Monday, January 23, 2012

Nixon in Space: The Familiar Political Personality of Newt Gingrich

Newton Leroy Gingrich will surely win a place in our forthcoming sequel, The American Political Tradition 2: The Revenge.  The original Richard Hofstadter classic profiles the giants of American political history, showing how each man’s life story captured the political zeitgeist of the day in its own, idiosyncratic ways.  Herbert Hoover, for instance, represented the crisis of American individualism, and Abraham Lincoln the nineteenth century myth of the self-made man.

I often like to ask students who they think would appear in an updated version of the 1948 book.  Barack Hussein Obama is a ready answer.  “He’s like a fictional character, but real,” Bob Dylan once said of the President.  His remarkable life—the mother from Kansas, the father from Kenya, the extraordinary rise through the upper echelons of American education and politics—tells a story not just about African American political leadership in the late twentieth century but the broad sweep of civil rights, multiculturalism, the culture war, and so much more.  One assumes Ronald Reagan would find a place in such a volume as well, not only for what he did as president but for all he has symbolized since leaving office.

But Gingrich—ah, Gingrich.  The amphibian first name, the Seussian surname.  On one level there seems to be no one quite like him.  Only one of our presidents has ever held a PhD, and most successful politicians do not make a point of showing off their erudition, yet Gingrich flaunts his status as a historian and litters his grandiose pronouncements with a range of historical allusions that have been known to raise eyebrows.  He privately describes himself as a “definer of civilization” on an epic mission, and he publically portrays himself at war with a vicious, secular, socialist Left that is determined not only to destroy him personally but to consign America to the dustbin of history.  No other candidate, no matter how incompetent or deranged, has won the honor of having two distinct personalities recognized by journalists, who are always prepared for Good Newt or Bad Newt to show up.

 Yet Newt Gingrich’s trademark combination of manichean political warfare and boundless ambition does remind us of someone in American political history: Richard Milhous Nixon.  The most immediate parallel is undoubtedly the Southern Strategy, which Nixon invented and Gingrich appears to have revived with his smashing primary victory in South Carolina.  Nixon sought to win over the formerly Democratic South with talk of “law and order” that would appeal to white voters who were unsettled by busing, riots, and the growing assertion of black political power.  Keep in mind these weren’t the rough stereotypes of massive resisters but rather the metropolitan white collar middle classes of the New South (see Matthew Lassiter’s The Silent Majority or Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland).

Republicans have been bashing “welfare queens” and blowing racial “dog whistles” ever since to win the hearts of Southerners.  While Mitt Romney has attempted to exploit racial tensions occasionally—with attacks on “sanctuary cities” sheltering immigrants, for instance—the robotic frontrunner has never really adopted the pugnacious style that many conservatives desire, especially after living under the tyranny of a militant black nationalist dictatorship for the last three years.  (Whether Romney’s “deficiency” in this area is a matter of temperament or merely a prudent decision not to make inflammatory statements that could hurt him in the general election is hard to say.)

Newt, on the other hand, cut his teeth as part of the generation of ambitious Republicans who took out old-school Democrats across the South, winning election to a district in suburban Atlanta during the 1970s.  He knows his race-baiting backwards and forwards, and he has a knack for forming memes that burrow into the brain, capturing a whole complex of racist assumptions and anxieties in one pithy phrase.  His “food stamp president” line would undoubtedly make Lee Atwater and Sarah Palin proud.  His victory suggests that South Carolina Republicans, at least, want someone who can voice their rage toward the President and his parasitic supporters more than the technocratic expertise and business skill that Romney has for sale.

 The other trait Newt shares with Nixon is a fondness for bruising, scorched earth tactics distinguished by a willingness to demonize the enemy in any way possible.  Just as Newt’s political rise began in the heyday of the Southern Strategy, Nixon rode to power on the coattails of Joseph McCarthy.  While shamelessly denying his own dubious ethics, Nixon was ready to impugn the character and patriotism of his opponents, wielding the twin cudgels of Communism and Anti-Americanism against all comers.  His 1950 Senate opponent in the 1950s was “the Pink Lady,” while Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern became the standard-bearer of “Acid, Amnesty and Abortion” in 1972.

In his 1972 re-election campaign, Nixon may have employed a bevy of dirty tactics that included break ins and sabotage, but he also eschewed “traditional party labels" and touted “his connections to Democrats... downplaying his own Republican affiliation,” according to Bruce Schulman.  Nixon wanted his campaign to promote “the new American Majority … not [the] Republican majority.” This is the same Nixon who with one side of mouth promoted black capitalism and through the other approved COINTELPRO, a program of domestic surveillance and espionage that targeted civil rights groups and many have claimed contributed to the assassination of Black Power leaders like Fred Hampton.

Like any good Republican of the New Right, Nixon played upon the politics of symbolism.  When Mayor Lindsay lowered the American flag to half staff, to mark the number of dead from Vietnam and again later to acknowledge the tragedy at Kent State, New York construction workers and Wall Street financiers joined together in patriotic rage. On May 8, 1970, the Hard Hat Riot began when 200 construction workers, all dressed in brown overalls carrying with them American flags, assembled near Federal Hall to protest Lindsay’s decision.  The workers began targeting boys with long hair and beating them with their red and orange hard hats, and Wall Street’s warriors soon appeared in support, chanting slogans like “Lindsay’s a Red!” and “Raise our flag.”  For Nixon, this was the not so silent majority he coveted.  Though the President did offer loopholes for unions in his wage and price controls, which left many on Wall Street uneasy, he didn’t have to give union hard hats any real benefits—just symbolic ones or a strident but economically meaningless cultural recognition.  In the end, the New York Times provided the very image that symbolized Nixon’s ambitions, argues Perlstein, “the stockbroker and the pipe fitter joined in solidarity in the act of clobbering a hippie—their common weapon the American flag.”

The defining feature of such attacks is their emptiness.  They target intangibles such as patriotism, Americanness, and values, not on differences of policy or, really, even ideology.  Anyone can say their opponents are against America.  Historians have noted that Nixon was notoriously flexible and even endorsed a number of policies that would be considered “liberal” today.  Can you imagine a Republican courting organized labor? What he wanted was power, not to raise or lower the tax rate by so many percentage points.  Newt, too, has chagrined activists on the right by claiming to be the one true conservative in the race (as signaled by the efforts of National Review, evangelicals and others to coalesce support around other candidates). He has been blasted for his opportunistic willingness to sit down with Nancy Pelosi and endorse action against climate change; another heretical act was his acceptance of the idea of a federal mandate to buy health insurance, a position that many other conservatives have abandoned since it became part of Obama’s hated healthcare reform legislation.  Nixon also considered a health reform plan that was not terribly different from the one Democrats passed in 2010.  Like Newt, his true allegiance was never to conservative ideology but to himself.

