Sep 132016
 

A friend recently brought up an article from May’s New Yorker: The Big Uneasy. I’d read it when it was first published but revisited it with new eyes after the mention. In between, I’d read a few pieces — and posted some — on race-related topics and the unease that Nathan Heller references in his essay here about free speech on college campuses. My second read — probably more critical than the previous — left me surprised at the obliviousness of so many of the white leaders (I won’t say “intellectuals”) on college campuses. Their privilege blinds them, and it’s disappointing that they, of all people, understand the disconnect on campuses so poorly.

That the problem here is privilege is painfully clear. The activist students Heller describes (Why are we to care about their coffee flavors?) are favored in being the best and brightest, courted aggressively by elite private schools. I tried pointlessly to reconcile them with the young people of various minorities I’d taught for so many years. None of my students had the naiveté Heller described — probably because they were working class kids attending night classes at a satellite campus of a regional university rather than National Merit scholars at Columbia or Oberlin. They had no sense of entitlement — or even the notion to make demands of their school.

What my students mostly knew and the activists in Heller’s piece were painfully learning through the reality of equal opportunity in America is that the system is based on generations of white/monied privilege. As Heller puts it: “Today, [minority students] are told that they belong there, but they also must take on an extracurricular responsibility: doing the work of diversity. They move their lives to rural Ohio and perform their identities…In exchange, they’re groomed for old-school entry into the liberal upper middle class.” These students trade bringing diversity to campuses through their presence for gaining access to the same means of success that were established so long ago for well-off white men.

I think Heller condescends toward the minority characters he portrays. He paints them as young and idealistic, but he doesn’t seem to get that the old guard he describes is obtuse and privileged. At one point he uncritically posits: “Wasn’t free self-expression the whole point of social progressivism?” This is the rationale of the white leadership at Oberlin in his piece. It’s a shocking position in both its historical ignorance and its entitlement.

Of course, free speech was not a value of the Progressives. Their goal was to apply scientific and organizational principles to social problems. Their intent was to coerce and “Americanize” immigrants into a certain behaviors. These were proponents of Social Darwinism and eugenics. They weren’t at all interested in helping minorities have more of a voice in society. That educational leadership is that ignorant about this historical legacy is disappointing and discouraging.

They fail to see that the university system was intended to be exclusive and professionalization, a means of behavioral and doctrinal control. How many schools refused to enroll people of color or women for many years? And, where there were schools for African-Americans and females, the goal was to socialize them into certain ways of being — and especially to submit to the authority of white male authority figures like scholars, judges, and doctors. Be a nurse who answers to a licensed physician instead of an independent midwife — you see?

But, in Heller’s piece about Oberlin, there’s a more contemporary kind of privilege at work as well. Note what he says of Wendy Hyman, an English professor there: “Hyman started college in the eighties. Her generation, she said, protested against Tipper Gore for wanting to put warning labels on records.” When I read this, I laughed and cringed simultaneously. Hyman and I are of the same generation, but I was not involved in protests about censorship back then. Frankly, I didn’t have money to spend on much of a music collection when I was in school. The labeling fight was for kids from advantaged backgrounds — not me.

I did go to my first protest in college, however — though it was in the mid 90’s when I was finally able to finish years later. The Ku Klux Klan was having a rally where I lived on the same day as my graduation. I opted to skip the school ceremony and join the protest instead. I wasn’t driven to do so because I had lots of minority friends or because I was some flaming social justice warrior. I was a white kid raised to believe in equality and understood already that I had a stake in getting involved too. White people needed to repudiate racism. So, I did.

I don’t know how I got that and Hyman got into free speech, but my experience demonstrates that people our age were capable of knowing that equal rights and anti-discrimination were causes to get behind then — which makes it incredibly evident why we still need to champion them today. That Hyman was able to worry about getting to listen to her favorite singers drop f-bombs instead says a lot about her priorities and privilege. The need to take a stand against racism wasn’t less recognizable in the 80’s — or in the 70’s or 90’s.

It’s not just a random obtuse professor at fault here either. Hyman’s not the only one in the article with that level of obliviousness about the failure to deal with ongoing discrimination in our culture. Other instructors Heller interviewed professed activism on free speech and/or anti-war issues, but these leaders didn’t indicate a history of similarly fighting racism or sexism. Their cited causes worked to expand their privilege, not spread it around to others. It’s this problem that continues to create issues on campuses where minority students bump up against ceilings and find themselves again marginalized. They are smart enough to recognize the discrimination when they see it.

Sadly, it’s their professors who don’t seem to get it. Ironically, Heller inadvertently cuts to the heart of the problem when he says: “Generations of professors and students imagined the university to be a temple for productive challenge and perpetually questioned certainties.” Apparently, that was all well and good when the challenges were against in loco parentis or censorship. Today’s educational elite, which remains predominately white and male, seems oblivious to the fact that their certainties — like that free speech is the heart of college exchanges — might be questioned too — or worse: wrong.

