Thursday, October 01, 2015

When Print was King

The name William Allen White is largely unknown to Americans today.  White was born in Kansas in 1868, making him an exact of contemporary of two of my heroes from the Missionary Generation, W. E. B. Dubois and Henry M. Stimson.  His father was a doctor and a Protestant and a Democrat; his mother was born a Catholic, orphaned, raised a Congregationalist, attended college, and was, as White repeatedly puts it, a "black abolitionist Republican."  White was born in a small town, Eldorado, where, as he proudly explains, the first building to go up was a two-story state of the art schoolhouse.  He describes his childhood in detail rivaling that of Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel, and he is astonishingly frank about his emotions throughout his life.  He frankly confesses that he hated a younger brother who arrived on the scene when he was about four, and that he was not at all sorry when the brother died a couple of years later.  White eventually attended two colleges, including the University of Kansas, but he did not graduate, largely because he was already deeply involved in journalism.  After working for the Kansas City Star, he started his own paper, the Emporia Gazette, in the 1890s, and remained its editor until his death in the midst of the Second World War, whose conclusion he, like Franklin Roosevelt, did not quite live to see.

White's generation, as I pointed out in No End Save Victory, probably lived through more dramatic technological changes than any other, and he describes the impact of all of them, save the airplane.  (White died in the midst of working on his autobiography, and he had only reached the  mid-1920s when he put it down.)  But he also lived through enormous political changes which he describes in great detail.  In his youth, he freely admits that he was a happy child of the upper classes who saw nothing wrong with the established order.  And as a matter of fact, he became famous during the 1896 campaign between McKinley and Bryan by writing an editorial, "What's the Matter with Kansas?", that went viral (via the telegraph) and was redistributed in millions of copies byMcKinley's campaign manager Mark Hanna. The matter, the editorial claimed in language reminiscent of contemporary Republicans, was that populism was driving capitalists (he did not say "job creators") and wealth out of the state.  White was by this time a Republican.  He had reached his twenties without party affiliation, and his only strong political view at that point was opposition to the protective tariff, a Republican shibboleth.  But he joined the party, he said revealingly, because he wanted to have a real impact on public affairs, and joining one of the two parties was the only way to do so.  It is one of  the many tragedies of contemporary American life that that attitude is nearly extinct and that young men and women are more inclined to distrust any political party.

I was constantly reminded, reading the early chapters of White's book, of the far greater role politics played in American life in the nineteenth century than it does today.  Without the radio, movies, or large-scale spectator sports, it, along with commodity prices, was the main source of day-to-day entertainment in the land, and millions of men and women, like White's parents, took it very seriously. As a Democrat, White's father waited patiently for the return of his party to power after the Civil War, and by the early 1880s, he was well acquainted with the new Democratic governor of New York, Grover Cleveland of Buffalo, in whom he was pinning his hopes.  It is hard to imagine anyone in America today, of any age, who could have identified an up-and-coming politician from another part of the country as a possible President at a comparable stage of his career.

"What's the Matter with Kansas"--whose title was borrowed, of course, by Thomas Frank, in a book several years ago on the rise of the Republican right--introduced White to the upper reaches of the Republican Party, including both Mark Hanna and McKinley himself.  Meanwhile, he was making a name for himself as an author of newspaper articles and books, and making important connections in the New York publishing world.  He was also an important figure in Kansas politics, and he describes the politics of the Gilded Age in great detail, explaining how railroad lawyers carefully built up networks of influence in every town so as to control party conventions ,who in turn elected legislatures, who in their turn elected U.S. Senators.  Corruption today, of course, is more straightforward, since politicians beg money from corporations directly, and it is no longer necessary to cultivate reliable supporters among the population at large face to face.

Trips eastward on the train became a regular feature of his life.  A great turning point occurred in 1897, when White went to Washington to avoid being appointed the postmaster in his small town, and heard that the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, wanted to meet him.  White was immediately seduced by Roosevelt's concern for economic justice and the common man, and Roosevelt, from the next-older generation, became the great inspiration of his life.  This was the beginning of White's conversion to Progressivism.  He did not want Roosevelt to become Vice President in 1900, and indeed, he tells, much more frankly than TR's recent biographer Edmund Morris, how it was Senator Platt, the Republican boss of New York, who arranged the nomination to get TR out of New York, where he had become Governor after his exploits in Cuba in 1898.  White hoped that TR might succeed McKinley in 1904, but as it turned out, an assassin's bullet raised TR to the White House.

