November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments
The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday. How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question. Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.
Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back. The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years. They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life. Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday. And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant. They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts. They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time. And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money. Got married, had kids, raised them. Eventually, you retired. Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company. But that’s all gone. Deindustrialization. And free trade.
What happened when the jobs dried up? People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages. Alcoholism and addiction became more common. Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers. Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry. But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills. Then there’s health insurance and benefits. With GE, those were all taken care of. Waffle House doesn’t take care of them. Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans. But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things. And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.
And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner). Think about TV and the movies. Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA. Now? Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous. And besides, it’s set in Chicago. Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city. America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore. There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane. Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA. For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.
The United States has long been a deeply divided nation. We like to think it’s North-South. It’s not. It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory? No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class. And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred) And then Trumpism occurs.
Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back. I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization. My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988. My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border. And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone. He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder. And my mom was university-educated. But. We lost. And so many others. Their anger is visceral. Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.
But Trump cannot deliver on his promises. If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s. Those factory jobs aren’t coming back. Automation, people. The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation. More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did. He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.
So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again? When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there. But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more. Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified. Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader. Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc. I don’t feel optimistic either way.
November 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
In last month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a review of what looks a fascinating book, Henry Petroski’s The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure. The review, however, is plagued by an inability to keep a historical chronology. I always remind my students that chronology matters, especially in a history class. And when grading exams and essays, I find myself over and over again writing “Chronology?” in the margins.
The review, by Aaron Klein, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, is plagued by such problems. For example, he recounts Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 ‘Report on the Subject of Manufactures,’ wherein he argued that the federal government had the constitutional authority to spend on internal infrastructure. But then, in the next sentence: “Hamilton’s view was rejected by President James Madison and his successor, James Monroe, who both vetoed major infrastructure legislation passed by Congress” for constitutional reasons. Problem is, in 1791, George Washington was President. Madison was elected president in 1809, 18 years after Hamilton’s ‘Report,’ and 5 years after Hamilton was murdered in a duel by Aaron Burr.
On the next page, Klein recounts the creation of the interstate highway system in the US. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the key here, as almost anyone knows (you know, those signs on the interstates that note they are part of the Eisenhower Interstate System. The key legislation here came in 1956. Klein writes:
Eisenhower’s highways were part of a series of great infrastructure projects that helped usher in unprecedented prosperity. Government investment and private entrepreneurship laid railroads across the continent; built huge power plants, such as the Hoover Dam; and provided universal phone coverage. Those projects generated economic growth and united the nation.
Factually, this is true. Infrastructure did aid in national growth and unity. But. The railroads were built in the late 19th century. The Hoover Dam was built from 1931-33. In other words, looooong before the interstate system. And while Klein is making a larger point about the need for government investment in the US’s ailing infrastructure, his inability to maintain a chronological reality here undercuts his argument about the importance of the Eisenhower system, given it was the last of these infrastructural developments and nearly a generation after the other examples he provides.
In short, kids, chronology matters.
August 29, 2016 § 2 Comments
Margaret Sanger might be the least understood, most slandered person in American history right now. Everyday in my Twitter feed, I see arguments over her, her beliefs on birth control, abortion, and African Americans. She has been latched onto by many on the right as an example of what is purely evil with liberals in the US. The problem is that the historical reality does not bear out this demonization of Sanger.
Nonetheless, the Twitter warriors persevere:
This isn’t limited to Twitter. New Hampshire Representative William O’Brien (R) said that Sanger was a KKK member. Herman Cain, in his run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2011, claimed that the whole point of Planned Parenthood, which Sanger founded, had a genocidal mission to prevent black babies from being born. Last fall, Ben Carson, on his own run to secure the GOP nod, declared that Sanger’s goal was to eliminate African Americans.
The belief that Sanger was a white supremacist and a member of the KKK is a particularly popular one on the American political right This photo in particular has been circulating for years, after it was uploaded to the white supremacist site Stormfront in 2008:
While it is true that Sanger gave a speech to a women’s auxiliary of the KKK, both this photo and the supposed message of her talk are lies (she talked to the KKK women about birth control and called it “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing.”). But, like any good lie or meme, this one is careful to be specific, even offering us a location. This photo is a photoshopped version of this:
Very different, no?