Many readers might say, “So what?”  It’s not exactly news that politicians care more about seeking power than enacting policy.  Or that most will do or say whatever it takes to win an election.  Few elected officials get into politics to pursue a coherent ideological plan, save for the occasional Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders.

However, the similarities between Nixon and Newt remain salient.  They both premise most of their attacks on allegations of anti-Americanism, they both see themselves as under constant attack, and they identify the source of their persecution in an East Coast elite in academia, government, and the press.  Nixon took advantage of anti-Communist hysteria in the late 1940s and early 1950s, while Newt seized on the reaction to civil rights, black power, and the Great Society to write his political ticket.  The former Speaker of the House’s unlikely and stunning political rebirth may owe to the convergence of both sources of conservative anxiety—race and leftism—in one figure, Barack Obama.

To the Tea Party, 2012 might look a lot like 1968.  America recently abandoned one questionable military conflict, while it remains entangled in another. Of course, 1968 witnessed the Democratic National Convention, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, a visible cohort of young Americans openly protesting on campuses and cities, and series of urban riots that taken together convinced many Americans that the nation stood on the precipice.  So while thankfully we lack the violence of urban uprisings and political assassinations, we’ve swapped them for 9/11 and the throbbing existential threat of terrorism.  Debates about the debt ceiling and the aforementioned economic meltdown highlight one thing 1968 didn’t have: widespread economic distress.  The only thing that could ruin the economies of the mid-1960s was Vietnam, while the wars of the twenty first century consumed federal money at perhaps the most inopportune time. Culturally, the Occupy Movement serves as evidence for many conservative Americans that the Left functions as little more than a thinly veiled fifth column of radical boogeymen. An unwashed twenty first century SDS? A burgeoning Weathermen for the new millennium?  Unlikely, but from the perspective of many a Tea Partier, many of whom remember the 1960s, the whole scene looks frighteningly familiar.

 It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate … sent all the way from Texas. Black-and-white-spotted.  And our little girl – Tricia, the six-year old – named it Checkers.  And you know the kids love that dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.

  - Richard Nixon, “Checkers Speech,” Sept 23, 1952
A trip back to the 1950s reminds us of one last parallel between the two men: both Nixon and Gingrich proved capable of adroitly manipulating "the media" even while they complained about being persecuted by it. In September 1952, then-Senator from California stood before the American public and media fighting for his political life.  Accused of improperly accepting gifts and funding, Nixon delivered his Checkers speech to a national audience. For Nixon supporters, an unscrupulous media sucker-punched the beleaguered Vice-President.  As Rich Perlstein says, they "interpreted the puppy story just as Nixon intended it: as a jab at a bunch of bastards who were piling on, kicking a man when he was down, a regular guy, just they could do it and he couldn’t fight back.” 

Nixon exploited this perception for decades afterward, but what’s more important was the combative response.  After all, Gingrich’s performance at the opening of the last South Carolina Republican debate defined him for many South Carolina voters as a sort of “anti-politician.”  Yes, that’s right—a Washington outsider who was once Speaker of the House and has long owned a home in Maclean, Virginia, a tony suburban town just outside DC.  Gingrich laid into CNN's John King when he dared ask about his ex-wife’s claims of infidelity. “To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign,” Gingrich boomed, “is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine." As David Brooks recently noted, Gingrich’s rise in South Carolina depended heavily on his debate performances, a strength of the former Georgia Congressmen.  When he “attacked” Juan Williams and John King last week, he epitomized the kind of aggressive unapologetic conservatism the GOP thirsts for.  The New York Times quoted one supporter describing Newt as “real … he answers the questions, he has good ideas… Mitt is kind of a flip flopper, more of a politician.” The idea of Newt as the anti-politician—well, if you can pull if off, genius.

 Nixonian optimism lives on
Ironically, Barack Obama also has positioned himself as anti-politics—performing a maneuver that parallels Newt’s own attempt at taking a high-minded stance above the normal political free-for-all.  Obama’s trademark rhetorical strategy during 2008 was all about rising above the sort of baby-boomer culture wars that defined the Clinton-Gingrich struggle of the 1990s, heralding a new era of rational political debate and compromise.  We all know that post-partisan Shangri-la never materialized, given Democrats’ determination to push through with a once-in-a-lifetime chance at a liberal agenda and Republicans’ equivalent decision to obstruct Democratic progresss at every step of the legislative process.  But Obama also chose to position himself above the democratic fray, in a way that was not too different from Newt’s posturing against the media, which he accused of trying to foster petty discord whenever they asked him a tough question.  Any of the candidates on the debate stage would be better than Barack Obama, Gingrich said, and he was tired of the liberal media trying to turn them all against each other.  Newt thus presented himself as the team player who cared more about conservative principles and beating Obama than naked self-interest—not unlike the liberal Democratic President who claims to be sick of he-said-she-said political bickering but is still fully prepared to fight a knock-down, drag-out political battle for power.

Ultimately, Newt is not quite the same as Nixon, and certainly not the same as Obama, even if both might indulge in anti-political fantasies.  Both Newt and Nixon bring a deep-seated resentment to the liberal establishment in the arts, education, and media—a middle class kid who went to Whittier College and Duke, instead of Harvard and Yale, Nixon hated the superiority of the Northeastern cultural elite, not unlike Gingrich, who came from modest circumstances to earn a PhD in history but was ultimately turned down for tenure.  His never-ending tirades against the left-wing academic elite definitely seem to smack of one who has nursed a decades-long bitterness about the liberal establishment that denied him professional approval.  Both Nixon and Newt possessed a deep animus to the haughty men and women who enjoyed the privilege of greater cultural capital.

 In the end, though, the forever-persecuted Newt somehow holds onto an innate sunniness that bolsters his appeal.  Despite Newt’s apocalyptic rhetoric about American decline, he remains steeped in an optimism than Nixon could never match.  It is part of what makes his rollicking, egomaniacal id so fun to watch.  Newt came of age in the time of Sputnik and Star Trek, and he adds a uniquely Newtonian sci-fi spin to the dark morass of Nixonian paranoia.  He remains deeply invested in an enthusiasm for technological and managerial solutions to everyday problems, reflected in his sloganeering endorsement of Lean Six Sigma as a cure-all for American governmental bureaucracy.  Jude Webre aptly described the current GOP divide as Rand vs. Toffler: a split between the bleak worldview of libertarians and business conservatives who bemoan the strength-sapping spread of the welfare state and a rather different yearning for technocratic, gee-whiz, high-tech solutions that Newt Gingrich embraces, despite his culture-warrior bonafides.  His opponents may laugh at ideas like colonies on the moon, but Gingrich simply pooh-poohs their small-mindednes.  He marries McCarthyite and Nixonian paranoia to a bottomless reserve of assurance in not only his own abilities but the possibilties of solutions and “big ideas,” as he never tires of putting it. 

