NOTED: HISTORICAL REVISIONISM


I wrote a short piece on bad labor history in textbooks for this week’s issue of The Nation:

Taken together, the narrative that emerges is one in which unions arose to address now-expired injustices, achieving only limited success, and then were replaced by legal regulations and enlightened business leaders. Not coincidentally, that’s the impression you’d get from a lot of our newspapers, politicians and TV shows too.

It’s in the Noted (news briefs) section. It’s adapted from this post I wrote for the website. Subscribers can download the issue here.

ON CITIZEN RADIO: BAD TEXTBOOKS, BAD LABOR LAW

Allison and Jamie kindly had me back on Citizen Radio to talk about how textbooks distort the labor movement and how companies get away with firing labor activists. Here’s the audio of the episode, which also features a great interview with journalist Steve Horn on the big oil backing of a supposedly objective documentary on natural gas extraction.

JIM CROW: NOT JUST DRINKING FOUNTAINS

There’s a lot of silliness in this Politico piece reporting that Republicans (and one anonymous Democrat) would like Debbie Wasserman Schultz to be less strident in criticizing them. It’s worth noting that whereas Republican Chairman Michael Steele took hits in the media for criticizing Republicans, Democratic Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz is now taking hits for…criticizing Republicans. But what’s most pernicious in Molly Ball’s article is its selective memory about Jim Crow:

The congresswoman’s latest blunder came Sunday, when she said on television that Republicans “want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally — and very transparently — block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates.”

The equating of state legislatures’ efforts to require voters to show identification with laws that required separate schools and water fountains raised hackles, particularly in racially sensitive Democratic circles, prompting a quasi-retraction from Wasserman Schultz.

This raises the perennial question: Is it better to be obtuse intentionally or unintentionally?

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POSITIVE PEACE WHICH IS THE PRESENCE OF JUSTICE

From Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

More on MLK Day here.

WHO PLACED WHOSE HANDS?

Hillary Clinton got some deserved criticism for her lecture about how “it took a President” to pass the Civil Rights Act (didn’t Obama prove he values the role of the President when he started running to be the next one?). But Robert Caro’s op-ed today reminds us she could have said something worse:

“Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans,” I have written, “but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.”

This isn’t poetic – it’s just offensive. Did LBJ tie African-Americans’ shoes before they left the house to vote? It should go without saying that African-Americans have been a “true part of American political life” since before the birth of the United States. Among other things, they led a movement which seized the franchise by shifting public opinion and transforming the political landscape. That movement made the difference between the days when LBJ was strategizing against Civil Rights legislation to the days when Jesse Helms must claim to support it.

Caro seems smug towards Civil Rights activists who didn’t trust Johnson’s support until they got it. No doubt which bills Johnson supported, and when he came around to support them, is indeed, as Caro says, some combination of “ambition and compassion.” It’s short-sighted for historians to lionize Johnson’s choices while disparaging the people whose vision, tactics, and courage made it possible for him to wed the two. Of course it makes a huge difference who the President is. But the Great Man Theory that tells us Lincoln freed the slaves and then Johnson gave their descendants the vote is a theory that should be in the dustbin of history by now.

Let’s remember that as we consider the progress Barack Obama’s nomination represents as well as the struggles ahead should there be an Obama presidency.

THE CLINTON PRESIDENCY THAT WASN’T

Had the chance while I was back East for Rosh HaShanah to read George Stephanopoulos’ memoir, which I guess is a lot like you’d imagine it to be. Not to give away the ending, but Stephanopoulos closes with the image of Bill Clinton delivering his State of the Union in the thick of impeachment, and his final sentence is:

Wondering what might have been – if only this good president had been a better man.

This perspective on Clinton – that the great potential of his presidency was spoiled by his sex scandal – is pretty popular, but I don’t see a lot to support it. What were the big domestic or foreign policy initiatives that Clinton would have been able to push through in the last two-and-a-half years of his presidency if not for Monica Lewinsky? What’s the political strategy that would have overcome the hostility of Bob Dole’s Senate and Newt Gingrich’s House to get them through?

