner case, and the Schechter Poultry case, which ruled the NRA (National Recovery Act) unconstitutional in 1935. Politics then goes on to decide who, in the end, gets to win. Its interesting that in his decision to void the Obama bill, Judge Vinson cited Schechter Poultry several times, and the Health Care act is a similar type of fowl to the NRA, a close and very complex regulation of private business for a public purpose. And as we know, though the New Deal went onto triumphs after the Schechter Poultry decision, the NRA itself was never revived, and the New Deal thereafter either created programs that directed aided citizens (like Social Security), or regulated aspects of a business (the Wagner Act, the Wages and Hours Act), and not the purpose of business itself. Perhaps we will stand at a similar crossroads with health care. If the health care law is declared unconstitutional because of its myriad corporatist compromises, the lessons for progressives should be clear. A single payer law, a bill of unquestioned (I would think) constitutionality, is the way forward, as it always should have been in the first place.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fighting in the Streets

On Monday, when my students at Rutgers-Newark discussed the uprising in Egypt, some were inclined to think of it as a "media revolution." But with access to the Web and cellphones shut down, the protests in Cairo have taken on the oldest form of revolutionary struggle: fighting in the streets,
The discipline and orderliness of Egyptian protesters has been impressive. The violence of Mubarak supporters, riding into crowds on horseback to whip people, has been surpassingly ugly. And this from a man who has been bankrolled by the USA for decades.

If it is too early to know where the Egyptian revolt will lead, this much is clear: in Hosni Mubarak, the USA has been supporting a very nasty dictator. I deeply hope that the revolt does not descend into more and more violence. But if it does, we have the depressing knowledge that the biggest impediment to democratic change in Egypt is a man who we have helped to say in power.