In this weird combination of optimism for the future and bleak pessimism about the relentless onslaught on Western civilization, Newt Gingrich is quite unlike the pit of neuroses that was Richard Nixon.  Both men may have perceived threats and attacks from all sides, but Newt takes the battle to the enemy with a kamikaze zest that is entertaining and fundamentally distinct from Nixon’s insecure and paranoid persona.  Then again, one of these men was twice elected to the presidency—a fact that says a lot about America as a democratic society in 1968 and 1972, when it saw fit to elevate a man like Richard Nixon to its pinnacle of power—while Newt Gingrich’s fate remains untold and, at the moment, far less propitious.  He may be the snarling white id of the South, back to exact its vengeance against Rockefeller Republicanism, but most observers still discount his chances of winning the GOP nomination, much less the presidency.  Whether Newt’s fortunes today say more about us as a people or him as a candidate remains to be seen.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tropics of Meta's Best of 2011

Our friend Kevin Baker recently wondered aloud whether 2012 would be the Year that Tropics Broke, after seeing our rundown of the best papers at this year's American Historical Association meeting posted by a colleague on Facebook.  2012 might very well be the year that we auto-tune or meme our way to national notoriety, but in the meantime we would like to offer a different kind of recap: a list of our favorite pieces from 2011.  From the Mountain Goats to Melancholia, and from the inspiring scenes of the Arab Spring to the ongoing antics of the Tea Party, we have tried to offer a semi-informed perspective on the unfolding of history over the last year.  Here are some of our picks:

Fire and ICE: The Realities of 21st Century Urban Development

The first in our series on the "post-industrial society" and the role of high-technology industries in American cities, this piece focused on university-led redevelopment in New York, Philadelphia, and southern California.  Drawing on the work of Mike Davis and Themis Chronopoulos, the post examines local resistance to the expansion of New York University, as well as the increasing dependence of cities on such development to shore up their coffers and credit ratings in a neoliberal policy environment.

The Rural Roots of America's Cities of Knowledge

Another installment in the post-industrial series, Keith Orejel's essay urged readers to refocus attention away from the big city world of the "creative class" and toward the relationship between high-tech development and rural America.  The Sunbelt's image of prosperity, Orejel suggests, belied the reality of poverty and population loss in the countryside, as mechanization pushed farmworkers off the land and better opportunities in cities such as Charlotte and Atlanta were taken up chiefly by educated transplants from outside the region.  Meanwhile, rural workers moved into low-wage retail, trucking, and other industries that flourished in the shadow of the New Economy's gleaming "cities of knowledge."

Neoliberalism's License to Ill 

Discussing the work of the late Tony Judt, Adam Gallagher explored the damaging effects of neoliberal policies in this piece.  In the name of holding the line on spending and big government, American policymakers have, in the last thirty years, pursued a relentless course of privatization and deregulation, even as tax cuts for the wealthy fueled rising inequality and military adventurism blew up the budget deficit.  The 2008 economic crisis and the subsequent Great Recession seemed to illustrate the devastating impact of such policies, yet the resurgence of the GOP and the rise of the Tea Party showed that the US political elite has refused to abandon its allegiance to old homilies about the so-called "free market."

How We Got Here: Stein, Cowie, and Arrighi on the Post-Industrial Economy

Continuing the post-industrial series, Joel Suarez examines the divergent approaches to economic change taken by Judith Stein, Jefferson Cowie, and the late Giovanni Arrighi in their widely read studies.  Arrighi employs the sweeping perspective of world-systems theory to explain the United States' meteoric economic rise in the twentieth century, placing the country's turn toward deindustrialization and finance in the 1970s as part of a long-term cycle of imperial expansion and decline.  In contrast, Stein focuses on the nuts-and-bolts of economic policy, highlighting how deliberate political decisions about taxes, subsidies, and trade favored industries such as finance, insurance and real estate (see "FIRE and ICE" above) and undermined traditional manufacturing.  Cowie's Staying Alive instead looked at the cultural dimension of deindustrialization and changing perceptions of class in the 1970s.   Despite methodological differences, and the difficulty of reconciling large-scale and small-bore explanations, each of these scholars can concur on one point: the 1970s were a crucial turning point in the political economy and culture of the United States.

Hefner, Hughes, and Rogen: Playboy and the Origins of the 21st Century Hipster

The unending search for a definition of the hipster continues in this piece, which offers a new genealogy of the cultural type.  This piece deemphasizes the significance of familiar antecedents such as the beatniks or punks and instead ties hipsters to a different ancestor: the playboy of the 1950s, the prototypical, self-absorbed urban sophisticate.  Drawing on the work of historian Elizabeth Fraterrigo and essayist Ian Svenonius, "Hefner, Hughes, and Rogen" proposes that the most salient characteristic of the hipster is demographic; the virtually unprecedented emergence of a large, educated group of unmarried, childless twenty-and-thirtysomethings has given rise to hipster culture, as culturally savvy young people with disposable income and few responsibilities can devote time to putting birds on things and issuing cassette-only electro-pop covers of Bollywood songs.

Teaching to the Test: The Middle Class, Teachers, and School Reform in the 21st Century

In this piece, Ryan Reft and Shane Updike draw on their experience as educators to weight the implications of movements for education reform, particularly for American cities.  Charter schools, accountability, and teacher unions come under consideration, as well as the controversial career of former Washington, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who made fighting unions and firing incompetent teachers her signature policy.

Video, Terror, and the Politics of Reality TV 

Written in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing by American commandos in Pakistan, this piece compared the way that images of bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were constructed in the media after their respective downfalls.  Specifically, it discusses the lurid and humiliating use of video to degrade the formerly powerful men, who were viewed in the American media undergoing dental examinations (in Hussein's case) and pathetically watching television (in bin Laden's).  Such portrayals evoked practices of shaming and voyeurism that resembled those made popular by reality television in the last decade. 

Pedaling Your Politics: The Variable Meanings of Critical Mass

This piece explores the controversial practice of critical mass by bicyclists in a variety of cities, considering the political dimension of the tactic and the different ways it has been received in San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, and elsewhere.  Despite the somewhat confrontational nature of critical mass, which involves bicyclists taking over streets and other public spaces, conflicts over the practice have not deterred the growing embrace of bicycling as an environmentally friendly mode of transit or bike-friendly policies as a means of enhancing traffic and transportation in cities such as New York.

