Friday, November 01, 2019

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History.  Long-time readers who want to find out how the author of this blog became the historian he is will find information about the book in a new blog,  The book can be ordered here.
I look forward to seeing your reactions. For the time being I am pinning this post. Thanks in any case to all of you for your faithful support.

Check below for more recent posts.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Some Notes on Nationalism

"By ‘nationalism’" George Orwell wrote in the essay whose title I have adapted for this post, "I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’(1). But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. . . .Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism. It does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government or a country, still less to one's own country, and it is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist. To name a few obvious examples, Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White Race are all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling: but their existence can be seriously questioned, and there is no definition of any one of them that would be universally accepted."

I was reminded of this essay earlier this week when I got involved in an internet controversy about Jesse Owens.  It's Black History Month, and a black facebook friend of mine reposted, without comment, the following picture and caption. 
"Hitler didn't snub me; it was our president [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send a telegram." — Jesse Owens after winning FOUR GOLD medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. FDR invited each white US olympian to the White House, but not Jesse. #BHM#BlackHistoryIsActualAmericanHistory

Now, whenever I see a fact, my brain scrolls through other pertinent facts to tell me if, and how, it fits.  The detail about the supposed Olympic team visit to the White House that excluded black athletes (who had won a number of medals in both the 1932 and 1936 Olympics) simply did not ring true to me.  Fortunately, I have the Proquest data base, which includes at least a dozen major newspapers and several important black newspapers from the 1930s, close at hand.  I did a couple of quick searches.  Sure enough, I found no mention whatever, anywhere, of any meeting at the White House between President Franklin Roosevelt and members of the US Olympic team.  Not only did I point this out to my friend, but I also went to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice site--as you can, by clicking above--and made the following post.  (My post and the firestorm it ignited can both be read by clicking the above link.)

"I am an historian. I have written about FDR. This story did not strike me as plausible. I decided to do some research myself.
I used the Proquest data base, which includes the archives of many major newspapers, including several black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender. I could not find any evidence that ANY American Olympic athletes visited the White House after ( or before) the Berlin Olympics in 1936. There is no mention of any such meeting anywhere in the database.
I challenge anyone to produce a contemporary source that validates this story.

Here are some of the comments that were posted in response.

"So the totality of America's racist history isn't enough to make this story plausible to you?"  (This poster--let's call her poster A--promptly posted three recent links that repeated the story. "There are at least 20 more similar texts that come from a very simple Google search," she continued, and added revealingly, "Challenging people to prove racism is racist as hell, dude."

"David Kaiser , why is it so hard to believe? You do realize America was very segregated and even a liberal politician like FDR would still follow the social norms of the time! Now I will say Eleanor was very forward leaning and I have seen pictures of her with African Americans. Our nation has a very racist and bigoted history so I am never surprised by any such factoid! Seems like these roots have not disappeared into the 21st century! I pray we can move beyond racial animosity, KKK, Neo-Nazis, and every other hate group that threatens the future of our children and grandkids.."

"Any idea how racist your challenge sounds? Asking for a friend."

"David Kaiser is missing y’all. He’s somewhere in his white feelings cuz 'the blacks' showed him facts that his precious FDR was a coward and a racist "

At least three people either said they would welcome more information from me, or at least showed an understanding of what I had said.  One wrote to Poster A:  "he’s asking for articles from that time period. Not 2016."  To which she replied: "why in the world would an article from that time period be discussing America's racism??? If white people today, in 2019, still think racism needs to be proved, then why would the press have been discussing this back in 1936? Sometimes the truth about the past is only revealed with a modern perspective, which is something any decent historian would understand."

"At the time the press wasn't discussing sending Native children to abusive residential schools, or using Black Tuskegee airmen as medical test subjects either, but we all know NOW that those things undeniably happened."That one drew 8 likes. 

