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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 feel.so 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.


Bozon said...

Great post. Tough going.

I criticize white black race relations here from a place above, or below, it, however one sees it; where other really really unfriendly races are already breathing down the necks of poor white or black devils here, caught up, as your post amply illustrates, in futile, interminable, and insoluble domestic racial and historical interpretive struggles.

Foreigners of other races, and more aggressive systems, see us increasingly as low hanging fruit in the global civilizational struggle they have been waging unbeknownst to us.

All the best

Ed Boyle said...

I guess heart goes before mind. I study a lot of esoteric/scientific mixed stuff. The heart has a magnetic field 5000 times strnger than the brain so that feelings override logic every time. Only extreme force of habituation of mental training can overcome pure irrational group feeling of connection. Your historical training is exactly that. Or my esoteric training where I learn to very deeply feel for everyone and see that we are all same at basic human level. Both approaches, training of rationalism and deep spirituality, are necessary in coordination to overcome tribalism, nationalism. We see how the generational spring of 60s and 70s brought parallel spiritual/sexual revolution which opened people's hearts to new pathways to jesus, buddha, yoga, etc as well as to releasing suppressed sexual mores, possibly left over from victorian era. After the hype died down the openness ( of heart and mind)of this generation and those following closed down at the point their group, families, communities were frozen at. So the heart mind connection was formed for each group. I.e. a feeling was connected to a meme, concept. So you see people have formed ideas of what people in their group are allowed to do, think, etc. Gays, blacks, conservative christians have made mental and emotional borders. Only the coming crisis will force a reconsideration of this heart/mind connection. My favourite stupid example is that Hitler was a vegetarian. Now of course mostly people on the left are vegetarians and conservatives are meat eaters. Actions and feelings are relatively arbitrarily connected(pure moral relativity on murder, etc. is of course universally abhorrent). So lines of emotional communication have broken down at heart level as cultural behaviour diverged(mental decision after 60s, 70s spiritual/sexual revival). War is result. Winner take all, then new generation grows up, sees hypocrisy of 'evil' parents and opens up again in 2040s, 50s. The problem now of course is getting through the next decade when the boomers, Xers, millenials, preprogrammed as I said above in groupthink, clash. Perhaps the old truism that new scientific ideas can only emerge after old adherents of worn out theories die off applies here. The problem being, whose theory is worn out? That is obviously not the point. The medium is the message. Human beings are the medium of information and feeling. Any human could from birth be programmed emotinally into any belief, culture, language.

Rupert Chapman said...

Thank you very much for this post! I have been hearing this story for quite some time, and, though it saddened me, because I have long been an admirer of FDR, I had simply accepted it. As an archaeologist and life-long student of history, ancient and modern, I shouldn't have done that. I will no longer accept that story. Speaking as a student of history, it strikes me that one aspect of the story, and of its acceptance broadly, is the tendency of people to think that the world as they find it around them has always been as they believe it to be 'now' (whenever their 'now' is). What you have uncovered is an obvious fact - the modern Olympic Games weren't always perceived as so important as they are now. Only during the Cold War, when they came to be seen as a showcase of the superiority of various politico-economic systems, and began to be used for propaganda purposes, did political leaders begin to publicly honor Olympic winners. I suspect that this would also be found to be true in many other countries, and it would be interesting to check this hypothesis with some research into the primary sources!

Savage27 said...

Shared prosperity does not strongly unite people. Shared adversity does. Fortunately or unfortunately, shared adversity is coming, and people will unite only when it is fearfully imminent or fully upon them. Or not.

Concerned, but not surprised, I empathize with your feelings from the responses you got to what is a scholarly account of historical fact. Society today approaches a Bizzaro world where facts are deemed lies, lies deemed facts, and rendering of judgements depends upon the cultural sect to which one belongs. Who can prevail or unite with facts and logic in such a situation? It will take a crisis of such proportion that everyone shares the same adversity - fear.

What you seem to revile is revisionist history that applies the mores and dictates of current society to the decisions and actions of a different kind of past America. As John Patterson, segregationist governor of Alabama in the 1950's, said to me in 1987, in
Alabama when he was elected governor, "If you weren't segregationist, you weren't anything." As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote: "So it goes."

David Kaiser said...

To Savage27:

I do question history which consists of complaining that people in the past did not share the values of 21st century academic departments. This however goes beyond that. Here we are talking about a false accusation against FDR, one which no basis in fact. To accept a false accusation as true because it seems to prove some kind of higher truth, I think, is taking things to a new level.

Joe said...

This is why I voted for Donald Trump.

Bozon said...

Another comment. Can't resist....

"...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...." DK

One will not ever begin to convince those civilizations, or nations, however one characterizes them (they each think of themselves as having their own civilization not merely nation), of yellow color, that either way of saying this is true at all, either that there is or ever was or ever will be such a thing as a common humanity in the first place, or that non of "us" has a monopoly on either virtue or vice, in the second, simpliciter.

Both of these locutions, or world views, are in their view, in Krugman's famous words, flatly wrong.

They never, or almost never, say such things, almost never in public, and seldom in unguarded privacy, but that is the reality below the liberal global rhetoric.

All the best

Bozon said...

This is just a foolw up to Joe's comment.
i happened to vote for Clinton, but I don't actually do the voting.

I leave that to my wife.

Making or keeping her happy is much more important to me than trying to influence an outcome like that the other way, and my interest, as between Clinton and Trump, was purely a sporting one, after all.

All the best