American Arab Kitsch: From Ahab to Abed and Back Again

This essay takes a long view of portrayals of Arabs and Arab-Americans in American pop culture, from the novelty songs of Ray Stevens and Pinkard & Bowden to the increasing presence of purportedly Arab characters in twenty-first century pop culture.  It considers the vagaries of politics and international affairs on perceptions of Arabs, who occupy a peculiar position between honorary white people (Lebanese Republicans such as John Sununu) and swarthy, hysterical terrorists (the Crimson Jihad in 1994's action hit True Lies).  One of the strangest aspects of American pop culture's treatment of Arabs is the fact that such characters are nearly always played by South Asians rather than actors of North African or Middle Eastern origin (Sayid on Lost, Abed on Community, and so forth), underlining their status as nonwhite in the American imagination. 

Building the Perfect Echo Chamber: The 1970s and Political Discourse in the 21st Century 

This wide-ranging essay looks at Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, among other texts, to consider how the conflicts of the 1970s set the course for today's hyper-polarized, Red vs. Blue political culture.  Richard Nixon saw the value of exploiting the cultural, political, and economic differences between the so-called "Silent Majority" and increasingly vocal groups such as people of color, gays and lesbians, and others on the Left. John McMillian's history of the underground press and the New Left, Smoking Typewriters, and Edmund White's memoir of gay life in New York, City Boy, provide further perspective on the splintering of American culture during this era, as people divided along lines of political, sexual, and cultural identity and nurtured new subcultures that became increasingly unintelligible to those outside each group.  The result was an America that looked less like a cohesive polity, capable of addressing its most pressing and intractable issues, and more like an archipelago of echo chambers, where liberals and conservatives talked only to their own kind and viewed each other with resentment and mistrust.

Decide Yourself If Radio's Gonna Stay: A Post-Mortem of R.E.M.

This post reviews the long history of R.E.M., the Athens, GA band that defined the course of college radio and indie rock in the 1980s before achieving massive popular success and gradually sinking back into obscurity by the late 1990s.  Written from the perspective of a long-time listener from the South ("southern boys just like you and me," as Steve Malkmus said in Pavement's tribute to the band), the piece considers how R.E.M.'s heady mix of 60s psychedelia and post-punk energy typified the early 1980s moment of crisis in the record industry, which was stuck in its post-boomer, post-disco doldrums.  The band's first single, "Radio Free Europe," was not only an impressionistic take on the state of the Cold War at the dawn of the Reagan Era, but a call to arms for independent music to chart its own course -- a harbinger of how indie rock would develop in uneasy tension with the mainstream of the music business.

And the Most Read Posts of 2011
  1. Demonizing Don Henley: Unwrapping the Byzantine Politics of a Boomer Icon
  2. Not Your Model Minority: The Complexity of Asian Americans in 21st Century Film
  3. Hefner, Hughes, and Rogen
  4. Teaching to the Test 
  5. Market Volunteers: The Role of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the All-Volunteer Army
  6. Learning from Tiny Tower: Mobile Gaming and the Post-Industrial Society
  7. FIRE and ICE
  8. Me and You and Everyone We Know: Newsweek's Sex Problem
  9. Mapping the Ineffable: The Nebulous Flow of History in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas 
  10. Making Sense of Mom: The Ideology of 20th Century American Maternalism 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The 2012 AHA: The Chicago Way

Can you spot the Medievalist in this picture?

Chicago dogs, deep dish pizza, nasal Midwestern accents, and sunny 50 degree days. Three of these things are associated with Chicago in January. Perhaps the larger forces of the universe took sympathy on the army of academics that descended upon Chicago last week for the annual American History Association conference (one might note the annual meeting of the American Economics Association also held there conference in the Windy City last week, throttling native Chicagoans with questions about opportunity costs, endogenous influences, credit supply in the age of financial crisis and so on). The dark arts of academic employment deserved at the very least blue skies and semi-warm weather. As always, a fetid mix of desperation and hope – desperation because well the market for tenure track jobs still sucks, and hope because the conference revealed a number of insightful new scholars and ideas that promise to lead the field in the near future.
1. The 1960s and Chicago
MLK at Soldier's Field 1966 - Chicago Freedom Movement

Chicago ‘68: Rethinking Local Black Activism and the Battle for Urban America
Too often tropes about the 1960s portray the early years as a simmering cauldron of racial and ethnic egalitarian possibility only to be betrayed by the violent and ultimately disappointing rights movements of the decade’s conclusion. However, several scholars pushed backed against this characterization arguing that the late 1960s proved vital in influencing the local Black Power movement and establishing the policy arcs of the 1970s in terms of Black homeownership, community activism, police organization, and politics of space visa via museums.

Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor, "Tenant Unions, Rent Strikes, Fighting Foreclosure, and Eviction Blockades: Black Chicago’s Struggle for Housing Justice"
Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor illustrates how the image and reality of rat infested homes led to tenant rights organizations in Chicago’s black communities of the late 1960s. While many historians suggest Martin Luther King’s housing justice movement failed due to the machinations of Mayor Richard Daley (MLK once described opposing Daley as akin to punching a pillow) and his influence over traditional sites of Black political opposition (think Black churches and elected leadership) for Taylor, MLK’s attempts to establish housing justice proved not the culmination and throttling of a movement but rather a catalyst for a coherent and effective campaign for minority homeownership. While many have portrayed the King - Daley encounter as one that ultimately contributed to the fracturing of the civil rights movement, Taylor points out that post-King Black Chicago continued to fight for fair and equitable housing. The rise of tenant unions and similar organizations utilizing a variety of means to protest poor conditions (picketing, sit ins, rent strikes) forced many landlords to address their concerns and in several cases enabled tenants to eventually transform housing contracts into mortgages.

Erik S. Gellman, "Faith in Black Power: Chicago’s Urban Training Center for Christian Mission, 1966–70"
Erik Gellman explores the role of Chicago’s Urban Training Center (UTC) in creating black led organizations and activism that persisted well into the 1970s. Though started by predominantly white University of Chicago seminarians who employed the U of C lab model, the UTC soon came to be dominated by Saul Alinsky like social action. This shift coincided with a shift in leadership as increasing numbers of local, largely black residents came to the fore. The UTC’s efforts helped to connect Chicago’s geographically divided Black communities. Importantly, UTC graduates contributed to wider social movements in the city from Operation Breadbasket (led in part by UTC alum Jesse Jackson) to the Woodlawn Organization. Gellman focuses especially on the Coalition for United Community Action (CUCA), who in 1969, successfully protested for better integration in the building trades. Additionally, the UTC encouraged participants to move past simple “survival” politics focusing increasingly on economic justice and access to capital as branches of the UTC tried to establish connections between Chicago’s financiers and the city’s Black organizations, a kind of precursor to today’s LISC. The opening of numerous other similar campaigns in cities across the nation (locally as well as the aforementioned CUCA provides one example) based on the UTC model points to the importance of this organization in dialogues regarding agency and 1970s social movements.