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 Posted by at 9:49 am
Sep 052016
 

The Atlantic ran another article this past week about safe spaces and free speech on college campuses. I generally think the to-do about these matters is overblown, but among “educational elites” this is a thing. After news got out about the University of Chicago’s letter to incoming students regarding the topic, concerned parties weighed in again — hence, the piece in The Atlantic.

Reading it, my takeaway — and I’m sure it was entirely not intended — was that much of this “debate” is fueled by poor scholarship and educational failure. As described by Dr. Levinovitz in the essay, the participants seem to have ideas about higher education that I find disturbing and perplexing. Safe space proponents, he says, insult and undermine discussion; meanwhile, he maintains you have to offend and have antagonistic exchanges to develop minds. Both approaches are negative and suggest the core issue is an altogether different thing than the points of debate. I don’t think the problem is free speech or censorship, so much as it is a failure of our academics to provide proper training in learned exchanges.

Levinovitz argues against safe spaces and then (ironically) complains that students don’t feel safe to share their opinions, especially on their religious convictions, in his Religious Studies classes. I wonder if he is confused about the purpose of his academic offerings or thinks that he is teaching Christian Apologia 101 rather than Intro to Religion. Religious Studies is not theology; it’s purpose is to understand varieties of religious thought — not to learn how to argue your faith. That the professor cannot appreciate the difference between the two is troubling and begs the question as to how he can instruct students in critical analysis of religious topics and teach them to approach the topic with sophistication.

Really, why would students debate their religious beliefs in an academic environment? Isn’t the obvious purpose of studying religious thought different than that? You don’t need to go to college to learn to espouse your beliefs. WordPress is glad to host a blog for you to do just that on your own, and there are safe spaces — churches, temples, etc — where you are free to make statements of faith to your heart’s content. The purpose of studying religion in higher education is of a different sort: it’s to learn, through reading and analysis of different religious writings, to understand a variety of sacred thought and culture.

Frankly, no one gives a shit what a nineteen year old who has never studied a topic before thinks about it. The point of education is to expose students to different ideas and teach them to analyze those takes so they can have well-formulated positions. Professors should be exposing students to thinking in their disciplines and teaching them to critically approach their topics — not encouraging them to profess their uneducated opinions. If an instructor is doing the latter instead of the former, they fail their students and their professional responsibilities. Worry first about your students having informed insights before you worry about where they will have the freedom to say them (and they may just be able to swing the last part for themselves — as the current kerfuffle shows).

I fear for the state of higher education if professors do so poorly in “teaching” their students, and, again, one need not attend a university to learn to shout down those with differing opinions, so they fail too if they aren’t teaching students how to debate issues with respect — and evidence.* The first day of every one of my classes includes setting ground rules of civility and welcoming participation. It’s part of my role as instructor to facilitate that and ensure that the class succeeds in it.

Where will students learn to be collegial if not in college? Differences of intellectual thought are normal and require practice to handle well. Training is necessary, and that includes in how to engage learnedly. Educated debate is most definitely not — as Levinovitz asserts — combat, nor it is a violent activity. My God, if you think it’s that, you are doing it wrong and should never be training novices in the way that they should go. First, do no intellectual harm, sir. Civility should be essential in any good education.

A combative view of ideological differences and discussion is a recent plague in our society, and from Levinovitz’s description, it appears common on both sides of the free speech/safe space debate. Disrespectful discourse indicates a failure of higher education in America doing what it exists to do. Our professors apparently do not know better, regrettably, and are not (or cannot) teach their students what they do not know to do. It seems we lack the shared value of respect toward others, and I oppose that. If we cannot hold each other in regard in our differences, safe spaces are not the solution — it’s reform of the educators charged with training us to do it.

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*As opposed to making random biased assumptions not based on evidence like that there is a correlation between those who complain the “loudest” about the need for safe spaces and bitching about the cultural appropriation of yoga. Is there an actual study proving this connection? Who would fund that? I mostly need to know because I have actual research that needs funding and that source apparently gives money to any old “inquiry.”

Jul 282016
 

In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that studying the history of great men is useful in that it inspires others to do great things like their heroes. In essence, good histories model noble behavior for later generations to emulate. Today, we like to think of history as more instructive than inspirational — at least our academic histories aim to be educational. The histories we see in movies and on TV, though, is more of the stirring sort. The new release Free State of Jones is a case in point.

