Above: Lincoln’s funeral
Ari Kelman and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm excerpt their new graphic novel on the Civil War. You should read it.
Above: Lincoln’s funeral
Ari Kelman and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm excerpt their new graphic novel on the Civil War. You should read it.
Randall Kennedy has an interesting long book review of new biographies of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. I haven’t read any of them, not even Manning Marable’s acclaimed Malcolm book, but there are a couple of points worth discussing here anyway. First, Kennedy accuses each author of engaging in hagiography over proper historical analysis. I can’t judge the claim, but that does seem to be the case with the Newton book, which just seems bad from multiple reviews. As for the other two, both Marable and Peniel Joseph (who is speaking at URI next week so come out if you are around) are both outstanding historians, but it is often a problem with biography that authors start apologizing for their subject. And as Kennedy points out, there is plenty that is distasteful about both. I find that more convincing with Carmichael, whose leadership of SNCC was disastrous and who seemed somewhat less serious about what he was doing after he achieved fame (although he did largely avoid the spotlight after he went to Africa). But with Malcolm, Kennedy’s problem is the Nation of Islam. I don’t think too many people are really going to defend NOI at this point. Its murders of its own members and the rank hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad are well known now. But while Kennedy admits that Malcolm shows significant room for personal growth, he also wants to make sure that he is held accountable for his actions before his expulsion from the organization in 1964.
Well, OK, but this gets to my second point, which is about context and the passage of time. In other words, it is very easy to write in 2015 about how the Nation of Islam was horrible, how the Black Panthers were violent and cruel, and how Carmichael ran SNCC into the ground. It’s not that Kennedy forgets the context in which these people were working, but it’s also worth reiterating it. Malcolm and Newton were operating in urban centers where African-Americans had moved for the promise of a better life, but that promise had been a lie. In 1960s Oakland, Los Angeles, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, etc., police brutality was a way of life. There were no jobs. Most people could not afford a car. Public transportation was almost nonexistent. The only economic outlet for many was drugs. The Civil Rights Movement could win concrete victories in the South because it battled legal segregation, but the de facto segregation of northern and western cities made victories much, much harder to win, as Martin Luther King and the SCLC found out in the failed Chicago housing campaign of 1966. It’s hardly surprising that black pride and black power organizations, whether Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, the Nation of Islam, or the Black Panthers, would rise out of this. It’s equally unsurprising that those organizations would be problematic and violent, as violence ruled the communities from which they arose and organized.
As for Carmichael, while his leadership of SNCC didn’t work out, the overall move away from racial inclusion to black power within the student led side of the Civil Rights Movement also makes sense in context, even if it was a bad idea strategically and organizationally. Let’s not underestimate the bitterness that led SNCC to design Freedom Summer because its organizers knew that only when white kids were killed would the media pay attention to anything happening in rural Mississippi. This analysis was of course exactly right when the three SNCC workers, two white, were murdered by the KKK. Ten years of struggle, suffering, and death in the face of overwhelming violence is a bravery I can barely imagine. If people burn out and snap or turn to black power and racial exclusion, it’s not surprising at all. It says much for John Lewis’ character that he never went down this road, but it is an understandable response to the horrifying experiences of these people’s lives.
Finally, I thought this was unfair to Malcolm X:
While Malcolm X and other followers of Elijah Muhammed put on cathartic performances in safe surroundings, however, King, Carmichael, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, James Lawson, and others risked their lives repeatedly in face-to-face confrontations with heavily armed, trigger-happy white supremacists. While Malcolm X was taunting King and company for rejecting violence, the tribunes of the Civil Rights movement were successfully pressuring the federal government to bring its immense weight to bear against the segregationists through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While Malcolm X talked tough—“if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery”—he and the NOI refrained seeking revenge when racist police brutalized Black Muslims. While Malcolm X spoke with apparent knowingness about racial uplift, at no point did he communicate a cogent, realistic strategy for elevating black America.
But Marable is not denigrating any of those other civil rights activists. No one is saying those people did not do amazing things or put their lives at risk. They were also, outside of Hamer, college-educated. This movement Kennedy lauds in comparison to Malcolm was a decidedly middle-class movement. They came out of a different African-American tradition than Malcolm. Second, one could basically say the same thing about the relationship between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, with the former safely ensconced in Cambridge and the latter risking his life in rural Alabama. Yet in this case, even most historians today sympathize with DuBois instead of Washington (in part because the Civil Rights Movement proved DuBois’ “talented tenth” idea correct and Washington’s rejection of political gains wrong). But mostly I don’t think this is a useful comparison to make at either time. There were many paths to African-American freedom. Some were more effective and some more problematic, but I don’t think basically calling Malcolm a poseur compared to SNCC activists is useful.