DuSable Museum co-founder Margaret Burroughs

Ian Rocksborough-Smith, "Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History in the Black Power Era: The Washington Park Relocation"
In his recent work Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (2011), Danny Widener delves into the role of black artists in defining twentieth century metropolitan struggles. Widener focuses especially on the role that black artists and artist organizations played in crafting aesthetic and political critiques that challenged municipal institutions and structures in the name of a broader African American working class. In a similar fashion, Ian Rocksborough Smith analyzes the role of Chicago’s DuSable Museum in “transmitting African American values” to the broader public while impacting Chicago’s “cultural physical landscapes.” The DuSable Museum created a middle class space among the wider Black Arts cultural milleu and amplified Black Chicago's place within the public sphere. Established in 1961 and originally located on South Michigan Avenue, by 1974 the Museum set up shop in Washington Park. Rocksborough Smith explores both the decades long build up among black "cultural workers" like Margaret and Charles Burroughs (the husband and wife founders of the museum) who built on the tradition of Black Chicago Renaissance of the 1930s-1950s and the struggle to successfully move the museum to a larger venue. The Burroughs and others created a vital Black cultural and intellectual life that emphasized African Americans contributions to the world and protested Chicago’s and the nation’s denial of Black history. The museum’s relocation to Washington Park – long a site of the city’s Black culture from the Bud Billiken day parade to weekend festivals and craft markets – proved more difficult than expected. A former police station, the city dragged its feet regarding the new location until a petition campaign that included esteemed journalist Vernon Jarrett and Alderman Ralph Metcalfe (himself a critical figure in Chicago’s political scene) along with local cultural actors such as the Field Museum, Art Institute, and Chicago Historical Society, forced the municipal government to relent. Selling itself as a “bootstrap public cultural resource”, museum advocates adopted a rhetoric that highlighted its commitment to Midwestern history and art and cultural practice. The Museum served as a critical “free space” in an emerging Black power movement. In the 1980s, Margaret Burroughs advised the city’s growing Mexican/Mexican American museum to create its own independent cultural space, illustrating the continuing importance of a diverse racial and ethnic presence in the public sphere.

AAPL members speaking to the press circa 1968

Megan Adams, “Beyond the Police Riot: The Politics of Chicago’s Patrolmen after 1968”

For too long, 1968 Democratic Convention and the 1969 assassinations of Chicago’s Black Panther leadership defined the CPD. To outside observers, 1968 Chicago appeared to be divided between a recalcitrant white police force, the minions of the aforementioned Mayor Daley, and a largely white left oppositional presence that erupted in violence amid the collapse of the Democratic party. UC Berkeley’s Megan Adams pushes back against this characterization pointing out that while the above events certainly remain significant, the CPD through the establishment of the Confederation of Police (1965) created an internal site of protest and cohesion. Though largely white, the Confederation eventually claimed 8000 members with a small but significant minority presence (The Confederation even elected an African American as its president in 1972) The 1968 formation of the African American Patrolman’s League (AAPL) provided another powerful means of internal protest as the Confederation and AAPL rejected their economic (no collective bargaining agreement until 1981) and political treatment (under the then newly created IID – basically Chicago’s internal affairs division – police lacked many of the rights guaranteed to criminal defendants under Miranda v. Arizona including the right to remain silent) under the monarchical Chicago mayor. The AAPL’s critiques (along with its 1975 lawsuit against the Federal Treasury for providing funding to Daley that the AAPL argued encouraged segregation within the CPD) led to increased minority representation within the department as 1976’s graduating class consisted of the largest proportion of non-white offices in Chicago history. The affirmative action program established within the CPD would later be emulated in cities like NY, Detroit, and Seattle. Reminiscent in some ways of Edward Conlon’s 2004 work Blue Blood (admittedly not an academic work), the Harvard educated New York City police officer depicted a force whose internal workings operated in numerous political directions including dissent. Moreover, Conlon suggested the perception of the NYPD’s fealty to Rudolph Guliani proved false as many officers believed Guliani had reneged on promises regarding economic issues. Likewise, Adam’s work gets at the complexity of municipal workers as both symbols of and political actors within cities, especially those living in the hot house environment of the late 1960s.

2. Not Your Parent’s Reconstruction

Reconstruction - Part of a larger, longer more troubling story

Expanding the Boundaries: Putting American Reconstruction in National and Transnational Terms
For the past two decades or so, transnationalism has proven a powerful lens for re-evaluating established historical epochs. Under this rubric, the idea of an established American post-Civil War federal power no longer seems so obvious as ethnic and labor tensions in northern cities, conflicts with Native Americans in the expanding West, and a resentful and violent Southern resistance to Reconstruction suggests a nation very aware of its weaknesses and less sure of its power and stability. Operating in large part in dialogue with the work of Elliot West, Nancy Bercaw, Gregory Downs, and Carole Emberton reconfigure Reconstruction and Western expansion as two parts of a larger process of national transformation that reflected the broad economic and political anxieties afflicting American citizens. (In addition, one might suggest, as commentator Stephen Kantrowitz did, that gender and worries about masculinity in the face of western expansion and rapid industrialization deserve some attention here.) The panel’s presenters remind audience members of works by Rebecca Edwards, Nancy Cott, Alison Sneider, and Amy Kaplan while employing theoretical frameworks of Michael Foucault (especially in regard to the importance and influence of discourse and the political role of bodies/remains) and Tony Bennett among others.

Celebrating or commodifying Modoc leader Captain Jack?
Carole Emberton, "The Other Panic of 1873: Federal Authority in the South and West"

Drawing on the aforementioned West and Amy Kaplan’s influential work, The Anarchy of Empire, Carole Emberton looks to reconfigure how historians think about Southern Reconstruction and Western expansion. Instead of viewing them as distinct and unrelated processes, Emberton encourages historians to consider them as two pieces of the larger project of national expansion and transformation. Focusing on the importance and meaning of two events: 1) the assassination of American General Edward R. S. Camby at the hands of the Native American Modac tribe and 2) the massacre of 100 freemen miltia members at the hands of the white supremacist White League of Colfax, LA, Emberton suggests that each represented justifications for US imperial reach in the South and West. The racial logic upholding both events illustrated a complex nexus of race, federal power, and citizenship. For example, many Southerners viewed the occupation of the South by federal forces as hypocritical since the government refused or failed to achieve any sort of equivalent occupation of Native American lands by the military. Open resistance by Native Americans, in the minds of some Southern observers, deserved federal retribution making federal occupation of the South an even greater insult. Emberton juxtaposes this example with efforts by the Colfax White League and the federal government in part to illustrate that in each case, the established narrative argued that white actors had attempted to negotiate peace with recalcitrant actors, whose violence in the face of such negotiations justified state and vigilante violence. This in turn, supported America’s late nineteenth century imperial ambitions that by 1898 supported occupation in the Philippines and elsewhere under the rubric of American tutelage.