The movie tells the story of Newt Knight, a farmer from Mississippi who lead a spontaneous revolt against the larger Confederate rebellion in 1864. Far from a pragmatic Unionist driven by a sense of nationalism, Knight’s a character who transcends the racism of his time and embraces equality between whites and former slaves — he’s a 21st century hero from the 19th century. He fights for a cause and not a political convenience. Knight is the Nietzschean ideal, inspiring and (unpretentiously) noble, and the film is suited to inspirational aims.

Many critics have faulted the film and its depiction of Knight for promoting the “white savior” trope. Here, the protagonist is the prototypical hero so often celebrated in our fictions and non-fictions. He’s the good white man who saves the day — and the former slaves who join him along the way. Vann R. Newkirk II called the picture’s portrayals “textbook examples of how not to have conversations about white privilege, ‘allyship,’ and black struggle.” It is surely that, but the movie seems to have less humbling and enlightening aims anyway. It’s an inspirational story intended for white audiences about liberality and leadership, and it tells us quite a lot about our time.

That a film starring a southern movie star repudiating the Confederacy on the merits of slavery is a mainstream offering is startling in itself. Ten or twenty years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been made. Indeed, it’s obvious predecessor, Glory, a notable film in the white savior genre, demonstrates the traditional good-Northern-hero version, which is more consistent within the trope. Nearly 30 years later, the Free State of Jones is reconstructing southern heroes in the same vein — even better, the hero here discovers his righteousness rather than his biases. Times have changed.

That it’s a true story offers something of theoretical value to white viewers — particularly southerners. Knight is someone they can aspire to emulate. They need not remain bound by the racist bigotry to which so many southerners cling. Instead, they can see themselves in the everyman hero of the movie (pure and successful, instead of conflicted or intolerant) and choose to do better than those around them. Indeed, they might be inspired to actively fight against racism in their society like Knight.

Of course, in embracing that mantle, there’s a danger that southerners can also conveniently excuse themselves from guilt or responsibility for generations of wrongdoing. Knight’s character is sure to stoke the “not-all-white-people” crowd and provide cover from acknowledging participation in the fruits of privilege. Again, though, that white southerners might want an anti-Confederate hero at all says something about today. We will have to see how the movie fares in the southern states to get any kind of handle on that. It would be quite something for them to even want to trade Robert E. Lee for Newt Knight though.

If this sounds like a new spin on the Civil War, it’s important to note in what ways it is not. Firstly, even our scholarly treatments of the Civil War do tend toward the white savior story. In most college US history classes, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe feature far more prominently than Robert Morris or Solomon Northup (and probably even Frederick Douglass) in lectures on abolitionism. Racism still pervades the stories we tell about that, and in that sense Free State of Jones fits with the usual narrative. Freedom from slavery is still presented as something granted to black Americans, rather than earned or taken by them (even in partnership). That’s part of the appeal for white audiences, consciously or not: these stories are ones of white people being noble and righteous. It offers something great with which to identify.

If abolitionism is often the testament of the magnanimity and nobility of whites in our histories, the civil rights movement of the 20th century belongs to America’s black citizens, who were the agents standing in righteousness there. You’re likely to find Martin Luther King, John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer in US history textbooks covering the freedom movement, but a typical US history course wouldn’t mention white allies much, if at all — except John and Robert Kennedy in all their complicated squeamishness (and Lyndon Johnson and his unheroic pragmatism).

Therein lies a lot of the great divide in the US. For many Staters, the civil rights movement — and the Black Lives Movement — pits “us” against “them.” The heroes are black and the villains are white — or the heroes are white and the troublemakers are black (or other minorities). Either way, it’s a conflict between racial communities that our histories seem to encourage that segregates us.

The question the allure of Free State of Jones and its ilk suggests is: could relations be less antagonistic if white Americans had a savior to admire from the civil rights movement too? Do white people just need a white hero? Would that allow them to buy in more emphatically on civil rights the way they do on abolitionism?

It’s possible — but, more importantly, is it good? White savior stories only perpetuate white supremacy, portraying whites as benevolent change-makers and minimizing the agency of black actors. So, even if successful, those narratives get us no closer to being allies or working together in true equality. Sadly, the buddy-cop film fits that ideal better than the usual historical narrative. It’s possible our society benefits more from 48 Hours et al than noble histories then. If so, our historiography fails us, doesn’t it?

Change will not come to our society without conscious effort; racism and discrimination will not be gently let go — and certainly not by white citizens who are blind to their privilege. That kind of advance requires a cultural shift, to which movies as well as scholarly works need to contribute. In the meantime, you can get the star power to open a film (again) depicting a white savior, but America seems very far from any inspirational ally trope. That historical blockbuster still eludes us.