Yes, Sanger was a believer in eugenics. So, too, were Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, H.G. Wells. Even W.E.B. DuBois believed in aspects of the eugenics, though he was vehemently opposed to the racist viewpoint of many eugenicists, for perhaps obvious reasons. And, let us not forget that the eugenics movement was one predicated on classism, racism, and almost every other -ism you can imagine. At its purest, it was a movement devoted to purifying the human race of the disabled, criminal, addicted, and many others. And that also included racism. And, of course, eugenics is part of what drove the Nazis and the Holocaust.
Eugenics, however, was a mult-faceted movement. In the United States, it was not simply a belief in sterilization of ‘undesirables’ and other medical horrors. Rather, it also included a larger public health movement that sought to make Americans healthier through exercise, the creation of parks, eradication of STDs, clinics for maternal and infant health, immunization, and other aspects of healthy living. And this is where Sanger’s beliefs largely lay. In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, Sanger stated that
I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world — that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin — that people can — can commit.
Moreover, a belief in eugenics did not necessarily equate racism in the United States. To take the case of Sanger: she did not believe in segregation, she opposed Jim Crow in the South. She was a firm believer in birth control, and she thought all women, not just wealthy, white women, should have access to it. That includes poor white women, hence the talk to the KKK auxiliary. But this belief also brought her into African American neighbourhoods in New York, Chicago to open clinics there so African American women would also have access to birth control. She also worked closely with African American ministers in her attempts to educate black women.
In her actual organization, Sanger would not tolerate racism, and fired people for racism. More to the point, in 1966, Planned Parenthood honored Rev. Martin Luther King with its Margaret Sanger Award, which is granted to people who work to ensure reproductive health and rights. King was unable to accept the award in person, sending instead his wife, Coretta Scott King. She read his acceptance speech, which included this passage:
There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist – a nonviolent resister.
Thus, in the end: Sanger was not a racist, she did not advocate mass sterilizations of anyone, let alone African Americans. She was not a member of the KKK. In reality, she was a rare person in the early 20th century: she believed in racial and class equality when it came to reproductive health. And she was dead-set opposed to racial segregation and Jim Crow.
August 10, 2016 § 4 Comments
I live in the second poorest county in Tennessee, as defined by median income. That puts it in the Top 50 nationally, with a median income of $28,086. Here, the near impossibility of farming on top of a mountain, combined with the long-term effects of coal-mining are all over the place, from the environmental degradation to the deep poverty.
On Monday, I published a post on Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Great Society. The Great Society was really the last time the government made an attempt to confront white poverty in the US. But that was half a century ago. They were amongst the constituency of the Democratic Party. But they’ve long since shifted their allegiances. But the GOP doesn’t accord them any attention, they’re taken for granted. The people here are the forgotten people of the country.
Nancy Isenberg, in her fantastic book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that class has been central to American life and American history. And for poor white people, they have been marginalized here for four centuries, just as they have been in England. Americans like to think they live in a classless society. They don’t. At the time of the Civil War, a grand total of 6 per cent of white Southerners owned slaves. Yet, they managed to convince the other 94 per cent of the justness of a war to protect their economic interests. For the massive majority of the South, these poor white people, the war was pointless. And they came to realize this pretty quickly, as soldiers grumbled about the wealthy who sent them to their death.
By the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s, the Republican Party gained their allegiance. This came about due to a response on the part of poor, white Southerners to the Civil Rights Era, combined with the rise of evangelical Christianity. In the first case, there was both frustration with being forgotten by the federal government, combined with a residual racism that dates back to the nineteenth century, when the Southern élite kept them in place by telling poor whites that, “Hey, it may suck to be you, but, you know, it could be worse, you could be black.” And yes, this worked (don’t believe me, go check out David Roediger’s excellent The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; think Roediger’s ‘biased’?, read this). In the second case, the GOP nationally hitched its horses to the evangelical movement, which had its greatest successes in the South.
Driving all over the county this weekend, I noticed where the Trump supporters live. There are people in this county who are well-off. There is even a very tiny middle class. But the Trump supporters, as defined unscientifically by bumper stickers and lawn signs, are the poor. Trump stickers tend to be on older cars in various stages of disrepair. The lawn signs tend to be outside of trailers, tiny houses, and cabins and shacks.
But what fascinates me about this is not who they support, but that they do so at all. This is a politically mobilized group in my county. During the presidential primaries in May, voter turnout in both the Democratic and Republican primaries was over 60 per cent. Despite being forgotten, ignored, and left behind, the people of my county are still voting. Angrily, but they’re voting. They’re voting for Trump for what I see as obvious reasons: he speaks their language, even if he is a demagogic, power-hungry, liar.