White returns again and again to the Progressive platform that developed thanks to Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, and others in the first decade of the 20th century. It included the direct election of Senators, direct primaries to nominate candidates for all offices, the eight hour day, new rights for labor, and some control over the Trusts. Women's rights were another part of the platform, and Progressives pushed not only for women's suffrage, but for an eight-hours day for women, knowing that factories that employed both sexes would have to extend the same benefit to men as well if it passed.  It was, as White emphasizes, a bipartisan movement, which by 1912 commanded majority support in both parties.  But it was not, White says repeatedly, a movement of the masses, but rather of the middle class, who believed for moral reasons that the economic order had to be reformed and the benefits of progress spread more widely.  Not for nothing, as I have noted before, have ideologues like Glenn Beck identified Theodore Roosevelt as the source of the evils of the 20th century.  It is exactly the idea that the distribution of income and wealth has to reflect moral principles that the Republicans have been trying to wipe out since Reagan, and that Bernie Sanders is now trying to revive.

White realized during TR's presidency that while his hero talked a moving game of justice, progress, and war on the "plutocracy," he was always willing to make necessary compromises to get anything done, and his entourage always included one George Perkins, a partner of J. P. Morgan.  (Morgan saved TR and the country in 1907, when he singlehandedly stopped the third major panic of White's life, after 1872 and 1893.)   Roosevelt left office in 1909, of course, and his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, immediately turned into putty in the hands of conservative Republicans.  In 1912, Roosevelt took Taft on for the Republican nomination under the new rules, winning every primary but losing at the Convention thanks to the strong-arm tactics of the party leadership and the corruption of southern Republican delegates.  It was because he felt cheated out of the nomination, not for ideological reasons, that TR, with White's support, decided to bolt the party and run on a Progressive ticket.  That doomed Taft but elected Wilson, whom White found nearly as congenial politically--although he never warmed to him personally at all.

Prohibition and pacifism were both common among Progressive men and women.  (White notes the emerging female presence in progressive politics, including friends of his like Susan B. Anthony, Ida Tarbell, and Edna Ferber.)  White, who drank very little all his life, shared both views, and sympathized with Wilson's desire to stay out of the First World War, rather than with TR's frantic attempts to get the United States into it.  Looking back on these events nearly thirty years later, White realized how the war had doomed Progressivism.  He strongly supported Wilson's war aims, and he took his family to Paris where he covered the peace conference, gradually realizing, as he wrote, that Wilson ws being outmaneuvered by Clemenceau, who was turning the League of Nations into a mechanism to maintain the old balance of power.  White also visited the American-occupied Rhineland, where he was struck by the excellent relations between the German population and American troops.  The Germans, he noted, were shocked by fraternization between American officers and their men, and could not believe that the men obeyed their officers out of respect, rather than fear.  White was devastated by the defeat of the League of Nations, which he blamed partly on Wilson's refusal to compromise.  He was even more devastated by the nomination of Warren Harding for President (following the unexpected death of TR in 1919), and his decision to endorse Harding was one of the most difficult of his adult life.  White met Harding several times during his Administration and regarded him as a victim of the men around him. Unfortunately White died before he could discuss Calvin Coolidge, although he had already left behind a biography of Coolide, A Puritan in Babylon, which I have never read.

Although White was a journalist rather than a historian, I identified with him throughout much of the book.  He had loved politics all his life, and he was keenly aware of the great historical changes through which his country was passing in a way that most of my contemporaries have not.  I have no doubt that he would have instantly grasped the insights of Strauss and Howe.  He loved to read, and he was, like myself, a pianist, albeit of a different sort.  He was an all-around intellectual and devoted to his two children, one of whom, his daughter Mary, died tragically after a riding accident when she was about to enter Wellesley College.  And he wrote constantly.  The difference, alas, was that there was a national market for his ideas.  He became wealthy, by the standards of his time, based upon his writing of both non-fiction and fiction.  I think White would have enjoyed reading this blog on a weekly basis--but in his day, it wold have had many more readers.  That is a commentary on the differences between his era and mine, not any differences between him and me.  Like Henry Adams, he is a kindred spirit to whom I shall return, even though he died a few years before I was born.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Flowering of McCarthyism

In February of 1950, at a Lincoln Day dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, a little known first-term Senator, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, announced that he had evidence of 205 Communists who were working for the State Department, and who were known by the State Department to be Communists.  McCarthy never managed to substantiate that claim, or indeed, even to identify one such person still working in the State Department or any other branch of the federal government, but his name became (and remains) a household word, and he exercised a tremendous influence upon American politics for more than four years, until he came to grief after taking on the U.S. Army.  What struck many people, then and later, was the extraordinary manner in which McCarthy was able to dominate press coverage, even though he hardly ever managed to come up with any real facts.  In fact, he was using a technique that has now become commonplace and which the Republican Party is using to great effect during the current election campaign.  It behooves us to look for a moment at his career once again so as to understand exactly what that technique was.