To this I replied: "I want to thank [Poster A] for stating so clearly the 'historical principles' that so many people now accept as real.
"1. American racism is so pervasive that any story documenting it must be true.
"2. If people repeat a story enough times, then it will become true.
"3. White people have no right to question stories of racism.
"Yes, you posted three links. All of them repeat the same story. But none of them is a contemporary primary source. Somehow that story got going and it has been kept going because people want to believe it. But no one has produced evidence for it from that time.
Some one said that it would be foolish to expect an article from 1936 to mention racism. But as I pointed out, the Proquest database that I used includes black papers like the Chicago Defender, and they most certainly would have mentioned it. And white papers--such as the Washington Post--would, it seems to me, have mentioned a White House event at which the President entertained the Olympic team. But there are no such stories.
"Show me a story from 1936 that details the meeting that supposedly took place without Owens, and I'll believe it.
"I appreciate that three people, anyway, were willing to indicate that they liked my comment. Don't worry, you won't have to worry about me weighing in here much more--I found my way here by accident after a facebook friend posted this item. For the record, truth does exist and it's generally recorded in primary sources. Of course, it's much easier to assume that a few 'sound opinions' can be used to explain anything." That drew 9 likes.

"Go away, David Kaiser. Using all those words and still not saying anything substantial," poster A replied.

The discussion continued. "The very premise that these "white" people who are disputing the very racism(systematically/institutionally/individual) that they keep attempting to place "distance" between their actions and their "whiteness", is a prime example of the level of deceitfulness and manipulation that they employ in order to make it appear that their systematic pathological psychotic behavior is "normative" even though the deceitful nature of their behavior sticks out like a "sore thumb" --- they continue to forward extremely implausible scenarios in order to justify their well documented historical evil behavior. . . .The 'white' man REALLY needs to check his EGO at the door." a poster wrote.  Another wrote: "Yea, bc the white journalist would definitely out the president for being racist against the BLACK Olympic Gold medal winner during their racist and segregated day-to- day way of existing... And sure, the black journalist could do the same without being hanged for expressing so! Get your RACIST ass out of here mr historian with your white washed information."                                              

I then decided to quote a favorite Chicago Defender editorial of mine from 1940, in which the paper endorsed FDR because he was the friend of the average person and the foe of the very wealthy. That drew an obscene response.  (Again, the whole exchange can be read at the link above.)

The story still didn't completely add up to me. Wikipedia both printed and attributed the "Hitler didn't snub me, FDR snubbed me," quote.  It came from a book on Owens and the 1936 Olympics by one Jeremy Schaap, readily available at a local library.  That's where I got quite a shock.  

I had been reading about Jesse Owens since the 1950s and I remember a documentary that he narrated himself about his life in, I believe, the 1970s, probably on PBS.  It concluded with a story of a parade he was in when he returned from Germany during which some one handed him a package with $10,000  [sic] it, which he said came in very handy to his family.  I knew too that in later years he had had some tough times earning a living, and I remember that in 1968 he spoke out against Harry Edwards' campaign to have black athletes boycott the Olympics.  (It just occurred to me that that might explain why Edwards appears to validate the false story of the segregated Olympic team visit to the White House in one web story.)  But I didn't know about something else that Owens had done during 1936 which was quite interesting.

The American black community was at a political crossroads in 1936.  Those who could vote had loyally supported the Republicans--the party of Lincoln--since the civil war, for the most part, but the economic help that the New Deal had provided to black and white Americans during FDR's first term had won many of them over to his side.  Jesse Owens, however, was not one of them.  He went on a campaign tour for the Republican candidate, Alf Landon.  It was during a campaign speech for Landon that Owens said, "Hitler didn't snub me--it was our President who snubbed me.  The President didn't even send me a telegram."  According to the black Pittsburgh Courier on October 10, 1936, what Owens said in a Baltimore speech on October 8 was, "The President didn't even send me a message of congratulations after my victories. Gov. Landon, however, was very considerate and wired me a message of congratulation."