Americans' imagined Mexico was as colorful as this map in the 1870s

Gregory P. Downs, "The Mexicanization of American Politics: The Transnational Reconstruction of Authority in the Postbellum United States"
Like Emberton, recent Choice Book award recipient Gregory P. Downs argues rather than putting to rest questions of federal stability, the decades following the Civil War represent a national government struggling to address crisis in Northern cities, pacify Native Americans on the Western frontier (notably the defeat of US troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn), and impose federal authority over the rebellious South. Critical postbellum American observers characterized US political fortunes with comparisons to an imagined Mexico defined simultaneously by tyranny and anarchy. However, Mexicanization’s meaning depended largely on context and political interest. When debating federal occupation of the South, Southern critics pointed to the tyranny of French intervention in Mexico (non-democratic monarchical rule) as a corollary to federal occupation of the South under Reconstruction. In other moments, the inability to completely end Native American uprisings in the West and the actions of paramilitaries like the KKK or the various White Leagues that developed across the South pointed to the anarchy of imagined Mexico in the United States (some observers ironically argued that Porfirio Diaz’s overthrow of Huerta served as example of Mexico’s instability, which is not well … accurate). In order to promote their own interests, Democrats and Republicans alike utilized the rhetoric of Mexicanization. This relationship moved in both directions as some Mexican liberals professed an alliance or brotherhood with the US justifying Mexican limitations on rights in the context of Reconstruction.

The Army Medical Museum circa twentieth century

Nancy Bercaw, "Human Remains and the Measure of Freedom: Military Medicine and the Reconstruction of Race in the Post-Emancipation United States"
Arguably the most theoretical of the three papers, Bercaw's piece draws upon theories by Foucault, Tony Bennett, and one might suggest Ann Stoler, to explore how governmental display of Native American and African American remains prove illustrative of larger issues regarding race, citizenship, and federal power. From 1867 – 1898 the army (via the Army Medical Museum established in 1862) collected over 23,000 Native and African American remains, thus, creating a racialized archive that removed the humanity of the individual, thus relegating them to the role of specimens used as evidence of American racial order in an age of an insecure federal power and burgeoning imperial hopes. Curators displayed Native American skulls as proof of a vanishing “pure race” that could be reduced to a racial taxonomy. In contrast, African Americans, newly emancipated had been, at least in theory, given citizenship. As the United States’ first non-white citizenry, the museum displayed the organs of dead freedmen and women but did not identify them by race. African American skulls were not included suggesting that though still perniciously discriminated against, the government refused to display the skulls of its own citizens. Conversely, Native American skulls, offered “a visual archive of a dying race.” An assuring notion for a nation that as already copiously noted struggled to quell Native American resistance while adjusting to the legal inclusion of African Americans (Bercaw argues that one of the museum’s leaders displaced his discomfort over the newly inducted citizens by projecting his anxiety onto Native Americans, a people “rejecting U.S. power”) Like Ariela Gross in What Blood Won’t Tell or 2006's Ann Stoler edited collection Haunted by Empire, Bercaws’s talk engaged ideas regarding the expansion of citizenship whether within its borders or at its imperial edges. Bercaw's insights further our understanding of American racial policy that has long been messy, no less so than during the tumultuous years of the postbellum nineteenth century.

3. The Modular Military?

Here, there, everywhere!

Everyday Soldiers: The Limits of Militarization in Postwar American Society

In recent years, historians and social scientists like Michael Sherry, Ann Markusen, Beth Bailey, Jennifer Light, Roger Lotchin, and Caroline Lutz among others have reflected on the place, role, and influence of the military on domestic civilian life, national and regional economies, and its relationship to citizenship. The increasing public private nature of military expenditures led Eisenhower to famously warn America of the nefarious military industrial complex while C. Wright Mills provided an early definition in The Power Elite. Still, the idea of the military often evokes thoughts of an unstoppable bulging force. Instead, the Everyday Soldiers panel suggests that militarization assumes a more adaptive or as one commentator noted “modular” nature, capable in some forms of near invisibility, making it arguably an even more insidious presence. (To once again paraphrase The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever performed was convincing the world he didn’t exist” – yes T of M likes to gender the devil.)

[Editor’s note: The presence of a long haired Walter Sobchak in the audience made Everyday Soldiers the “it” panel of the AHA.]

UMT recruits praying for some excitement

Amy Rutenberg, "Failure at Fort Knox: Public Opinion and the End of Universal Military Training"

As the military moved into the immediate postwar era, atomic age fears envisioned that the next war would prove “sudden, large, and deadly”. For some military and government officials, this meant America’s male population needed to be broadly prepared for rapid military conflict. However, public ambivalence about a “garrison state” (notably in the shadow of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism) limited the scope and vision of official plans. Though part of larger War Department plans spanning back to WWI, after a legislative push in 1944, the government instituted an experimental trial program at Fort Knox. In "Failure at Fort Knox", Reutenberg examines the publicity arising from this experimental program illustrating public ambivalence and the limits encountered by the military even in this trial effort. From the outset, the Fort Knox experiment faced opposition from a broad array of groups. Many Americans viewed the military as the improper place for the cultivation and transference of moral and civic values. Critics argued that churches, schools and families proved better conduits for such ideals. Emphasizing physical health, good hygiene, and other middle class virtues, the Fort Knox program consciously avoided strict regimentation (it offered GED classes, a swimming pool, and other accoutrements of middle income life).  Participants “responded as individuals and developed as individuals”, no doubt to reinforce at the least the idea of a democratic America (for example, rather than the usual forms of discipline in the military the Fort Knox UMT employed a demerit system and had a trainee court.) Unfortunately, the government failed to ever explain why this sort of preparedness proved so vital and why the military should be the institution to install moral and civic values rather than civic and religious groups. Additionally, media portrayals depicted this service much like the Boy Scouts, thus engendering skepticism and resentment among veterans and others. Even worse, the military's own brochure stressed the program as more a right of passage than a plank in national security.