Let us begin with the Lincoln Day speech that made McCarthy famous.  The basis for it, it turned out, was a 1946 letter by then-Secretary of State James Byrnes to the House Appropriations Committee, detailing the results of an employee screening program within his Department, apparently relating to numerous temporary employees that had been hired during the war, including some aliens.  3000 of these employees, the letter said, had been given a "preliminary examination," and a "recommendation against permanent employment" had been made for 284 of them.  Of these, 79 had actually been separated from the department.  Subtracting 79 from 284, McCarthy had arrived at the figure of 205, and upgraded them all from people whose permanent employment had not been recommended to actual Communist Party members.  He made no allowances, of course, for anything that might have happened in the intervening four years, either.

The point, in short, was that McCarthy's allegation had no real basis in fact--but that by making it, and repeating it in several significantly modified forms over the next few weeks, he created a sensation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee actually created a subcommittee chaired by the respected Millward Tydings of Maryland to investigate his charges.  It found them baseless months later, but by then McCarthy had moved on to other things, and Tydings lost his seat in November 1950 thanks partly to a faked photograph McCarthy's people circulated showing him with the leader of the Communist Party.  The point, in short, was not that McCarthy had uncovered important information--he hadn't--but that he had started a huge, endless conversation about Communists in government, of which several had indeed been uncovered before he made his speech.  (Many more people who were simply left-wingers had already been fired from the government, as well.)  That conversation became part of mainstream Republican discourse, and McCarthy became such a valued member of the Republican team that in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower, campaigning for President, declined to attack him even after he had called Eisenhower's patron and boss, General George C. Marshall, a traitor.

One of the biggest problems in dealing with McCarthyism is that it is impossible to refute it specifically without contributing to its aims.  The point of a McCarthyite attack is to get something in the news, and refuting the allegations keeps them in the news, without having any impact at all the constituency to which the attacks appeal.  And the more the allegations are discussed, the more neutral people are likely to believe that there must be something to them.  This is happening now with respect to Planned Parenthood, and it is quite likely to lead to the shutdown of the federal government.

The videos made by a young Republican activist and his team of discussions with Planned Parenthood officials--videos obtained under completely false pretenses, just like the ones that brought down ACORN--are not much better evidence of wrongdoing than McCarthy's letter from Secretary Byrnes.  The conversations were artificially created by men with a huge axe to grind, who were specifically steering the officials into dangerous territory for their own purposes.  And the officials, like the secretaries in Acorn offices, were obviously trying to be polite.  Then, the raw footage was edited to make it as inflammatory as possible.  And just as McCarthyism appealed to the many Americans who had believed that the White House had been in thrall to Communism ever since FDR took over in 1933, these videos confirm the deepest prejudices of Americans who oppose all abortions and, in many cases, any form of birth control at all.

Carly Fiorina has jumped in the polls after the second Republican debate, because she emerged as an intelligent, forceful woman who was prepared to stand up to Donald Trump.  But she contributed to the McCarthyite campaign against Planned Parenthood in a purposely emotional speech that gave an extremely misleading impression of what was in the video and how it got there.  I am not going to fall into the trap of propagating exactly what she said or exactly what is in the video still further by detailing it here, but trust me, I did look into it carefully myself, and the real information is available in numerous places.  And at that moment, I decided that Fiorina was in no way superior to the average among this year's Republican candidates.

Abortion however is far from the only issue that is being used to revive McCarthyism.  Hillary Clinton was very foolish to use a private server as Secretary of State, but there is no evidence, despite a good deal of investigation, that she compromised the security of classified information by doing so.  She did enough, however, to start what promises to be an endless round of investigations (parallel to those generated by McCarthy's accusations)  which will occupy a lot of news space well into next year's presidential campaign.  Today's New York Times has a story about two specific emails, splitting hairs about whether they should have been classified, while giving no indication that either of them was appropriately leaked.  The Clintons, of course, are not saints, but they have been the repeated victims of McCarthyite attacks ever since Bill became President, relating to Troopergate, Vince Foster, Whitewater, and the President's sexual behavior.   Most of these allegations were without foundation, and those that had any never deserved 1/100 of the ink that they generated.

McCarthyism is also being used against immigration, by highlighting one or two murders committed by illegal immigrants. In the absence of any evidence (which is not forthcoming) that illegal immigrants are committing murders at a significantly above-average rate than other Americans, this is meaningless.   Trump's comments about Mexican rapists echo Anne Coulter, who has spread such accusations in her latest book.