It’s an interesting and challenging review, but I think if anything Kennedy is moving toward hagiography toward the mainstream CRM (after all, he might well call Malcolm sexist and socially conservative, but MLK could certainly be accused of the same) and therefore overcompensates in his analysis of these people. He occasionally makes pretty easy judgements about which group was right or wrong in 1965 when in reality everyone working for black freedom in the 1960s faced overwhelming white violence and police brutality. That certainly doesn’t mean that we should take Huey Newton at his word or not question the self-mythologizing all three of these men could engage in, but, as always, everything should be contextualized and our own positions questioned.
In 2014, I completed two books. Out of Sight is coming out in June and Empire of Timber is probably being published in March 2016 if not a touch earlier.
So what to do in 2015? I suppose I should just watch baseball for the next 8 months or find a way to relax. But I don’t really do that. The only answer at this point in my life is to write another book.
This week I signed a contract with The New Press for a book currently titled No Surrender, No Retreat: A History of America in Ten Strikes. This will be my synthesis of American labor history using ten labor actions as a entry point into the larger stories of working people that define a given era. I’m still working out precisely which ten to choose, but they will probably include the Lowell Mill Girls strike of 1845, slaves walking away from the plantations at the end of the Civil War, a couple of the classic Gilded Age strikes, the Flint sit-down strike, the Oakland General Strike of 1946, Lordstown, and the Air Traffic Controllers or Phelps-Dodge union busting of the 80s. The book will end with the Justice for Janitors campaign, which I think is the logical way to sum up where we are at now–SEIU, Latinos and organized labor becoming a movement of immigrants, service workers. The book will not be in depth discussions of the details of these actions, but rather a way to retell American history for a popular audience that centers the focus on working people.
No publication date yet obviously and it won’t be for awhile since I haven’t written it yet.
I was going to try and write a proper review of Greil Marcus’ new book The History of Rock N’ Roll in Ten Songs for the blog. But I found myself having not a lot to say about it. Mostly, I thought Marcus’ over the top writing style and tendency to mythologize rock pioneers took over too much here. Imagining what happens if Robert Johnson lives and basically connecting him to every major musical event of the 20th century, going all the way to Obama’s inauguration seems a bit, um, far-fetched, while some of the chapters hardly make sense. There’s a lot of sections where clarity really struggles to be achieved. Plus he really likes The Doors. There were some interesting things here, such as comparing versions of “Money Changes Everything” over time from Cyndi Lauper and Tom Gray. And his discussion of Christian Marclay’s experimentation is quite interesting. But most of the chapters don’t work well.
So I guess that is some sort of review. It’s rare that I don’t like a book about music. But I didn’t like this book. He needs a stronger editor. It’s hard for a big star to deal with editors. But if you consider how Daniel Lanois forced Dylan into actually making a good album for once with Time Out of Mind and how that transformed the great songwriter’s career (once again), sometimes the genius has to suck up the ego and deal with it.
For Jim O’Loughlin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a popular artefact through which changing concerns about race and nationhood can be understood, because it served as an ‘agent of cultural change for almost one hundred years.’[xi] Since this novel and its adaptations became one of the early examples for the mass circulation of popular culture, this is almost as true internationally as it is in the United States. But the process whereby Uncle Tom’s Cabin was brought to international audiences meant its racist stereotypes were not necessarily accompanied by the original novel’s redeeming feature – its antislavery message. The international cultural memory of American history presented Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues to rely on such stereotypes, which are damaging because of their clichéd contemporary familiarity.
A sense of disconnect therefore exists between the historical evaluation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the contemporary willingness to use ‘Uncle Tom’ as a politicised rhetorical device. A historical lens enables readers to at once understand the novel as a flawed product of its time and an important agent of social change. Stowe’s personal commitment to antislavery went hand in hand with the dissemination of racist stereotypes that were nonetheless common in nineteenth-century America, but the contemporary reiteration of such stereotypes in America and abroad is not an innocuous mistake. History is intrinsic to making any meaning of the phrase ‘Uncle Tom’, so those who mobilise it understand its racist legacy. This does not overlook the historical foundations of such epithets, but in fact shows a willingness to mobilise a history of chattel slavery and racial hierarchy for political gain.
As David S. Reynolds writes, ‘We may hope for a time when America is, in President Barack Obama’s phrase, “beyond race,” when we can erase the negative usage of Uncle Tom because it is inapplicable to social reality.’ Yet Obama himself perhaps most prominently continues to experience the legacy of nineteenth-century popular culture in a way that debunks the myth of a post-racial America. The recent Sony hacks, where executives speculated over whether Obama would like films such as Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), the latter based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative of the same name, show how history and popular culture are very much linked to the expression of racism in America.[xii] The Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon, the success of which was intrinsically linked to the expansion of mass culture across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrates the degree to which national prejudices can be naturalised, rather than critiqued, through international circulation. When transported beyond the United States, the racism within American popular culture has subsequently been used to undermine a president beyond American borders. Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains at the locus of the referential network upon which this political rhetoric continues to be built.