Short answer? Yes. PCYF Ad
Rachel Louise Moran, "The Advisory State: Physical Fitness through the Ad Council, 1955–65"

When in an episode of Mad Men, the scurrilous Roger Sterling suffers a heart attack, the cynical ad executive mutters to the paramedics, “All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. I did everything they told me, I drank the cream, ate the butter. Then I get hit with a coronary.” Mid-1950s America looked pretty unhealthy from a modern day perspective, but as regrettable as we view dietary habits and physical fortitude of the nation’s citizenry in the 1950s and 1960s now, Americans of that era shared similar fears regarding their own children. Impending invasion and large scale war, all necessitated a physically fit population. Rachel Louise Moral suggests that this fear served as proxy for larger worries about America as a “nation of weaklings” thus inspiring Eisenhower to establish the President’s Committee on Youth Fitness (led, for a time by everyone’s favorite Republican Tricky Dick Nixon) which worked with state and local organizations to help coordinate on issues regarding the physical fitness of the nation’s youth. Though it helped to coordinate efforts, the PCYF did not fun state or local efforts. Established under Eisenhower, the PCYF (later known as the President’s Committee on Physical Fitness – PCPF) expanded significantly under JFK. Through public private partnerships and alliance with the Advertising Council (the AC – which today is known for producing PSA’s like McGruff the Crime Dog and Smokey the Bear) the PCYF/PCPF recorded profits but failed to make any significant improvement in the physical health of the nation’s youth. Celebrity endorsements, corporate partnerships (Kodak, Diet Rite were early participants), and the Ad Council’s guidance – all at nearly no cost – greatly improved promotion. PCPF publications and the legendary “Chicken Fat” recording (which sold over 100,000 copies in its first year) helped to put the council in the black. If the council failed to improve the actual health of Americans, it did contribute to the establishment of state and local fitness councils and also points to the increasing neoliberal approach regarding government presence in American lives.

Maybe this isn't so new...

Joy Rohde, "The Rise of the Contract State: Privatizing Social Science for National Security"

In From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems, Jennifer Light examines how military experts influenced urban policy and thinking in the post war era. In this way, Cold War technological innovations and beliefs came to shape urban development. Trinity University’s Joy Rohde performs a similar service by highlighting the place of social scientists working for Cold War national security councils in late twentieth century and their effect on military conflicts and urban population control. Though 1960s activists rightly critiqued the university/military partnerships of the period, eventually forcing the military off college campuses, they in no way ended the prevalence or influence of these military intellectual think tanks. Instead, away from the gaze of critics or the rigor of academia, the Pentagon and federal government established research institutes like the Special Operations Regional Office (SORO) or the Instituted for Defense Analysis. Not only did research institutes like SORO continue their research, they expanded their purview into civilian life, thus, further militarizing the nation. Population control and domestic security became new focuses. Here Rohde reinforces ideas put forth by Jeremy Suri in Power and Protest. Suri argued that during the Cold War, China, the USSR, France, and the US all shifted their national security attentions domestically to squashing internal dissent. Rohde provides more evidence of this while also pointing out the privatization of militarization identifying the same neoliberal force that culminated in private militia’s like Blackwater. Moreover, much as Light suggests, Rohde illustrates how this public private nexus of social science experts later morphed into a revolving door of intellectuals passing in and out of government offices, later using their connections to gain contracts and establish private security firms creating a veritable security state embedded in various sites around the D.C. Beltway.

4. Rocking the Cold War

Punking Ronnie

Cold War Kids: The Ideologies of Punk in the East and the West
What would a T of M account of an academic conference be without a panel on the importance of music and culture?  Cold War Kids addressed this pathological need. Not to be confused with the similarly titled band (think the song “Hospital Beds”), panelists explored the intersection between punk, politics, race, and Cold War attitudes. Though none of the panelists formally referenced works by Birmingham School writers like Dick Hebdige and to a lesser extent Paul Gilroy, Gilroy and Hebdige’s spirit inhabited the panel like Sid Vicious at a Sex Pistols Reunion tour.

The Weirdos and nuclear annihilation
M. Montgomery Wolf, “'I Keep Thinking of World War III': American Punks Rock against Reagan"
Throughout 1998’s SLC Punk!, main characters Stevo (Matthew Lilliard) and Heroin Bob (Michael Goorjian) rail against Salt Lake City’s conservative Mormon culture while denigrating the presidency of Ronald Reagan. SLC Punk! serves as useful analog to M. Montgomery Wolf’s examination of 1980s (mostly West Coast) American punks like LA’s Weirdos, the Adolescents, the Circle Jerks, and of course, legendary San Pedro outfit The Minutemen (Michael Azzerad’s excellent Our Band Could Be Your Life contains a great chapter on the Minutemen along with others on Fugazi, the Replacements, Minor Threat, Big Black, and so on). While early punk cohorts eschewed political statements (though one could argue the Clash, though obviously not American, might represent an exception to this rule), this “second cohort” though not formally aligned politically, expressed dismay at Reagan’s simultaneous sunny optimism (remember “Morning in America: Prouder, Stronger, Better”) and apocalyptic nuclear vision (S.D.I. and the constant threat/rhetoric of nuclear annihilation). In “Paranoid Chant,” the Minutemen find it hard to carry out the day’s tasks without returning to the paralyzing fear of nuclear war and WWIII. Cultural productions like “The Day After” (still the highest rated TV movies of all time), in which small town Kansas dealt with the aftermath of nuclear engagement, only heightened this incongruous tension between yuppie individualistic positivism and the dark reality of atomic age existence. Perhaps D. Boon expresses it perfectly in “Paranoid Chant," “I try to work but all think about is WWII … I don’t worry about crime anymore/so many frightened faces/I keep thinking of Russia/Paranoia scared shitless!”

Hating Mitterand, Communism, and immigrants

Jonathyne W. Briggs, "Force de Frappe: Rock against Communism in Socialist France"
If American punks reacted to Reagan’s domestic and foreign policy doctrine with absurdist bursts of music critiquing the burgeoning New Right warrior, conservative skinhead French punks responded by creating their own sense of community. Still, as Indiana University’s Jonathyne W. Briggs points out, the kind of community they established focused on fascist racist right wing leanings that opposed what they saw as creeping communist and multicultural influence. For a emerging group of racist skinheads, the Mitterand administration, the Common Program (an agreement between France's socialist and communist parties to basically get along), communism and immigration threatened French identity. Conservative newspaper Le Figaro summarized the fears of punk/skinhead bands like Tolbiac’s Toads, Kontingent 88's or SK when it labeled the new French government a “Marxist Collection.” Instead, French punks emulated the working class white supremacist strain of punk known as Oi! to promote a confused nationalist vision of France that opposed the multiculturalism of Mitterand’s administration while appropriating Nazi symbolism as a means to assert a new French identity and create a “third space” between capitalism and communism. Not even Le Pen’s National Front went so far as to utilize Nazism in their definition of the French body politic. If Mitterand wanted to assimilate France’s Arab and North African populations, band’s like Tolbiac’s Toads wanted the nation to eliminate them and encouraged violence against communists and immigrants alike. If many French citizens viewed the French Revolution ambivalently or even as a national catastrophe, for these skins it proved essential to French identity as one prominent skin commented, “Robiespierre was a true skin.” Apparently, the revolution’s contribution to the creation of socialism in the 1800s escaped many skinheads. Though the feared Marxist take over never occurred – the Common Program agreement collapsed in 1985 – the movement of French skins reveals simmering cultural tensions within 1980s France and signposted future issues regarding immigration and French identity that bedeviled France in the 1990s and 2000s.