A week later, on October 17, an unsigned editorial in the Courier read as follows:

                                   OWENS  WAS "SNUBBED"

It seems that our star- Olympic athlete, Mr. Jesse Owens, is mad at President Roosevelt because the Chief Executive did not send him a telegram of congratulations when he won those races in Berl!n.   
And  because President did  not  send  him  a special telegram of congratulations, Mr. Owens says he is going to vote for Governor Landon, who allegedly did send him such a telegram. 

This Is the first we have heard of the Landon telegram. It would have been real news at the time the races were run and won.and it is strange that no mention of such a telegram from the Kansas governor appeared in the newspapers.

Many a great decision has hinged upon a mere piece of I paper, but this ls probably  the first time that such a momentous decision has been reached because of failure to receive a congratulatory telegram.  · It would be strange, indeed if Mr. Roosevelt should be defeated by the one ballot of Mr. Jesse Owens.                                            ,           ·
In fact, Mr. Roosevelt may lose the vies of all other American Olympic champions if they also feel that they were "snubbed." It happens that dozens of young Amerlcan athletes won· honors at the Berlin games, but not one received a telegram of congratulations from President Roosevelt.. · -  ·
If any of our Olympic champions had received.such a telegram from the President of the United States, it would have been the first of Its kind ever sent in the history of this country. And under . the circumstances, one wonders. just why Mr. Jesse Owens should injured.     . 
                   .  ·
Is it possible .that the Republican campaign fund had anything to do with the momentous decision of Mr. .Jesse Owens? Or is our Jessie really just whooping for .Landon on account of a telegram?

Perhaps-we shall find out after election day.

On November 11, after Roosevelt had defeated Landon by one of the most crushing margins in history, a brief item in the black Atlanta Daily World (p. 5) gave answers to this question. "Reports differ on what Jesse Owens got for campaigning for Landon and Knox," it said. "The Journal and Guide says $15,000 but the Afro-American suggests $30,000."  Four years later, Walter White, the general secretary of the NAACP, told Interior Secretary Harold Ickes that the Republicans in the 1940 campaign had told him to name his price for his endorsement of their candidate Wendell Willkie.  White had declined the offer.

Owens himself, who had lost his amateur status after signing a professional contract, said on November 20, as reported in the next day's Boston Globe,, that he had "earned about $50,000" since returning from Germany and that he would be going to Hollywood to make at least one film rather than returning to Ohio State to get his degree.  In the same month, he bought his parents an eleven-room house in Cleveland.  He was also voted the athlete of the year.

No one should begrudge Jesse Owens or any other American the right to campaign for the candidate of his choice, and I was glad to find that he had indeed secured important financial rewards as a result of his great triumphs in Berlin.   My quarrel is not with him, obviously, but with the world view that I encountered among some--far from all--of my black fellow citizens when I had the temerity to question a false story about a meeting at the White House that he could not attend.

We live in an age of nationalism, as defined by Orwell, in which activists from different demographics, and activists with different views, live in alternative realities.  Those realities are refined and spread in many media outlets, in many university departments, and on facebook and other social media. There is no difference in principle between what I encountered on the New Jersey institute site and what one can hear from Limbaugh and Hannity every day, or what I read in the Boston Globe twice weekly from columnist Renee Graham.  Unfortunately, the proliferation of such views, which proclaim certain demographics or political parties to be good or evil in themselves and tailor their facts accordingly, is making it impossible for our democracy to function.  We all need to understand our common humanity--which is another way of saying that none of us has a monopoly on either virtue or vice.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

The Democratic Party eats its own

Late in 2017, not long after the beginning of the #MeToo movement, a conservative news anchor told a story about Senator Al Franken and a tour she had taken with him years earlier to Afghanistan.  They were performing a skit together that included a kiss for the troops, and he asked her rehearse.  He importuned her rehearse the kiss, and when she agreed, she said, he gave her more of a kiss than she had bargained for.  That, in the existing climate, was news.  In the next few days, a picture surfaced that Franken had posed for showing him feigning to touch (but not touching) the woman's breasts while she slept on the plane.  Then two women, I  believe, announced separately that Franken had touched them on the posterior during campaign photo ops.  Leading Democrats immediately called for Franken's resignation.  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, in particular, tweeted that Franken, whom she valued as a colleague, had to go, so that she and others would not have to explain the difference between an actual rape or sexual assault on the one hand, and an unwanted French kiss or touch on the other, to her young children--a novel idea to those of us who believe that politics is for adults.  Franken resigned and the Democratic Party lost an effective spokesman.