I haven’t read Steve Fraser’s new book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, but after reading this review, I sure plan to do so.
Fraser identifies a number of reasons why Americans acquiesce to the class warfare of the New Gilded Age:
Fraser explains the economics of decline effectively. The working class may have abandoned Marxian “class struggle,” but, he says, the capitalists haven’t; they have pretty much won the class conflict by destroying labor unions. But the problem for him goes beyond economics; the disappearance of the left-wing political imagination is his real concern. His analysis thus focuses mostly on the cultural and ideological.
He points to the distractions offered by consumer culture, “an emancipation of the imaginary and the libidinal whose thrills and dreaminess are prefabricated.” Consumerism and mass media offer pleasures that are private, that take people away from the political and social and economic grievances they share with others.
He emphasizes the particular idea of “freedom” that provides the heart of Republican Party ideology: Freedom in America is the freedom to succeed through individual initiative (rather than cooperative effort). Our heroes are the entrepreneurs, the “job creators,” and the enemies of freedom are the government regulations and taxes that shackle their creativity and energy (and which otherwise might go to serve social needs and the public good).
The ’60s maxim “the personal is political” meant that issues that seemed private — above all, women’s oppression — were in fact widely shared and required collective action to bring change. Fraser argues that what began as a call for liberation has today become a justification for avoiding the political, for substituting personal solutions for political ones: eat organic food, drive a Prius, send your kids to charter schools.
It’s an interesting thesis. As the review points out, Americans haven’t acquiesced on social issues–thus the gay rights movement, challenges to police violence, etc. But on economic issues, we have. And I think that’s right. Not all of us necessarily, but the capitalists did an outstanding job after the fall of the Soviet Union is discrediting even the slightest possibility that any system other than unrestrained American-style capitalism could work. Socialists were pushed back on their heels while class consciousness collapsed in American society (although it was already in decline since the 1950s). Horatio Alger myths have existed in American society since before Alger wrote them, but never before have so many people believed in them so whole-heartedly. And I don’t think student debt loads, economic stagnation, recession, and growing income inequality has really changed it that much, at least if my students are any sign.
The arguments about consumer culture and individualism I think are particularly interesting. I don’t think consumerism and resistance are necessarily counter to one another, but there is something about a society where even that resistance is heavily individualized and where one wears their politics not on their sleeve, but on their arm like a new tattoo that shows their own personally crafted politics for them. This highly individualized politics empowers people to resist on one level but also empowers them to drop out if the movement they’ve joined doesn’t take this or that position. Occupy did a lot but this atomized individualism is a big part of the reason why the same spirit and same problems didn’t allow it to continue and then didn’t reignite in some other way.
Anyway, I’ll try to review Fraser’s book for the blog and explore these issues in greater detail.
For what seems like half of my life and the entire time I have written at this site, I have been talking about my logging book. Well, as of today, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests is under contract with Cambridge University Press. No official publication date yet, but it should be sometime next year and I will keep readers posted.
I received a request for a list of environmental policy/history books. I make no claims to being an authoritative source here and others will have different books, but here are 10 books on the history of environmental policy I find useful. I am thinking of these terms broadly as well. In no order:
1. Samuel Hays, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945.
Pretty self-explanatory, good overview of the issue from the dean of environmental policy history.
2. James Morton Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964
An excellent recent overview of wilderness politics after the Wilderness Act.
3. Christopher Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History
How did we become a car-centric society and what are its environmental implications?
4. Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-80.
Who has access to clean nature and who does not? Guess what–it’s about race.
5. Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation
What were the politics and actions behind the creation of hunting law and national parks?
6. Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES
A key book about the science and policy behind synthetic chemicals and women’s bodies
7. Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West
Water policy, which we must understand to talk about the West.
8. Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River
How policymakers and industry completely reshaped a river and its ecosystem.
9. Joseph Taylor, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis
Fisheries policy and its many mistakes is hugely important for environmental policy
10. Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic.
A great piece of journalism rather than a history but it holds up as an indictment of the abject failure of the Reagan Administration during the greatest public health crisis of the second half of the 20th century.
I find this list slightly dated, which surprises me since I keep up on the historiography pretty well. It’s also I should note quite different than what I think the best books of environmental history are, although these are all good. Strictly thinking about policy.
I have no doubt there will be many great recommendations in comments as well, including books I probably just forgot.
Robert Stone, author of Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, and many other novels, has died. Of course, he’s most famous because I once rented an apartment that he had lived in not long before.