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 Posted by at 9:17 am
Feb 292016
 
In just over sixty years from first contact with European and white adventurers — less than life expectancy in the US on average today — the native population in Hawai’i declined by more than 75%. Much of this death was the result of the introduction of diseases to which Hawai’ians had no immunity. Sailors and well-meaning missionaries brought with them germs that decimated the established communities there, rapidly and mercilessly.
 
Once established, white settlers introduced political and cultural changes as well. They convinced even the king to embrace western ways, including individual land-ownership. In 1848, King Kamehameha III issued the Mahele — a decree that permitted Hawai’ians to own land, which was previously solely a royal prerogative.  Two years later, the Kuleana Act allowed foreigners to purchase real estate from native sellers. For the children of missionaries, this offered the secular option of pursuing agricultural endeavors rather than the Lord’s work, and those who were not called chose commercial farming instead.
 
Sugar was the premiere cash crop, and two of the Big Five — as the biggest sugar producers became known — were started by these sons of evangelists (the others by various enterprising white men).  The growers’ dominance of the economy led to equally significant political power, and they effectively served as a de facto oligarchy controlling the Hawai’ian economy and society. Several were instrumental in the 1893 bloodless coup that overthrew the monarchy and created the Republic of Hawai’i. They were again involved in annexation of the territory by the US.
 
By 1920, only 24,000 native Hawai’ians remained on the island, with only 10% of island real estate still owned by these survivors. Today, just a quarter of the state population claims any native ancestry. The social, political, and economic order there has been completely upended and remade — in great part through the effort of the powerful sugar companies.
 
Recently, Alexander & Baldwin announced that it is shutting down it’s last sugar plantation. After 145 years, the corporation — one of the Big Five,  founded by missionaries’ sons Samuel Thomas Alexander & Henry Perrine Baldwin is abandoning it’s once fertile agricultural pursuit. With the end of this year’s sugar harvest, the 675 employees of the once powerful company will join a workforce that has long since left field work behind — their skills as relevant in the 21st century as the intentions of their employer’s founders.

Alexander & Baldwin’s parents hoped to save and civilize the Hawai’ian people, while their sons hoped for the American dream — transplanted to an island paradise. The cost for it all was thousands of native lives and the end of many traditional ways and practices. What a stiff price for a mere 150 years of commercial success. It seems an utter waste that such sacrifice shouldn’t lead to more permanent structures and noble accomplishments.
 
A bitter aspect of this “White Man’s Burden” is the cruel brevity that demeans the Hawai’ians’ horrible loss. For a few generations of wealth, the better part of a society was lost. The blow seems too great for the reward. The white men’s success was too dearly bought. Now that we can measure its duration and close the history, the brutality of its temporality becomes woefully apparent.
 
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 Posted by at 11:27 pm
Dec 182015
 
The initial announcements were inconceivable — multiple planes had been hijacked and crashed deliberately into financial and military meccas on the east coast of the US — and for a people unused to military attacks on their home country, terrifying. It was happening here, and our defense was caught unawares. The reality stunned and the plan’s effect perfect in all regards.
 
In the panic that came afterwards, it was clear that we do not understand ourselves and our own history. This was true on a micro level: New Yorkers earnestly and ignorantly repeated the promises and beliefs that survivors of the Murrah bombing had made before. Outside of Oklahoma, people didn’t really understand what was in store for them over the next six months or year. Their unfamiliarity was rooted in historical ignorance of the aftermath in OKC. Determination was all it seemed to require to rebuild, unless you knew what had happened after the bombing — in which case, you just grieved.
 
Ignorance fueled responses on a larger level too. On the one hand, it tinged the tragedy with irony that a nation born when terrorists funded and encouraged by enemy nations overthrew a world superpower was now the superpower undone by sponsored idealistic warriors. Staters seemed oblivious to that. At the same time, so many questioned our poor defense and wondered why there was no centralized control over the agencies to whom these responsibilities were assigned. When it was clear that those in positions to protect the country failed to coordinate responses and even intelligence that might have prevented the attacks, the demands for change were potent.
 
So, fear of more terrorism drove people ignorant of their history to make sweeping changes that defied American principles and practices to that point. Until then, the dispersion of power and political decentralization was intentional. Our predecessors feared government by standing army and a military threat to civilian authority; they would not create a Napoleon from our republic. The national guard was divided accordingly, and means taken to keep any single governmental agency or leader from having the opportunity to seize control through centralized power. Similarly, as federal authority over security matters expanded, their powers were again divided, and the agencies responsible were more often rivals than collaborators. Accordingly, even as the federal government swelled in size and importance, there were checks and balances, but the same conscious choices that prevented potential coups in this way left us vulnerable to guerilla tactics.
 