Now we are replaying a different version of this drama in Virginia, in the case of Governor Ralph Northam.  Northam grew up on an Eastern Shore farm in the 1960s and graduated from VMI before going to a local medical school.  He served as a doctor in the Army and became  a pediatric neurologist.  (In case you are wondering I am relying on his Wikipedia entry.)  He entered politics in a state Senate election in 2007 and defeated a Republican incumbent.  In 2008, the Republican Party entreated him to switch parties, which would have given them control of the state senate, but he refused to do so.  In 2013, Northam, a white Democrat from a conservative area, defeated Aneesh Chopra, a Northern Virginia Democrat and federal official, in the Democratic Primary for Lieutenant Governor handily, and won election along with Governor Tim Kaine.  Virginia law bars governors from running for re-election, and Northam emerged as a candidate to succeed him. In 2017, in one of the first state elections after Donald Trump's victory, Northam once again defeated a more liberal Democrat, Tom Perriello, in the primary.  Then he won a comfortable victory over a former Republican operative, Ed Gillespie, in the general election. The campaign, like most campaigns today, was a dirty one, featuring inflammatory ads on both sides, including a Democratic ad in which a pick-up truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker and a Confederate flag chases minority children in a scene that turns out to be a nightmare.  Northam's running mate for Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, is black, and a union that supported Northam but not Fairfax, whom the union claimed had opposed a pipeline they favor, at one point got the Northam campaign to print some leaflets that left Fairfax out.  The officers of the Virginia lol appear to be Hispanic.  Northam's comfortable victory in purple Virginia reassured Democrats that the Trump campaign was not the wave of the future.

Northam has taken mainstream Democratic positions as Governor.  He reached a compromise with the Republican-controlled legislator that raised the threshold for thieves to be charged with a felony from $200 to $500.  He has called for a $15 minimum wage (twice the current Virginia level), a free path to community college, and an end to the grocery tax for poor people.  He opposes offshore drilling and fracking, and signed an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Car Act.  He favors a ban on assault weapons, and he is now embroiled in a controversy over a bill that would allow women to have a late-term abortion with the approval of one doctor, instead of the current three.  He is currently shepherding through the legislature a school funding bill that will restore desperately needed money that has been lacking since the Great Recession 10 years ago. 

This week, some one checked Northam's medical school yearbook page and found a photo of two students, one dressed as a Klansman and one in blackface. Northam has acknowledged that one of them is him.  He has apologized for this picture, which was taken about 35 years ago.  A chorus of leading Democrats has demanded his immediate resignation. It's time to put that demand in historical perspective.

This whole controversy, to me, illustrates once again the extent to which postmodern thinking has become mainstream among Democrats and the media.  Postmodernists believe that the only human reality is language, which includes all forms of representation, including photographs, names of buildings, and much more.  Language is the arena in which the struggle between dominant groups (straight white males, above all) and others is played out.  A racist image, which decades ago both white liberals and black activists might have dismissed as beneath notice or beneath contempt, is a weapon in an ongoing struggle to define us all.  Anyone who helped create one has committed a mortal sin, and their career must be terminated in a dramatic public ceremony.  That's what happened to Al Franken more than a year ago, and it threatens to happen to Northam now.  It is not an accident, I think, that none of the first five Democratic presidential candidates to call for Northam's resignation--Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris--is a white male.  They are buying into the idea that any insult to oppressed peoples needs to be treated as a mortal blow, and punished accordingly--even if it is 35 years old and was delivered against no one in particular, and even if the accused has a good record on race and diversity issues as a public official.  They are also buying into the idea that one unfortunate photo or statement is more important than anything a person might have actually done in office.  To have contributed to one racist image, decades ago, disqualifies one from public office.