Such accusations inevitably resonate among the enormous echo chamber that is the right wing media, including talk radio and Fox News, and thus keep the Republican base active.  But as my example from today's New York Times shows, the mainstream media frequently get into the act as well when a Democratic politician is involved.  Next year's election may well be decided based upon the breadth of the appeal of McCarthyite attacks, since it will be in part a referendum on abortion and, if Clinton is the nominee, on her personal honesty.  The only defense against it is to ignore the details of baseless or nearly baseless accusations, and that is what I am going to try to do here in this space from here on.

p.s. Within a hour of making this post, I learned that John Boehner is leaving the House of Representatives. This is a direct result of the Planned Parenthood videos, which once again put him in the position of trying to stop his rank and file from shutting down the government.  This will be either a great triumph for McCarthyism, or the beginnings of its self-destruction. Stay tuned.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The other Walter White

The name of Walter White is now a household word in 21st-century America thanks to Vince Gilligan, the creator of the extraordinary tv series Breaking Bad.  But it is entirely possible--indeed, probable--that when Gilligan named his chemistry teacher turned meth cooker, he did not realize that he had appropriated the name of one of the three or four most important leaders of the American civil rights movement, who was the executive secretary of the NAACP from 1931 until his death in 1955, and who did more than anyone to turn that organization into a political power comparable to AIPAC today.  Since I was only 8 when he died, I have no memory of White--although I read a little about him some years later--and unlike Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Dubois, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who preceded and succeeded him as the most prominent Negro leaders in America, he is practically unknown today.  I recently read his autobiography, A Man Called White--published in the late 1940s--and I deeply regretted not having gotten to it sooner.  White was not so world-famous as Washington, not as intellectual as Dubois, and not as inspirational as King--but he did more than any of them, probably, to make the great breakthroughs of the decade after his death possible.

The most striking thing about White was his appearance.  While he always identified himself as a Negro, as did his Atlanta parents, most of his direct ancestors seem to have been white, and he could (and sometimes, temporarily, did) have passed for white had he chosen to do so.  He did not.  He came from a very strong family, led by his mail man father, and his parents insisted that their children receive an education.  White graduated from Atlanta University, where DuBois had taught before Booker T. Washington had essentially forced him out, in 1916, and went into a black-owned insurance business. Two years later, however, he moved to New York, and became active in the NAACP.  The bulk of his autobiography is an account of the civil rights struggles of his time, and should be required reading for young Americans.

I would suggest that Americans hold one of two views about civil rights today. The first, fashionable in academia, is that the United States was hopelessly racist from its origins until the mid-1960s and that even now, much remains to be done.  The second is that blacks secured equality in a roughly linear fashion in the long period from the Civil War to the 1960s. Both, it turns out, are wrong.  When White began his career with the NAACP, Negroes were under siege from a renewed white supremacy movement, as reflected in the growth of lynchings in the South, race riots in cities all over the country, and the recrudescence--and not only in the South--of the Ku Klux Klan.  White made his name investigating lynchings.  He did so, for a few years at least, by going to the scene of lynchings and passing for white.  Invariably he found white men who were not merely willing, but eager, to tell him the goriest details of the lynchings that had just taken place. This was a risky tactic which nearly cost him his life more than once, and he had to give it up after he became better known, but it paid key political dividends.  The NAACP adopted, as its major demand, a federal anti-lynching law.  Such bills repeatedly passed the House of Representatives in the 1920s and 1930s but were invariably blocked by Senate filibusters.  Yet lynching was sufficiently horrifying--especially when White managed to make clear to the white North that many of the victims had not even been accused of a serious crime, but were the victims of terror and intimidation--that it built a broad coalition behind the NAACP's efforts, one that did an enormous amount to make executive, legislative and judicial action possible after the Second World War.

White also spends a lot of time writing about the Great Migration, of which he was a part, and the problems that it caused.  Negroes were allowed to live in such small areas within northern cities that their conditions were horrifying.  He also realized that many poor white southerners had come North from the time of the First World War onward as well, and that accounted for the terrible racial tension in certain northern cities, including Detroit, which had a dreadful race riot in 1943.  A "race riot" in the first half of the twentieth century,. he shows, meant something very different from what we later saw in northern cities in the 1960s, and again in South Central Los Angeles in the early 1990s.  We think of such riots as encounters between marauding bands of black demonstrators and looters, on the one hand, and police and national guardsmen on the other.  But in those days, such riots were generally started by white mobs roaming the streets trying to find Negroes to kill--and, on occasion, black mobs trying to retaliate. 

From at least 1890 until after the Second World War,. the white south was in a determined campaign to keep the Negro a subordinate caste and to make southern values national values.  The South was maintaining all-white Democratic primaries to effectively disenfranchise all Negro voters, until the Supreme Court finally ruled against the practice. Pressure from southerners in the first half of the century actually convinced several Ivy League schools (although not Harvard) to segregate their dormitories.  In much of the South, Negro education was being cut back.  But that was where the NAACP began to make its first breakthroughs. 

It was under White's stewardship, apparently, that the NAACP legal defense fund went on the offesnvie against segregated southern education, beginning with graduate professional schools.  Two attorneys from a younger generation, Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie, took the lead.  They brought several cases demanding that black citizens of various southern states (and Oklahoma) be given an equal legal education, which could only be done by admitting them to the all-white state law school.  (Some southern states offered to pay for their Negro citizens' education out of state, but the NAACP effectively argued that it was important for a young man to get his law degree where he intended to practice.)  Slowly but surely, the NAACP began to win some of these cases, laying the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education.  There is no question, however, but that the Second World War--fought to defeat racist dictatorships, under the banner of equal rights for all--had a tremendous impact as well.  When the NAACP brought such a case in Texas in the wake of the war, a new factor was introduced into the situation. Many of the white students in the institution--led by war veterans--demonstrated on behalf of the black plaintiffs.  A new generation of white southerners was ready for some changes.