Those who knew this history largely forgot it in the post-9/11 hysteria.  Or, they were willing to trade productive political constraints for emotional and psychological cover. But most Staters simply didn’t know better and, therefore, made no opposition as hundreds of years of precedent were suddenly undone. No one wondered if the protective shield promised by the new umbrella agency — the Department of Homeland Security — was also a restrictive cage. Sinclair Lewis predicted (It Can’t Happen Here, 1935) that dictatorship would come from welfare, but it seems more likely now that people would welcome it simply because they were afraid of outsiders.
 
The antidote is, of course, education. Americans fear Islamists particularly because they don’t understand them; they do not fear homegrown killers the same way. Racism is certainly a component of this fear as well, but, again, the way to overcome that is education. The best protection is informed understanding and educated responses.
 
And, of course, better historical education might have given us pause to consider whether it was American to centralize domestic defense in the aftermath and if we really wanted to reimagine what was “American,” if not. But, we were afraid, and when we fear, we don’t think historically. This is how frightful events spur unconscious social and political breaks, from angst and ignorance.
 
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 Posted by at 10:16 am
Nov 242015
 
      “A crisis is something people must live with
       until change has occurred and stability is
       restored.” — Dan Nimmo, TV Network News
       Coverage of Three Mile Island:  Reporting
       Disasters as Technological Fables
 
In the pre-dawn hours of March 28, 1979, a pressure valve failure in the Three Mile Island nuclear facility’s Unit 2 reactor precipitated the worst accident of its kind in US history. The reactor had been dedicated just a year earlier (an expansion of the Pennsylvania site’s capacity) and lauded as a superlative achievement in nuclear power. In the waning years of the Cold War, when the economics of the energy industry left the nation badly bruised, the atomic threat we had so feared promised a cleaner, cheaper electricity source — and the plant’s champions intended it as an example of the wonder of harnessing nuclear power. Yet, that spring, the cutting edge facility seemed just a source of an uncontrollable radiation hazard.
 
Naturally, the public was greatly alarmed when word of a core meltdown broke, and press coverage helped stir up excitement.  Just a couple of weeks before, The China Syndrome, a fictional movie about an accident at a nuclear power plant, had premiered. The tense drama then seemed true to life, and public anxiety about nuclear power mushroomed accordingly.
 
When Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh called for the evacuation of pregnant women and small children from the area near the plant two days later, concerns escalated even more. A number of local residents emptied their bank accounts and fled, while the media reported that there was chance of a giant explosion from a hydrogen bubble in the reactor threatening. A public raised in the shadow of the atomic bombings of World War II and the threats of the Cold War nearly panicked.
 
As chance would have it, though, then-President Jimmy Carter was a trained nuclear engineer with field experience from a similar incident in Canada. In the weeks after the accident, he personally received twice-daily briefings about conditions at Three Mile Island from Harold Denton of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, complete with technical updates on the situation. Carter had confidence, based on his expertise and the information received, that there was no substantial threat to the public, and he didn’t bother to address the subject to the media beyond some cursory initial comments. He proceeded with his regular political appearances even as news agencies focused on the “nuclear nightmare.”
 
By the 4th day, Carter’s staff suggested that a calming act would be highly beneficial (treating it implicitly as if it were no threat had not assuaged fears), so on April 1st, Carter — with his wife, Rosalynn, beside him — flew to the plant and toured it with reporters in tow. Afterwards, the President spoke for a few minutes to a crowd at a nearby school gym and shook hands with some locals.  The message was clear: there was no real danger if the President himself (and the First Lady) would go there to visit.
 
That same day, experts declared the threat over, as the size of the hydrogen bubble inside the reactor shrank and danger of an explosion was dismissed.  The immediate crisis had ended, but there would be long-term fallout from the accidental stoking of public anxiety. New practices and requirements were introduced in order to appease anxious citizens — from upgrading and expanding protective equipment and monitoring devices at sites to additional training for staff and resident regulators assigned to nuclear facilities with a 24-hour central operations center to which they reported.  At Three Mile Island, Unit 2 was decommissioned, and it never operated again.
 
These attempts to reassure the public had limited results. Opposition to expanding nuclear power facilities in the US remained high afterwards — lasting almost two generations and effectively curtailing many new construction projects until recently — though stockpiling nuclear weapons continued routinely. This year, regulators have okayed operation of a new plant (which tellingly is a government project through the TVA). If successful, it joins about sixty other operational plants around the country, indicating that though we fear the source, we — perhaps reluctantly even — continue to coexist with it anyway.
 
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 Posted by at 11:49 am
Oct 302015
 
From the moment the mushroom cloud erupted at Hiroshima, leaving rubble and disfigured bodies in its wake, humans came to fear a peril of their own making. Then after the Cold War was decreed, fears of an atomic attack escalated. Citizens who could hardly understand the lethal power of the weapon were forced to live with the daily threat of a nuclear event. In 1950, President Harry Truman authorized the Federal Civil Defense Administration, which undertook a campaign to help Americans feel safer living with that risk.
 