I don't think it is going too far to say, in fact, that for many Democratic activists nowadays, the application of this ideology is the principal goal of politics.  That is why the election of more nonwhitemales has become an end in itself, and why the possible nomination of another one (such as Sherrod Brown of Ohio, one of my favorite candidates at the moment, along with Warren), will be seen as a threat. I however do not share that view.  The historic mission of the Democratic Party at this moment, for me, is to defeat Donald Trump and restore a minimum standard of competence and integrity to the White House and American government.  Turning our own and staging ritual purges will not help us achieve that goal.

The next election, like the last one, will be decided largely in purple states like Virginia, where Governor Northam twice defeated more liberal candidates in primaries.  A party that cannot tolerate a single 35-year old indiscretion on the part of a white male will not increase its chances in those states.  The Republican Party is playing by different rules.  When one of their candidates--Donald Trump or Bret Kavanaugh--is accused of recent of distant wrongdoing involving gender or race, they dismiss it and rally around.  I do not admire their values, but I do think their loyalty remains a necessary political weapon.  The Democratic Party may well have to choose between internal purity and electoral success.  I fear that today's Democrats will choose the former.

In 1937, given the opportunity to make his first appointment to the Supreme Court, Franklin Roosevelt chose Senator Hugo Black of Alabama--a New Dealer, and a liberal on everything but race.  Black's fellow Senators quickly and easily confirmed him, as FDR knew they would.  But immediately his confirmation, the story broke that Black, in the 1920s, had belonged to the KKK, then a tremendous political power in Alabama.  Calls erupted for his resignation, but he refused to quit, admitting his membership but repudiating the views of the Klan, and FDR stood by him.  Over the next 34 years, Black established himself as one of our greatest and most liberal justices, emerging as one of the most fervent defenders of free speech in the history of the court, and joining in Brown v. Board of Education, many other civil rights cases of that era, and the decisions that expanded the rights of criminal defendants.  He closed his career, appropriately, with this magnificent opinion in the case of the Pentagon Papers, declaring that in publishing the documents that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers had "done what the Founders hoped and trusted they would do."

Black would never make it onto the Supreme Court today, and I don't think that makes this a better America.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Words of wisdom

Readers know that I am not afraid to voice unusual opinions, but that does not mean that I don't need some validation from outside.  I am always relieved to find even one person who can state my thoughts on a controversial topic as well or better than I can.  Some weeks  ago I read excerpts from a 1954 letter written by Albert Einstein about Judaism and religion in the New York Times.  Nearly thirty years ago I borrowed a quote from Einstein for the frontispiece of my book Politics and War: "Politics is much harder than physics."  This one, in which Einstein described his relationship to Judaism, is equally telling.

“For me," Einstein wrote,  "the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything ‘chosen’ about them.”

I would gladly echo that sentiment, although I would have to change the words "to whom I gladly belong" to "who include half of my ancestors,"  since I have no religion and am not Jewish according to Jewish law.  I believe that in 1954, when Einstein wrote those words, a great many American Jews would have agreed with the idea of the Jews as simply one people among many, entitled to all the rights of others, and I am sure many still do today.  Yet that is secondary for me, today, to to the third sentence of the quote: "As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. [emphasis added.]"  Within that sentence, I think, lies the key to one part of the moral confusion of our age--a confusion not specifically related to Jews and Judaism..