A critical, long-forgotten event in the growth of the NAACP's power occurred in 1930, when President Hoover--for whom White had nothing but contempt--nominated John J. Parker of North Carolina, a circuit court judge, to a vacancy on the U. S Supreme Court.   Only ten years earlier, while running for Governor, Parker had publicly defended barriers to Negroes voting in North Carolina, and pronounced "the participation of the Negro in politics" to be "a source of evil and danger to both races," "not desired by the wise men in either race."  The NAACP immediately asked Hoover to withdraw the nomination, but he refused.  The NAACP immediately decided to mount a nationwide campaign against Parker's confirmation, threatening northern Senators with retaliation at the polls should they vote to put him on the court.  White was able to testify against the nomination before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first time a civil rights leader had been able to play such a role, and he more than held his own in exchanges with a North Carolina Senator who claimed that "nigras" were voting freely in his state.  The A.F. of L., the national labor organization, also opposed Parker because of anti-labor decisions he had handed down, but refused to associate its opposition with the NAACP in any way.  In the Senate debate, only one northern Senator--Robert F. Wagner of New York, another forgotten hero--explicitly opposed Parker because of his views on race.  But Parker was in fact defeated by the narrowest of margins, 39-41, and the NAACP was now a political power in the land, and remained so for 35 critical years.

Certain aspects of White's presentation inevitably strike a contemporary American because things have changed so much. He never hesitates to quote white people using the word "nigger," and indeed takes every opportunity to do so,. obviously in order to convey to his fellow Americans the depth of the prejudice that Negroes faced.  He also never misses an opportunity to build a coalition.  In the nearly 1930s the lynching debate took a new turn when two white kidnap-murderers were dragged out of their California jail cell and lynched.  Governor James Rolph of California shocked the nation by praising what the mob had done, a move that was immortalized in a political cartoon that won the Pulitzer prize.  Reading between the lines of White's account, it seems clear that he was quite encouraged by this development, since it encouraged white Americans to join the anti-lynching campaign.  The Black Lives Matter movement might want to take a look at A Man Called White and ponder its author's approach to mobilization.

The Second World War opened up new opportunities, new problems, and new issues to fight over. I regret that I had not read White's book before writing No End Save Victory.  While I did talk at length about the appointment of White's friend William Hastie as the civilian aide to Secretary of War Stimson with responsibility for problems relating to Negro soldiers, I did not realize why the appointment was made.  When the draft was passed in 1940, White and other Negro leaders had gone to the White House to plead, unsuccessfully, for integration in the armed services.  Several days later, FDR's Press Secretary Steve Early--a white southerner of very bigoted views--announced not only that segregation would continue, but that the Negro leaders had agreed to this in their meeting.  A vigorous public protest led to Hastie's appointment.  I also did not realize--and neither did Stimson--that Hastie was already a veteran of some major civil rights fights in the South, and that the blistering report he wrote on the treatment of Negro soldiers, and his eventual resignation in protest from the War Department, should have come as no surprise to anyone.

White was a shrewd judge of character.  He has very little to say about other black leaders in the book--especially DuBois, with whom he had a very difficult relationship--but he is refreshingly frank about white politicians. One of his favorites was Wendell Willkie, whom he enlisted as an ally in various civil rights causes.  And his assessment of FDR was one of the shrewdest that I have ever seen.  He first met him in the White House in 1935, in the midst of a Senate filibuster against the anti-lynching law.  Roosevelt was late to the appointment, which allowed White to have a long talk with Eleanor Roosevelt,. well known to be a leading civil rights advocate, and with FDR's mother. When he arrived, the President began making small talk and telling stories.  It was this habit, as I wrote in No End Save Victory, that convinced so many people that FDR was not a serious person, but White was not fooled. He knew Roosevelt was simply trying to avoid the unpleasant subject he had come to discuss, and he eventually interrupted to insist that he do so. The President then said frankly that he did not choose the tools he had to work with, much as he might have liked to choose different ones.  Nearly every major Congressional committee was chaired by a white southerner, and they would block all his New Deal legislation if he came out for the anti-lynching bill.  While obviously disappointed, White unequivocally appreciated much of what FDR was doing for both white and black Americans, and his overall verdict on Roosevelt was very favorable indeed.