The agency put out educational literature and most famously, the Duck and Cover video that millions of school children watched as part of their “survival training.” Youngsters drilled to assure they would be ready for the looming attack that they were warned could come at any moment. In the movie, children were depicted seeking shelter riding a bike or walking down a street, when on a playground, and in their classroom. The message for the young audience was that they were never free from a threat — even at their most playful moments.
 
Ostensibly, the purpose of this material was to make people — and especially kids — feel safer. The government intended to give the public confidence that they could survive a bomb blast, even if it was a false hope. The information and drill instruction offered action to combat the fear that the new reality of nuclear war engendered.  But, the effort became less of a balm than an accelerant.
 
A generation of schoolchildren were regularly subjected to reminders that a horrible attack could be imminent. That awareness served as a constant anxiety absorbed into the background of everyday life, along with the other marvels of technology that shaped post-war culture. The Bomb was a looming peril belying the security of suburbia, and the regular school preparedness drills hammered that reality into impressionable young minds.
 
The fear of their fear and the need to remedy that fear created its own hysteria — a new Red Scare and atomic anxiety. A generation raised on bomb warnings and drills naturally responded to the angst about a nuclear attack that never came. That fear helped define them and shape their choices. They were markedly different than the generation that followed the War to End All Wars — no less hedonistic, perhaps, but more expectant that they would be protected.
 
Preparedness drills and civil defense materials probably fed the illusion that they could be kept safe, even as it made them afraid. The government stepped in to reassure them — but not to act to de-escalate the Cold War and reduce the likelihood of a nuclear war. In essence, the political leadership was more concerned about pacifying the public than averting the threat.  Fear of the people’s fear motivated them rather than the reality of their enemies’ power, and it took some time to acknowledge the insanity of that position.
 
Bizarrely, then, the nuclear age spawned government-as-protector even as it was the cause, also, of the dread.  That the state would develop and employ these weapons is not surprising, but its efforts to serve as public comforter while doing so certainly is. Thus, even as it fueled anti-communistic hysteria, it tried to assuage (poorly and with the opposite effect) the fears of citizens about the nuclear menace. Which, then, was the political leadership’s real fear and what did they do to us?
 
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 Posted by at 10:03 am
Sep 302015
 
A mild-looking white man with thin hair, Eugene Debs addressed the crowd in Canton, OH on June 16, 1918 with conviction.  Working men, he said, were the ones fighting wars, but they never had the say in making them or in settling the peace.  “You have your lives to lose,” he told them, “you certainly ought to have the right to declare war if you consider a war necessary.”
 
Pointedly, he then went on to praise activists who had been jailed for opposing war, an undertaking Debs said the rich and powerful had committed the country to in their interests, while the working class did the fighting for them.  Afterwards, Debs was arrested too for running afoul of the Sedition Act of 1918.  The law made it illegal to attempt to obstruct recruiting and enlistment efforts for World War I (equating it to disloyalty, abuse of a military uniform, and flying another country’s flag). Not for the first time, Debs’ case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which held that his speeches did incite opposition to serving in the armed forces.
 
The Supreme Court’s ruling confirmed the legislative and executive branches’ established limit on citizens’ rights to speak out.  Words became seditious threats in and of themselves.  Accordingly, it was permissible to repress speech and the sharing of ideas that was contrary to government aims. It’s ironic that the fear of words and hostility to exposing others to political thought established here came under the administration of Woodrow Wilson, a scholar and proponent of education.  Obviously, the justification was the threat posed to the Republic.
 
In the previous century, the US almost broke apart on two occasions over government policy.  Both issues had significant economic effects on the opposition — the tariff and slavery.  In response, Andrew Jackson threatened to hang any treasonous actor who took up arms against the Union, and a compromise to resolve the tariff and nullification dispute without violence was reached by Congressional leadership instead.  When rebellion rose again later, Abraham Lincoln reluctantly accepted that military force was necessary to end it — and, eventually, slavery.
 
In the 20th century, Wilson faced a different dilemma, which was no less about economic impact. Controlling the working class was essential to the economy and the government’s ability to wage war. However, this time, there was no rebellion.  Debs and other activists were not trying to secede or overthrow the government.  What they wanted was to shift policy and to create a democracy more responsive to workers and their needs.  Theirs was a policy battle — not a physical one.
 