Today the intellectual elite of the West, in particular, tends to divide the world into oppressors and oppressed, and defines both according to demography.  Many have reduced the history of the western world to an ongoing conspiracy of straight white males designed to subjugate everyone else.  With this goes the idea that virtue resides only among the oppressed--women, nonwhites, and LGBTQs.  These ideas have crept into the mainstream and into liberal politics.  They were given striking expression in one of the last episodes of the Amazon series Transparent, when Ali, the younger daughter in the family, speculated that gays and transsexuals and "everything the patriarchy marginalizes" might represent "the new Messiah."  (I'm not sure I quoted the first of those two phrases perfectly but I am sure I didn't do violence to the thought.)  These views also contribute to the excitement we can observe in many quarters over the election of more women, gays, members of immigrant groups, and transsexuals to public office.  This reaction goes way beyond a simple celebration that political opportunity has opened up for all, which of course I welcome.  Certainly we can all be thankful that we live in a nation where demography is no bar to election, but I frequently also feel in the reaction to their victories a sense that only such people can really be trusted to do good.  One of them, indeed, Congresswoman-elect Ayanna Pressley of my own state of Massachusetts, has stated this pretty clearly, saying, "People closest to the pain should be closest to the power."  Not just "close," but "closest." The more famous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes enthusiastically retweeted that line during the campaign.  The contemporary campus obsession with the feelings and status of anyone who is not a straight white male also reflects this view.

Now the view that virtue can be found only among the oppressed has deep roots in our civilization, going back at least to the  New Testament.  "Blessed are the poor," Luke quotes Jesus as saying, "for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven," and Jesus remarked that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.  Many subsequent Christian authors echoed this view, such as the twentieth century French novelist Georges Bernanos.  That idea obviously found its way into Marxism as well, even though Marx himself believed that the working class would triumph because it was their scientifically determined destiny, not because of moral virtue.  Now I think it is as strong as ever, at least in intellectual circles.  It also explains the left wing view that we have a duty advocate for immigrants, whatever their legal status, and the view that all will be well in the United States as soon as white people no longer constitute a majority.

Now I believe there is a grain of truth to the idea that the poor are more virtuous than the rich--but Einstein rather brilliantly put his finger on where that truth came from.  Although Jews, he wrote, were not morally superior to other groups, they were "protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power."  Bingo.  The poor, and women, and minority groups, and those of unusual sexual orientation have not been oppressors on a grand scale within western civilization because they could not be.  Freud would have argued, and rightly in my view, that they have just as many evil thoughts as the rich and powerful, but that they lack the power to act them out.  Both history and the contemporary scene offer many examples of individuals from those groups who have achieved some kind of power, political or otherwise, and have used it as ruthlessly as any white male.  The government of Israel, as many Israelis have noted, has taken advantage of its power to treat Palestinians the same way that Christian and Muslim nations historically treated Jews, as a people unworthy of equal rights.  That should not surprise us, since it merely proves our common humanity.  Tocqueville, and some 18th-century thinkers before him, expressed a related insight when they noted that small nations find it much easier to be virtuous than large ones.  They do less harm because they cannot do greater harm.

To argue that there is nothing inherently more virtuous about individuals within particular demographic groups does not suggest that we do not have too much inequality in our society, or that power remains a huge temptation to do evil, as well as an opportunity to do good.  It does mean, however, that the opening up of our elites to women and minorities does not guarantee by any means that those elites will treat the rest of us any better, or deal with the world according to more just or peaceful principles.  We have already had enough nonwhitemale leaders to accumulate data on that last question.  No society can exist without some people who are more powerful than others, and the justice of our society will always depend in large measure on the values of our elites.  They explain why our society is now so much more unequal economically than it was 60 years or so ago, despite our greater attention to the status of certain groups and the integration of those groups into our elites.

Two years ago, as I note late in my autobiography, two historians, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, published a New York Times op-ed, "Why did we stop teaching political history?"  One reason is that political history is seen in the academy as the exaltation of straight white males, who monopolized both politics and history for too long, and it is time to redress the balance.   It is no accident, as I also argue in my last chapter, that the eclipse of political history (and of any real reverence for the institutions we have inherited) coincides with the advent of the worst leadership that the nation has ever had.  A free society has to take its politics and its politicians seriously as individuals--no matter what their demographic characteristics have been, or may be.