White also provided key testimony about another critical turning point in American history, the 1944 Democratic convention.  The key issue there was whether the left-wing New Dealer Henry Wallace would continue as Vice President, or give way to a more conservative figure.  In the end, FDR managed to swing most of the Convention to Harry Truman, a loyal but less controversial New Dealer, and he prevailed in open balloting.   In his tv history of the United States, Oliver Stone argued that this decision doomed postwar America, since Wallace, he thought, would have avoided the Cold War with the USSR.  White provides a very different perspective. To begin with, he states unequivocally, virtually every delegate had a good idea of how sick FDR was and knew that they would actually be balloting for his successor in the White House.  And the conservatives' preferred candidate to replace Wallace was James Byrnes of South Carolina, an anti-New Dealer and a convinced white supremacist.  White understood that the key problem was to stop Byrnes, not to retain Wallace--and it is entirely possible that FDR did too.  History might have been very different had  Byrnes become President in April 1945.

The greatness of civil rights leaders like White was this: while they knew their cause was just,. they did not expect it automatically to prevail as a result.  They pursued patient, long-term strategies and built key coalitions, such as the one the NAACP established with the CIO after it broke with the AF of L in the mid-1930s.  They proved to northern politicians that they were a force to be reckoned with.  They took advantage of Negro service in the Second World War,. despite the humiliating conditions in which Negroes had to serve.  And thus, in 1948, in the midst of a close election campaign, Harry S. Truman called for a truly modern civil rights program and braved the Dixiecrat revolt that resulted.  White lived to see Brown v. Board of Education decided, but he died before the great victories that came later.  He deserves to be remembered and studied today.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Hopeless policies over 500 years

I spent the 1980s teaching at Carnegie Mellon and writing two books, my second and third. The second book was relatively short: an analysis of the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, which I completed on behalf of William Young, a dear friend of mine who had researched the case for decades, made important discoveries, and died of cancer in 1980.  The second was still probably the most demanding project I have ever undertaken: Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler.  It focused on four periods of general war: 1559-1659, 1661-1713, 1792-1815, and 1914-45.  Writing it involved reading most of the available literature in English, French, German and Spanish on those conflicts--while working in an institution with almost no library resources of its own.  I completed it around 1988 and it was published early in 2000.  In one respect it succeeded beyond my wildest dreams: it was a main selection of the History Book Club, back in a day when book clubs still meant something.  But I had counted on it to vault my career to a new level.  There I was disappointed.  It turned out that there was almost no one left in the historical profession, even then, who would take an analysis of European war on that scale seriously.

The key question that I focused on was what powers were fighting about, in those various eras, and whether they could achieve it by military force--very Clausewitzian questions, and the ones that I subsequently spent 20 years dealing with at the Naval War College.  For that first long period, which I called the general crisis of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the answer to the second question was generally no.  In nearly every major European empire or nation--Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and eventually, Britain--monarchs tried to establish real control over their subjects, particularly their high nobility.  They were never more than temporarily successful.  Civil wars rocked every major country, and the nobility frequently got assistance from foreign powers.  Sensitive observers understood what was happening, but no one could stop it.  A combination of noble power and religious zealotry doomed Europe to a century of anarchy.

A new era began with Louis XIV, who became the hero of the book.  He had somewhat more success centralizing power in France, although the nobility remained strong, but more importantly, he put war firmly in the hands of himself and his fellow monarchs.  His wars were long and eventually extended over much of the globe, but they did not disrupt domestic institutions.  He worked through his fellow monarchs, and his alliances frequently crossed religious lines.  As a result, civilization progressed, and a new pattern of limited, relatively small-scale wars persisted until the French revolution.

The wars of 1792-1815 took place on an unprecedented scale, but they too managed to accomplish a purpose. They consolidated Europe into larger political units and spread some of the principles of the French revolution, including equality before the law.  But the era of the two world wars was catastrophic.  European nations were fighting for larger empires, which they did not really need, and to solve conflicts among different nationalities.  They exhausted themselves, lost their empires, and redrew the ethnic boundaries of Europe with ethnic cleansing and murder.  Two non-European powers, the US and the USSR, emerged as Europe's overlords and remained so for many decades.

Today Europe is dealing with a refugee crisis, but remains largely at peace, except on its eastern frontier.   But looking at the world more broadly, I see a blend of aspects of the first two eras that I wrote about.  On the one hand, we have a multi-polar world of great powers focused, like Louis XIV and his contemporaries, upon relatively small-scale territorial issues like the Russian-Ukraine border and rights to the South China Sea.  On the other hand, the Middle East is in anarchy, and the western powers seem committed to policies that have done nothing but harm, and which indeed have increased the severity of the crisis, rather than helping to solve it.

The issue is the political stability of the Middle East, which we now see was relatively stable under authoritarian governments for the period of the Cold War.  Largely because most of those governments were hostile to Israel, neoconservatives in the US, who secured control of our foreign policy in 2001, fantasized that they could create a democratic paradise in the region by toppling its governments.  That fantasy led to utter disaster in Iraq, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the ethnic cleansing of millions, but it did not die with them.  The Obama Administration replayed the same scenario in a new area, in Libya, with similarly disastrous results, and it committed itself to the fall of Bashar Assad in Syria and intervened in the civil war there.. ISIS has now emerged as the only entity that has managed to create something lasting out of the resulting chaos, and we are determined to "crush" it.  But while we can kill some of its members from the air, it is recruiting much faster, and above all, like the monarchs trying vainly to assert their authority in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we have no political alternative to propose.