But, the federal government — the whole of US society even — was in a different place then.  Police departments that did not exist under Jackson now patrolled city streets.  Bureaucratic agencies designed to control where and how citizens lived, worked, and raised their children that Lincoln did not know were available to Wilson, giving him the ability to shape cultural ideology in a way that many previous presidents did not.  Washington did not and could not control access to medical information, citizenship entitlements, and employer-employee relations in the way Wilson could (thanks to the post office, treasury department, Bureau of Labor, etc).  The world had changed — the country and its government.
 
Part of this change resulted from a fear of immigrants and differing ideas and values that developed along with industrialization.  As the populace became less homogenized in kind and more stratified economically, ideological differences multiplied and traditional appeals would not suffice. Administrative enforcement mechanisms became the favored tool for social control, rather than persuasion (think the post office and sending lottery tickets or birth control information through the mail).
 
Justification for these bureaucratic means then became contestable too. Done ostensibly for a societal benefit, these acts opened doors for other arguments in favor of the public good (trumping individual rights).  They encouraged popular democracy and social activism. Accordingly, words — speech that could incite coordination of the ballot and effective resistance to cooperate with policies that favored the established elite became threats to 20th century leadership.  The voting public had changed, as had the means to control the citizenry (including oaths of allegiance).
 
John Adams signed his Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, and it cost his party the next elections.  Congressional support dissipated thereafter and the tide turned to favor anti-Federalist positions.  When Thomas Jefferson replaced Adams as President, he pardoned those who’d been jailed by the Adams administration. The opposition freed, the backlash against oppression of speech changed political policy and discourse thereafter.
 
A similar political shift could threaten Wilson and other proponents of policies opposed by the more numerous working class voters. This did not deter the political leadership of that time from undertaking political repression anyway. If the approach was a repeat, the tone was significantly different. Stifling vocal opposition became a tactic that while not new, expanded with darker effect: excluding participants from political conversations as the face of democracy in the US shifted.
 
No longer was the conflict between white men of property with differing philosophies.  Now, it was traditional WASP culture versus those whose resistance to wealth and power had erupted in protests, riots and armed conflicts in cities across the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (for example, the mine field wars in West Virginia and Colorado).  It would take far more (and hardly justifiable) police effort to keep these new democrats down, and thus, it was far more important to control the political dialogue in order to forestall opposition before conflicts required intervention of federal troops. What’s more, avoiding a military response is especially preferable when engaging those with the democratic high ground.  No one could understand that better than a president who suffered the PR nightmare of force feeding suffragists arrested because they wanted to vote.
 
In previous times, political leaders coopted the support of the poorer elements through the ideology of white supremacy.  It divided workers with common economic interests through social status — and even some economic benefit. The ideology of the socialists and unions and their like threatened the coalition of whiteness. As such, it threatened the whole social and cultural order — not just political programs.  Wilson, a champion of segregation as well, pressed tactics to stop the threats to the status quo.
 
For awhile, government witch hunts did stifle political opposition, as the country was enveloped in the hysteria of the Red Scare. In time, though, the frenzy ebbed and later the Supreme Court would reset the boundaries on free speech.  Still, the labels and hostility to particular ideologies pressed by Wilson et al linger even today.  The government may not lock up Socialists like it used to, but it doesn’t have to thanks to the pervasive anti-left bias it seeded so many years ago.
 
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 Posted by at 3:01 pm
Sep 022015
 

In the daylight on September 3, 1885, the survivors crept down from their hiding places in the hills. Their homes burned by a white mob the night before, the surviving Chinese mine workers had no safe retreat. They scattered along the Wyoming countryside, sobbing behind brush and rocks for what they’d seen and praying for help. Their employer — the Union Pacific Railroad, for whom they dug coal to run trains — wired local stations for engineers to stop and pick up survivors along the tracks. Deposited one hundred miles away in Evanston, the scores of rescued Rock Springs miners took refuge with the community of Chinese workers there.

Back home, their houses had been looted by white citizens — including the marm who taught them English — before they were burned. In surveying the damage afterwards, company representatives found half-charred bodies of victims trapped in the burned-out company housing and mutilated corpses in the streets. A few they buried; the rest they left for dogs and other animals to pick over. Twenty-eight was the official death count. Another fifteen were wounded, and property damage ran well over a hundred thousand dollars. The survivors lost everything they’d worked, crammed eight and nine to a house to save on rent, to build — made all the more bitter that they had just purchased their monthly supplies at the company store the day before the riot. Their full provisions were lost to looters and arsonists. They had no food or supplies left to rescue from the ashes.

Afraid for their lives, they did not want to return for the remnants anyway. Instead, they appealed to the railroad for tickets to leave the territory and the two months back wages they were owed to start someplace new. The company declined. It had brought them in as cheap labor to undercut unionized white miners and was determined to retain its workforce. So, the survivors lingered in Evanston, where they acquired weapons to protect themselves in case of more attacks from the armed white mobs building elsewhere in the area. Federal troops finally arrived to preserve a tense peace, though everyone feared another massacre would erupt. Finally, the railroad relented: the 600 Chinese men were loaded into boxcars to convey them safely to San Francisco, far from the hostility of Wyoming mines. After just a short ride in the dark cars, however, the train stopped and the doors opened onto the ruins of Rock Springs.