Sure, the Lewinsky scandal drew a lot of public, media, and congressional attention. But it’s wishful thinking to imagine that otherwise that airtime would have gone to important public policy. Bill Clinton spent much of the time he was being impeached at higher popularity than any of his peers at the same point in office. Like his wife, he did a deft job of parlaying Republican attacks into anti-anti-Clinton feeling. And if not for the impeachment overreach, it seems unlikely that the Democrats would have bucked history in 1998 by taking back House seats.

The story of a progressive savior that could have been if not for his adulterous appetites has a fun Greek tragic flair to it, but there’s not a lot to back it up. And it has the unfortunate effect of perpetuating the idea that a brilliant politician could have triangulated his way to big progressive reforms if only he’d passed up that blue dress.

WHOSE UNITY?

Christopher Hayes on Obama’s announcement:

In his speech, Obama recited moments in American history when politics became something more than the mundane mechanics of governing and effected a true transformation of the polity: the civil war, the New Deal, the civil rights movement. But the problem is that those were moments not of unity, but of extreme polarization. The South only granted rights to black citizens under force of arms, armies of unruly war veterans gathered in Washington DC during the Great Depression to demand the government provide them with a safety net, and when Martin Luther King Jr went marching through the South, he was met with batons and firehoses and accusations that he was dividing people and stirring up trouble.

OUT OF THE PICTURE

I think several generations of Yale activists have had the chance to gather in protest or at least reflect on the outrageousness of the university’s top decision-making body gathering beneath a portrait of the university’s namesake with a slave. Looks like the next generation will have to come up with a new rite of passage.

Yale is finally taking the goddamn thing down. But god forbid you should think that Yale’s leaders feel regret about leaving it hanging there the past few decades:

Since the portrait is confusing without the explanation [that Elihu Yale did not own slaves], I have decided it would be prudent to exchange that portrait of Elihu to another one in the University’s collection,” Lorimer said.

The quote, from Yale’s VP and Secretary, leaves you with the sense that Yale is taking down the portrait, which involves adjusting the moldings around the mantelpiece around the painting (the classic explanation of yesteryear for why the thing had to stay up), because it’s easier than putting up a plaque explaining that the man was not a slave owner. But it’s a portrait designed to honor Elihu Yale by painting a chained Black man at his feet. It honors him with the imagery of White supremacy – an ideology of which the colonial Governor and the university named for him have been no small beneficiaries.

It’s a painting that belongs in a museum. It has no place hanging over Yale’s president as he meets with the Yale Corporation to try to chart a course for the university. It never did. (That’s the difference between engaging and exulting the problematic)

To suggest that the racist graphic is being taken down to avert misunderstanding is to make abundantly clear that you don’t get it.

OPTIMISM AND OUTRAGE

From Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You:

We have surrendered to romantic images of King at the Lincoln Memorial inspiring America to reach, as he reached with outstretched arms, for a better future. All the while we forget his poignant warning against gradual racial progress and his remarkable threat of revolution should our nation fail to keep its promises. Still, like all other great black orators, King understood the value of understating and implying difficult truths. He knew how to drape hard realities in soaring rhetoric that won the day because it struck the right balance of outrage and optimism. To be sure, we have been long on King’s optimism while shortchanging his outrage.

STOP STEPPING ON MY BREAKTHROUGH

Doing his best to sweet-talk electorally-ascendent liberals into hitching their wagon to the libertarian rickshaw, Brink Lindsey offers a list of shared victories in which liberals and libertarians can revel together:

an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends. Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era–the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration–were championed by the political left.

If these are victories for libertarians, then this is a better argument for why libertarians should support liberals and leftists – the people who actually won each of these victories – than for why the left should turn libertarian. But it’s worth asking whether these markers of social progress even qualify as “libertarian breakthroughs” or “libertarian ends.”

The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by the elimination of the poll tax, a nasty law which restricts access to a government function to those able to pay for it and rewards those with more money to spend on their politics with more voice in them. What about undoing those laws qualifies as libertarian? The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by anti-discrimination laws that empower government to use regulation to limit the freedom of employers to employ a workforce that looks like themselves. Inflicting government intervention on market transactions is not exactly the libertarian m.o. Neither is government-mandated busing to integrate a public school system that if libertarians had their way wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Many libertarians no doubt break with Barry Goldwater and support the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. But their support for good progressive law doesn’t demonstrate a fundamental affinity between liberalism and libertarianism. It simply demonstrates that even its devotees sometimes reject the maxim that “the government is best which governs least” when faced with the liberty-denying consequences of the “free market” whose “relentless dynamism” Lindsey urges liberals to recognize.