I recently rewatched The Grapes of Wrath and then reread the book. They are both great pieces of art. Back in my social realist days of art in the late 90s and early 00s, I found the slightly more optmistic end of the movie irritating, but really the scene with Rose-a-Sharon suckling the old man was over the top and there really wasn’t much reason for the book to go on after Tom Joad leaves. And the mild sense of hope at the end of the film really is a more palatable ending. The flood offers nothing but more despair. The adaptation really is perfect as well. I know Steinbeck loved it. The superfluous characters are eliminated, even though it’s obvious in the film that there’s no way Ma Joad would have gone that long between children.
Anyway, what do you think happens to Tom Joad? Let’s assume he doesn’t killed like Casey. And let’s assume he survives the war. If Tom Joad is alive after 1945, what is his future? Am I the only who sees him becoming a conservative like most of his fellow ex-sharecropper migrants and voting for Goldwater in 64? Steinbeck makes a compelling case for Joad the populist man of the left. But of course Steinbeck’s landscape of the California fields is incredibly whitened, eliminating the Filipinos and Mexicans who had long history of work in the fields. That wasn’t entirely inaccurate given the deportations of Mexicans from California in the depression once white people needed low-paid work. But can Joad’s populism bypass the racist attitudes he grew up in and the racist attitudes of California? I guess I am skeptical given what we know about post-war California and the rise of conservatism. Maybe Joad returns from the war, gets a job in the defense factories like so many of his family members and comrades from Oklahoma, and those racial attitudes take over. Now Tom Joad didn’t buy into the religion at the heart of this, but then he’s a young man in the late 30s when the story takes place. Steady work and prosperity will do a lot to make someone forget the hard bad times that make them do crazy things.
I mean, sure, it’d be nice to think about Tom Joad as the vanguard of a left-populist movement. But that didn’t happen, nor did it come close to happening. So if we are playing the odds, I think we have to say that Joad votes Goldwater.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of Naomi Klein’s new climate change book. Kolbert had her problems with it, primarily that Klein doesn’t offer a concrete path before. I was interested in this precisely because I think struggling for solutions to our problems, however tenuous or even unrealistic they might be, is really important. So in the nature of fairness, it’s worth noting that Klein is pushing back hard against that review, discussing the many concrete ideas she posits:
Kolbert’s review makes the quite extraordinary claim that my book “avoids looking at all closely at what [emission reduction] would entail.” In fact the book contains an in-depth discussion of emission reduction strategies employed by large economies like Germany and Ontario. It dissects the policies that work and those that do not and explores how international trade policy needs to change to make such policies more effective. It delves into which agricultural practices carry the most climate benefits, goes into detail about how to pay for green transitions (from luxury taxes to public control over energy grids). It calls for a revolution in public transit and high-speed rail, for shorter workweeks and serious climate financing so that developing nations can leapfrog over fossil fuels. It also calls for moratoriums on particularly high-risk forms of extractions—and much, much more.
Some of this would be very difficult to implement from a political perspective, but obviously these are the kinds of steps we need. So it’s slightly unclear why Kolbert focused so heavily on this issue in her review.
Klein goes farther on her website and wonders out loud whether what Kolbert is really doing is guarding her territory since she has criticized other climate change books for doing what she wants Klein to do.
Or maybe there is something else going on here. Kolbert’s review contained a couple of digs at my lack of earlier engagement with climate change. Including this painfully revealing line: “Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change…” (This was the set up for her invocation of the Swiss study.) So… yes, Kolbert has been writing about climate change longer than I have. And it’s quite true that, back in 1998, I was writing a book about consumption and corporate power, not climate change specifically. But does this kind of petty turf-protection really have a place in the face of a collective crisis of such magnitude? Personally, I much prefer the spirit of the slogan of New York City’s People’s Climate March: “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone.”
Writing this response has not been fun. I have long admired Elizabeth Kolbert’s vivid reporting from the front lines of ecological collapse and the climate movement unquestionably owes her a debt of gratitude. Which is why I find it particularly troubling that someone so intimately aware of the stakes in this struggle would devote so much intellectual energy to describing why change of the scale we need is a “fable.” Why should hope—even deeply qualified hope like mine—be maddening?
One would hope turf-guarding is not what is happening here. But of course sometimes this very much happens. I doubt Kolbert would agree. But people get real cranky when they think (and often are) experts on a topic. However, we need as many calls to action climate change as possible, especially by people who are already famous. One would certainly think there would be room for a range of books on the topic and what to do. If my book inspires other people to write about the problems of capital mobility but posited completely different solutions and emphasized different issues, great!
And the critique of how long one has been interested in an issue is just petty.
R.A. Montgomery, author of the Choose Your Own Adventure children’s book series, has died. It is impossible to overstate how awesome these books were when I was 10 or 11 years old. Hopefully, Montgomery’s path to Heaven or Hell doesn’t include such similarly precarious choices as the many where the Maya would kill you, which seemed to happen a lot to me when I read the books.