Meanwhile, the illusion of American omnipotence--a phrase coined about 65 years ago by a British historian, Denis Brogan--has never been stronger, and dominates our military and foreign policy establishment.  That is why 50 courageous military intelligence analysts are complaining that their reports have been altered (like U.S. intelligence estimates of Viet Cong strength in 1967) to make it look like we are winning.  We are also refusing to recognize that in one way or another, nearly every regional power in the Middle East wants to make the conflict worse, not better--including the Turks, who are much more interested in fighting separatist Kurds (emboldened by the U.S. led liberation of their brethren in Iraq) than doing anything about ISIS.  We are still chasing the phantom of a "third force" in Syria that will somehow defeat both ISIS and Assad, which, as I said here many months ago, is comparable to intervening in the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants in Germany on behalf of the Jews.  Fourteen years after 9/11, the Taliban is gaining again in Afghanistan.  We have, in short, no clear policy objectives--defeating ISIS does not suggest any alternative for the future--and no means of reaching the objectives we have.

For a wide variety of reasons, which I cannot possibly take up today, it is less likely than at any time in my lifetime that either the government or the public could achieve a real strategic grasp of these problems. As a result, we will continue to flounder, like the European monarchs of 1559-1659, until the conflicts burn themselves out decades from now.  This is one of many serious warnings against believing that our civilization is still progressing in the political sphere. It isn't: a great era in western politics came to an end several decades ago and a new one is not in sight.  We can thank our stars that the conflicts were are involving in do not approach the scale of those of the first half of the twentieth century--but it will be a long time before we are again living in an era of genuine peace.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Up from Slavery

During the last couple of months I have been delving into black American history, reading two autobiographies of men who for long periods ranked as the leading spokesmen of their race.  The first was Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, published in the late 1890s, when he was beginning to reach the peak of his influence.  The second was A Man Called White, by Walter White, who is largely forgotten now, but who was effectively he leader of the NAACP during most of its great period of influence, from the late 1920s until his death in the early 1950s.  Together with the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Dubois, these books provide a remarkable perspective on race relations in the US from the 1840s until the late 1940s.  Next on my list should be the autobiography of Roy Wilkins, who succeeded King, and whose autobiography got little attention. Martin Luther King Jr's "autobiography" seems to have been ghostwritten after his death by Claiborne Carson.  I read Malcolm X's autobiography--a very different sort of document--many years ago.

Booker T. Washington was born on a Virginia plantation in about 1859 (he never knew exactly when, or who his father was.)  After emancipation, his family eventually moved to an industrial area of West Virginia.  He became a paid house servant to the Yankee wife of a leading coal operator.  She hated dirt and dust of any kind, and taught him to clean to her standards.  Washington managed to attend a primitive school, and determined to travel back across Virginia, despite an almost total lack of funds, to attend the Hampton Institute, on of the first postwar colleges for Negroes.  Arriving with no money after some complicated adventures, he pled for admission with another northern woman.  To test him, she asked him to sweep an adjoining room. His heart leapt: he knew what he was good at.  He was accepted, and the rest is history.  The school was the work of a retired union General named Armstrong who became one of the great men of Washington's life.

It was some years later that Washington decided to start Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which he planned as a vocational school for young colored men and women (using the term he would have used.)  The students literally built the school from scratch, with the help of financial support from both northern and southern whites who heartily approved of what he was doing.  Washington became a national and then an international figure after 1895, when he delivered a famous address at an Atlanta exhibition designed to showcase the recovery and progress of the South.  That speech defined him forever.

It is fair to say, I think, that Washington ranks with Malcolm X among black leaders as the two who show the least inspiration from the basic principles of American democracy.  Douglas, Dubois (for much of his long life at any rate) and White all loved the principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution and thus fought all the harder for their extension to black Americans.  Washington became so revered in his time--especially among southern whites--precisely because he chose not to ask for political rights for his people.  He is very frank about this in Up From Slavery, making it clear that he does not thing most members of his race are ready for full citizenship.  He often quotes ordinary Negroes speaking a dialect and often criticizes their materialism and their inability to plan ahead.  That was why discipline at Tuskegee was so fierce and why work requirements were so enormous: he wanted to train new types of colored men and women.  And indeed, in one critical passage of the book, he says that most black Americans are not yet ready to vote--a view that many white southerners continued to hold well into the 1960s--and he endorses both educational and property qualifications for voting, while asking that they be applied equally to both blacks and whites.  He insisted that black people had to make themselves indispensable to society by learning particular trades.  He was surely the least intellectual of any of the great black leaders I am discussing, and he does not seem to have cared much about the liberal arts.