A politician who could harness their anger and frustration and offer hope, something other than the dystopian view of Trump, whilst building a coalition that offered something to other frustrated constituencies (I’m thinking primarily of inner-city African Americans), could actually make a real change in the United States.
But, instead, we get the same hollow language of the Democratic nominee, versus this horrible, Hunger Games dystopian, crypto-fascism of the Republican nominee.
September 30, 2015 § 5 Comments
Here in the United States, it is common to see a bumper sticker that says “Freedom Isn’t Free.” These stickers pre-date 9/11 and the War on Terror and the devastating human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they have taken on special meaning in the decade-and-a-half since 9/11.
I am, as usual, teaching American history this semester. One of my classes is reading David Roediger’s classic book, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. While Roediger’s attempts to connect himself to EP Thompson are perhaps overdone, he still makes a powerful argument about the centrality of race in the development of a free labour ideology in the US. He especially ties his argument to WEB DuBois’ conclusion in his Black Reconstruction of the psychological benefit the white worker received (in lieu of fair wages) through his whiteness, and its pseudo-entry to power.
Roediger digs back into what he calls the pre-history of the American worker, the period between colonization and the dawn of the 19th century and the beginnings of the American industrial revolution. This involves a discussion of the compromise over slavery in the Constitution. Roediger writes:
Even artisan-patriots with substantial anti-slavery credentials supported the Constitution as a compromise necessary to secure the world’s greatest experiment in freedom.
Indeed. The freedom of white Americans, especially white American artisans/workers in the Revolutionary era came at the cost of the enslavement of African Americans. On one hand, Roediger seems to be letting these artisan-patriots off the hook. On the other, I have never quite understood the apparent lack of irony in the Revolutionary generation’s easy resort to slavery rhetoric to complain of Britain’s treatment of the colonies. I find it preposterous and disingenuous. And yet, this rhetoric became powerful during the Revolution. At any rate, as Roediger reminds us, freedom isn’t free.
August 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
My department is co-sponsoring an exhibit on the murder of Emmett Till at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library. The exhibit itself opened Monday, 17 August, and will end on 17 September. Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the events that led to Till’s murder at the hands of Roy Bryant and JM Milam. In conjunction with the exhibit, our department is sponsoring a speaker’s series. The first was last night, by my colleague, Ansley Quiros. She talked about Till’s murder in the context of the long struggle for African-American freedom.
By coincidence, I was talking about slavery in my US history class today. In particular, we were looking at the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850 and the fallout of Prigg v. Pennsylvania, an 1842 Supreme Court decision. The case arose several years earlier when Prigg, a bounty hunter from Maryland, crossed into Pennsylvania to capture an alleged slave, Margaret Morgan. Morgan had lived as a free-woman in Maryland (a slave state) before moving with her family (which included her husband, John, and at least three children) to Pennsylvania (a free state). Prigg attempted to remove Margaret and her children to Maryland and into slavery. When a Pennsylvania magistrate refused to grant Prigg a Certificate of Removal, due to her free status (John Morgan had been born free in Pennsylvania, as had at least one of their children), he and his partners kidnapped Margaret and her children. They were indicted for kidnapping. After a stand-off between Maryland and Pennsylvania, Prigg and his men were convicted. Their conviction was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in DC, however, overturned their conviction. (All of this was too late for Margaret Morgan and her children, who were sold into slavery and never heard from again).
The Supreme Court found that the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which had been passed by Congress, was problematic in that it guaranteed due process for the alleged fugitive slave, which was part of the problem for Prigg in the Morgan case. Due process had worked in favour of Margaret Morgan and her kids. The Supreme Court, though, found that any state laws that impeded the right of slave owners were de facto unconstitutional. And more than that, alleged escape slaves were not entitled to due process by dint of the fact that they were not citizens of the United States.
In practical terms, Prigg nationalized the racial basis of slavery. Any African American in a slave state could be presumed to be a slave. With Prigg, however, this was nationalized: any African American in a non-slave state could now be presumed to be a fugitive slave . And this is exactly what happened to Solomon Northrup, the man whose story was dramatized in the 2013 film, Twelve Years a Slave. In short, the 175,000 free African Americans in the non-slave states were in danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery due to Prigg.