The boxcars were the survivors’ immobile homes for the next days. Stranded against their will, the workers resisted their boss’ demanded they return to work at the mines. In the meantime, the company provided them emergency provisions and clothing, and the army provided them protection. Afraid of suffering further violence and angered at being tricked, the men held out against their employer’s wish, however. During the days, they loitered nervously; at night, they reported, they were troubled by “frightful dreams” and slept poorly. In desperation, sixty of them took off into the wilderness to make their own way. After a few days, in order to force the remaining survivors back to work, the company cut off supplies to the men. Desperate need forced them again into the mines, anxiety over potential additional violence from white residents compounding the stressful condition of their laboring. In addition to the usual fears about accidents and work hazards, they dreaded another attack from their coworkers daily.

This is how they rebuilt the “Chinatown” at Rock Springs. With a troubling cloud of fear overshadowing them, they worked the mines and restored their community. Specialty stores and services slowly re-established after new company housing provided miners stable residences and some grounding. Federal troops stayed for thirteen years to prevent more violence; their outpost situated between the segregated racial communities in town. White miners returned to work too, and no one was ever prosecuted for the murders, looting, and arson that had occurred. The Chinese workers went into the dark mines every day with whites they knew had brutally murdered their friends and neighbors. Tense productivity that served the railroad constituted the town norm, and the Asian immigrants who could neither leave nor gain legal equality as citizens thus involuntarily sacrificed to facilitate the economic boom that lured so many to the Land of Opportunity.

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 Posted by at 2:15 am
Jul 222015
 

“They pulled the pillow-slip over my head and told me if I took it off they would shoot me. They carried me out and whipped me powerful.”

Rep. Job Stevenson asked the victim, Mervin Givens (40), if he knew his assailants. Yes, Givens swore, the men who tore the shirt off of his back and whipped him, naked, in the dark of the rainy night because he’d voted Republican were boys he’d grown up with. Rep. Philadelph Van Trump asked Givens if he’d tried to have charges brought against the men afterwards, and the witness said he did not because he was afraid for his life.

This was July of 1871. The Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States had traveled to Spartanburg, SC to take testimony from victims of the rampant terrorism in parts of the South after the Civil War. Informally known as the “Klan Hearings,” the Congressional committee took testimony from those who were victims or had knowledge of the violence taking place and of local groups known as the Ku Klux Klan.

In Atlanta, GA, Maria Carter (28) described men coming in the night to terrorize her family. They whipped her husband and held a gun to her head, threatening her while her almost three-week-old baby lay crying nearby. Afterwards, she heard them at the next house where they lashed another man and woman. The neighbors’ screams mingled with curses from their assailants, and in the morning, Carter said, the place looked like they’d been slaughtering hogs from the blood.

In six states, Congressmen and their staff members took testimony like this. The stories were harrowing and demonstrated a pervasive effort to repress black voting and intimidate former slaves to keep them from pursuing the freedoms that should come with their citizenship. Scarred emotionally and physically, the victims knew local law enforcement would not protect them; they were abandoned by the law to these terrible horrors.

The terrorists won — they drove black voters from the polls, into second class citizenship, and to a constant state of anxiety about their safety and that of their children, families, and communities. The violence did not stop with its success, however; it continued for another hundred years. Sometimes, it came at the hands of the KKK, and other times, it was various “concerned citizens” and individuals participating in lynchings or race riots or isolated acts of brutality.

Over this violent century, a legacy of fear passed from generation to generation, incorporated into the thinking and culture of black citizens. This drove them to practice behaviors that would assist their survival. Here was the opposite of rash hysteria and emotional outbursts. They practiced deference and taught their children the same. They built their own commercial and communication networks for mutual support and hid their anger and bitterness, lest it prompt more wrath. They sought solace in their churches and kept a studied, genial mask turned to the white community. They were careful, measured in response, and acutely aware of the mammoth injustice that was their daily burden — extensions, really, of their response to the horror of slavery.

The violent repression of black Americans — particularly in the south — was clandestine but not secret. From these first days of freedom, there was testimony and evidence of the cruel intimidation — and of the terror with which black Americans lived. No one could be ignorant of it. White America intentionally turned a blind eye to it, leaving their black neighbors to shoulder all the pain and misery that fear and powerlessness forced on them — and to find ways to make life fulfilling and circumvent their situations the best they could to bring some value to their menaced lives.

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 Posted by at 8:55 pm