That is not the only way in which Washington echoed the values of the society into which he was born.  He refers frequently and with great feeling to the affection many slaves had felt for the families that owned them.  And to me, it seems that a certain plantation atmosphere found its way into Tuskegee, as well.  At one point Washington remarks proudly that he cannot walk across campus carrying a package without students stopping to offer to do it for him, and that if it is raining, the surround him to offer the protection of their umbrellas.  What shocked me was that he obviously enjoyed their attention and indeed fully approved of their attitude.  I think that President Eliot, his Harvard contemporary in the late 19th century, would have been appalled by it.

Up from Slavery turned Washington into an international celebrity, and in the late 1890s he went to Europe (encouraged by friends who thought he was near collapse from overwork.) He spent some time in Great Britain, where he was presented to Queen Victoria, and he was hosted by some of Britain's leading families.  In the most unbelievable passage in the book, for me, he praised the smooth operation of large British households and compared the attitudes of British and American servants.  While American servants generally dreamed of rising to a higher station in life, he said, British ones knew they would be servants unto death, and thus worked with a better will.  He explicitly declined to endorse one system or the other--a remarkable declaration, surely, for a man who was himself born a slave and rose to international fame and fortune after emancipation.

There was another reason for Washington's deference to established orders  Washington was, essentially, a college president, and his life, sadly, was very similar to the lives of college presidents today.  He, like they, was a professional beggar who spent most of his time traveling around the country trying to get rich Americans to contribute to his enterprises, often with considerable success.  Stories of the big scores he made, including a very large gift from Andrew Carnegie, fill the book. Becoming a celebrity, he met many other celebrities--up to and including Queen Victoria--and he wants his readers to know all about the distinguished company that he has been keeping. But what that means, of course--then as in our own time--is that he cannot bring himself to say anything negative about anyone who might help him.  One of the most striking and, to me, inspiring aspects of books by Douglass, DuBois, and White is their frank expressions of both the greatest disapproval and the greatest admiration of different white people with whom they had to deal.  It is, obviously, one way in which they claimed equality for themselves, and it offers the hope, to quote King, that we all might be judged by the content of our character.  But one very rarely if ever finds a harsh word about a white person in Up From Slavery, and references to the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and other outbreaks of terror against Negroes are very rare and understated.  Washington even writes that the Klan seems almost to have disappeared.  In fact it was on the verge of a great revival which he lived to see.

And that leads me to the other aspect of Washington's leadership which he does not discuss--but certainly promotes--in Up From Slavery.  His famous Atlanta address, which he quoted in full, cited the progress that the Negro had made, his hopes for more, and eschewed any desire to mix the races or strive for what white southerners called (negatively) "social equality."  He even refrained from political demands. That, obviously, was the kind of black leader the white south, and much (though not quite all) of the white north, could live with, and they repaid him not only with support, but with the status as the go-to guy, as might say today, of his whole race.  And as DuBois, whose budding academic career within black institutions was interrupted by Washington's hostility, discussed at length in Dusk of Dawn, by the first decade of the 20th century, no bright young black man could get anything from any white man, or from any other black man, if Booker T. Washington did not want him to have it.  DuBois helped found the Niagara movement and the NAACP--both of which included prominent white members--as a result.

Washington and the Tuskegee Institute strike me as a parable of what often happens to racially or ethnically separate institutions in the United States.  To begin with, their leaders become obsessed with consolidating their power within their own group.  They then however forswear relations with the mainstream almost entirely, or curry favor with its leaders indiscriminately, without regard to what particular white people represent.   Malcolm X described in detail how the same thing had happened inside the Nation of Islam, and although he was not yet in favor of interracial alliances by the time of his death, he was surely moving in that direction.  Douglass on the other hand made his name working with white abolitionists.  DuBois also worked across racial lines, although he remained ambivalent about white people for most of his life. Walter White, as I shall discuss in another post, built coalitions between the NAACP and the white-led labor movement that enormously benefited both.  Since the late 1960s the separatist ethos has been powerful among many civil rights groups, and today young black people are again agitating for the redress of specific wrongs they feel have been suffered by black people, and by them alone, because of "institutional racism."  That surely has some truth to it--although a majority of the people killed by policemen in the U.S. are white--but it is not clear that it is the best way to achieve meaningful results.

Washington's achievements were, by any standard, extraordinary.  After the Republican Party largely abandoned the freed slaves after 1876, it would have been hard for anyone else to have done better.  We should not be too quick to dismiss his emphasis on self-improvement, either.  But his strategy, in the long run, could not have brought about the recognition of black Americans a full citizens.  In a couple of weeks I shall try to show how the forgotten Walter White managed to take advantage of the circumstances he faced to come much closer to that goal.