Libertarians may support freedom of the press from censorship, but they’re more likely to fret over how to sell off our publically-owned airwaves than how to ensure airtime for grassroots candidates. They may support a woman’s right to choose, but I wouldn’t count on their assistance in ensuring that women have the economic means to choose abortion or childbirth, or the educational resources to make informed choices. They may support the rights of the accused to a trial, but they’re not the first to line up to be taxed to pay for decent lawyers to represent them (then there are the ones who would like to replace the criminal justice system with a system of private torts). They may support allowing more immigrants into this country, but if you expect them to face down employers who exploit the fear of deportation to suppress the right to organize, you’ve got another think coming.

And though the Cato Institute won’t be joining Rick Santorum’s crusade against no-fault divorce any time soon, there’s no need for an earnest Ayn Rand devotee to support a right to divorce at all. After all, isn’t marriage a binding contract that the parties should know better than to get into lightly? Aside from the reality that it presides over marriage in the first place, why should government have any more right to stop consenting adults from entering contracts for lifelong marriage than it does to bar contracts for human organ sales or pennies-an-hour employment?

DUMP DENNIS

In the wake of Dennis Prager’s furious condemnation of Congressman-Elect Keith Ellison’s plan to be sworn in on his own holy text – a story Prager described this week as more important to the future of this nation than what we do next in Iraq – the Council on American-Islamic Relations is calling for his removal from the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. As M.J. Rosenberg notes, President Bush appointed Prager three months ago to the Council, which oversees the Holocaust Museum.

That appointment demonstrates that George W. Bush has not fully learned the lessons of the Holocaust.

That language bristles no doubt, because there’s an unfortunate tendency to see big, dramatic historical events on whose moral character there’s a broad consensus – the Civil Rights Movement, the Abolition movement, the Holocaust – as somehow beyond the bounds of politics. But these are all political events. They are seismic moments not because they transcend politics but because they both expose and transform fundamental conflicts between different social visions held by different people and advanced through the exercise of power.

The Holocaust was a genocidal murderous enactment of an ideology of racial, religious, and sexual hierarchy and bigotry. It was an act of murder writ large in the name of Aryan heterosexual non-disabled Protestants being more human, having more worth, and possessing more rights than others. There are still those in this country who hold some or all those prejudices. There are some who will say so openly.

History does not interpret itself. But it demands meaning-making by responsible citizens.
That is not and never has been a process divorced without influence from or impact on our politics.

The Holocaust Museum’s “primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.”

No one espousing the view that the “acceptance” of Judaism “as equal” to other religions “signifies the decline of Western civilization” would have a shot at a spot overseeing the Holocaust Museum. But someone who believes such about homosexuals was appointed to the Board three months ago by the President. That’s because the full humanity of Jews is considered a settled question in mainstream American political discourse, and therefore inappropriate to “politicize,” while the full humanity of gays is up for debate, and therefore it’s inappropriate to judge those bravely taking the “politically incorrect” stance.

JACOB WEISBERG, CALL YOUR FACT-CHECKER

Jacob Weisberg in this month’s Men’s Vogue:

But even as the Democratic political discussion grows and engulfs him, Obama is engaged in another more personal and historical conversation – with Wright and Ellison, with his parents, and with those two tragic and prophetic figures, Lincoln and King. Obama, of course, would never be so immodest as to compare himself to either of these men. But being clear-eyed, he must see what others do: that among American politicians, he alone has the potential to one day be mentioned in the same breath.

Barack Obama in last year’s Time magazine:

So when I, a black man with a funny name, born in Hawaii of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, announced my candidacy for the U.S. Senate, it was hard to imagine a less likely scenario than that I would win–except, perhaps, for the one that allowed a child born in the backwoods of Kentucky with less than a year of formal education to end up as Illinois’ greatest citizen and our nation’s greatest President. In Lincoln’s rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat–in all this, he reminded me not just of my own struggles.