Emmett Till, a fourteen-year old boy was killed a century after Solomon’s ordeal, for the crime of making a comment of an undetermined nature to Carolyn Bryant. She testified at Till’s murderers’ trial (one of the accused was her husband) that Till had made lewd comments to her. It is pretty obvious she perjured herself. Till’s case sparked a national furore and helped to spark the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
But in the past several years, mass indignation has emerged again, as a series of unarmed black men have been murdered at the hands of the police and private citizens, with next to no impunity, as was the case with Till’s murderers (Bryant and Milam confessed to the crime in Look magazine in 1956, as they could not be re-tried for the crime they were acquitted for the year earlier). When Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, a trigger-happy neighbourhood watch captain (who has since been in trouble with the law for a series of violent incidents), indignation erupted, made all the more intense when Zimmerman was acquitted.
President Obama was particularly struck by Martin’s murder, noting that if he had had a son, he might have looked like Martin. But this was just the first case of unarmed black men being murdered, the catalyst, so to speak of the #blacklivesmatter campaign.
After Ansley’s talk tonight, there were very few actual questions. Instead, some older African Americans in the audience talked about their experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South. It was powerful. One man talked of growing up in DC, but whenever he went to Virginia, his mother reminded him to behave himself and to defer to white people. One woman talked movingly of her own experiences, including her mother being poisoned in a Mississippi restaurant after she attempted to take advantage of her civil rights in the 1960s. This woman expressed fear for her grandchildren, about their security.
I couldn’t help thinking about what I was talking about in class today. One of my students was incredulous about the Prigg decision and the consequences of it: she noted that African Americans were forced to live in fear. There wasn’t much I could say in response to that. She also drew on our previous class, noting that slavery was a system based on mutual terror. The slaves were terrorized into compliance and the slave owners were terrified of a slave revolt. Another student then noted that African Americans have never had much cause to feel much freedom. Listening to these elders speak tonight after Ansley’s talk brought it home very powerfully for me.
December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments
I read my colleague Emerson Baker’s fantastic A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience this weekend. Salem bills itself as “Witch City, USA”, the image of a witch on a broom adorns the police cars here. My wife is on the board of the Salem Award Foundation, which seeks to draw
upon the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, [to promote] awareness, understanding and empathy in support of human rights, tolerance and social justice. We advance social change through educational programming, stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial as a place of reflection, and by awarding and celebrating contemporary champions who embody our mission.
As a public historian, the Hallowe’en silliness has fascinated me, as ‘ghost walks’ are held all around town, showing some of the locations sort of connected to the Witch Trials. I say ‘sort of’ because most of the action did not take place in Salem. Most of the accused came from Salem Village (then apart of Salem, now Danvers) and Andover. Some of the trials took place here, though. Nonetheless, every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to Salem, in the wake of the murder of twenty innocent people in 1692-3, most of them on Gallows Hill, to engage in revelry and have fun.
But, this is the first time I’ve engaged seriously in the actual history of the events. I knew the stories, I knew the outlines of what happened here and how those twenty people came to be killed in an explosion of mass hysteria. But, in reading Barker’s book I’ve been impressed at just how deeply held was the beliefs in witches in 17th century New England. Baker makes this argument forcefully, noting how a belief in witches, and in the wickedness of Satan drove Puritan beliefs. In this way, as he argues, witches became a convenient scapegoat in tumultuous times in Massachusetts. There was war with the aboriginals on the frontiers, from what is now Maine to towns located 15-20 miles inland from Salem, like Billerica. The economy was suffering. Puritans felt themselves under attack as religious toleration was extended.
Salem is itself named after the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace, and is a shortened version of Jerusalem, or City of Peace. Massachusetts was established as a city on the hill, and Salem is amongst the oldest towns in Massachusetts, settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and a group of Puritans, and is two years older than Boston. In 17th century Massachusetts, Salem and Boston were the two major commercial and administrative centres in Massachusetts. All of this was under attack in the late 17th century.
The story Baker tells is not unlike that told by Angela Bourke in one of my favourite books, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the story of the burning to death of Bridget Cleary, a 25-year old woman, by her husband, Michael, in 1895 in Ballyvadlea, in rural Co. Tipperary, Ireland. What seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence is more than that. Michael Cleary claimed his wife had been taken away by the faeries, and he killed the changeling posing as his wife, as the real Bridget would return from the nearby ringfort, where she had been held captive by the faeries. Bourke then ties the case of Bridget Cleary into larger stories of Irish nationalism and the fight for Home Rule; faeries, then, were a traditional folkway for the people of rural Ireland in a rapidly changing time.
Bridget is often called the ‘last witch’ to be burned in Ireland. She was never accused of witchcraft, so that’s unfair (yes, I am aware of my title). But what is interesting in the similarity of these two stories.