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.