Brygada Kryzys  - offending Polish sensibilities everywhere

Raymond Patton, "The Struggle over Punk in Communist Poland: Notes on Deconstructing 'The Alternative'"

When is style political even when it’s not meant to be? In his 2009 publication, The Power of the Zoot, Luis Alvarez illustrates how Zoot suit subculture, its interracial nature, sexuality and style, formed opposition and in some moments, unwitting assistance to American WWII policies. Though hardly overtly political, the style, dress, demographics, and sexuality of the subculture threatened American domestic normatives regarding race, gender/sexuality, and consumerism (though as Alvarez points out it, it also drew many Zoots into the wartime economy that ultimately supported the very war effort and culture they opposed). Though no organization or spokepersons emerged, in part through style the subculture garnered negative attention by many white Americans and authorities (witness the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles) Similarly, drawing on Stuart Hall (regarding his theories about how the struggle for culture creates political constructions and identities) and one might assume the aforementioned Hebdige (notably the work Subculture: The Meaning of Style), Drury University’s Raymond Patton illustrates how Poland’s punks in the 1980s ignored the kind of direct political stances that their peers in France and America came to embrace, yet ended up occupying a political space visa via their expression of style. Opposing political institutions in Poland – Solidarity and the Communist Party (CP)- attempted to co-opt the movement only to be horrified by the style and music of punks like Clinical Death and Brygada Kryzys (translated Crisis Brigade). The explosive popularity of punk with Polish borders and its apparent critique of communism attracted the attention of Solidarity who initially tried to incorporate the aforementioned Brygada Kryzys but found their musical stylings (both in sound and appearance) to be in conflict with Solidarity’s vision of Polishness. Yet, the subversiveness that turned off Solidarity stemmed not from political stances but ideas about Polish identity and style. In the case of the CP, punk’s place in culture symbolized a larger rift within the party between reform and Stalinist retrenchment. Clearly, Stalinists rejected songs like “Radioactive Block” by Brygada Kryzgs (which according to Patton when translated consists of seven words mostly having to do with concrete, which as the presenter accurately noted probably was a brilliant distillation of Warsaw’s built environment under communist rule) while reformists believed that the movement provided a bridge between the party and the new youthful generation so deeply invested in punk. In this way, Solidarity and Stalinists (religious organizations like the Forum for Catholic Though looked none too fondly on Polish punk as well), political opponents in most contexts, shared similar fears regarding punk’s influence (one CP official labeled it “electrification plus epilepsy”). Unfortunately, as in most stories of subcultures the success (can one say commodification?) of punk in Poland also meant the very bands performing lost control of the medium’s message.

5. Other Notable Papers

Ben Coates, "Transnational Legal Networks and the Limits of American Power, 1906–39"
T of M alum Ben Coates looked at the Institut de Droit International, or Institute of International Law, a network of lawyers from Europe, the US, and Latin America that was active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Founded in 1873, the Institute saw itself as "the legal consciousness of the civilized world”—it brought together advocates of international law from a variety of nations, each bringing the distinct perspective of his or her own political culture to the broader project of establishing some of kind of institutions to enforce international norms.  English lawyers cited case law; the French, sociology; and Germans sought to reconcile international law with their own philosophic and political tradition of the ideal state.  Advocates of international law hoped to create a system that encompassed and reconciled the national law of individual countries.  Coates observes that their goal was riven by contradiction: why would “international law” need to be “internationalized”? The group’s meetings brought together lawyers in the hope that they would produce a better, more scientific system by exposing legal practitioners to counterparts with a wide range of perspectives.   (The group even institutes quotas for various countries to ensure diverse attendance—at least to a degree.)  These international lawyers remained proud of their own national legal traditions despite being “wary of nationalism in the abstract,” Coates says.
The strength of international law in the era before World War I was its practicality, its closeness to politics and policy, but this pragmatism could also be a weakness.  International lawyers hoped to create a system that accommodated national differences while enforcing some broad legal norms through some mechanism or another, but the their visions for international law reflected their individual national orientations.   American law professor James Brown Scott, for instance, argued for a global system based on his own country’s experience, without quite realizing that the evolution of the United States was in many ways unique and not universally applicable.  Scott suggested the US was an international entity itself, a federation of colonies or states that voluntarily accepted federal coordination.  He did not want a world central government, but proposed an international body similar to the US Supreme Court that could adjudicate disputes among the states. Americans generally accept the authority of the Court without it needing to enforce its decisions; it holds power by virtue of public opinion and acceptance.  To pursue his American-centric vision of international governance, Scott lobbied to increase number of american members.  Almost all international lawyers agreed on some kind of adjudication of disputes, but not on the form of the institution.  Eschewing Scott’s view, many other international lawyers wanted a more vigorous form of regulation; the creation of the League of Nations after WWI represented the more legislative, democratic kind of world government that Scott opposed.  Scott promoted a  Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Nations -- echoing, of course, echoed the Declaration of Independence, but endorsing only broad guidelines such as the right to exist as a state and the right to sovereignty over territory.  The Institute ultimately failed to embrace his plan, and American political culture continued on its isolationist course in the 1920s.  It would take more than two decades and another world war for a new system of international governance to take shape under American leadership.

Yael Sternhell, "Constructing the Enemy’s Past: The Federal Archives Bureau and the Road to Sectional Reconciliation"
Sternhell, an assistant professor at Tel Aviv University, discussed the fascinating saga of how federal archivists attempted to tell the story of the American Civil War in the 1870s, working with and sometimes against the Southerners who possessed records of the Confederate government.  The archivists’ initial goal, Sternhell says, was “preserving the enemy’s past” so future generations would remember “southern sins and northern virtues.”  As commentator W. Fitzhugh Brundage pointed out, government record-keeping in the nineteenth century was generally abysmal; in one particularly tragicomic case, Tennessee’s state government used its own records for kindling, happy with their pragmatic use of useless paper to generate heat and save money.  In this case, though, the narrative about the conflict written by the Federal Archives Bureau would help to shape public understandings of the war for years to come—part of the larger process of regional reconciliation analyzed by David Blight and other historians.

Sternhell points out that Southerners were reluctant to part with the documents early in the 1870s, but later on even Confederate diehards like Jubal Early realized the value of turning over records when the federal government was prepared good money for them.  The 1878 appointment of a Confederate general Marcus Wright as the Archives’ agent in the South also prompted Southerners to be more cooperative.  Meanwhile, Sternhell notes tiny linguistics shifts in writings by federal archivists that seem to signal a changing perspective about the war; earlier on the Southerners were referred to as “rebels,” but over time the word Confederates came into more frequent, while federal workers gradually dropped the quotation marks around “Confederate States” and stopped using the word “so-called” as often.  The implication seems to be that they increasingly took seriously the reality of a Confederate state during the war, rather than the earlier view of the Confederacy as a mere rebellion within the United States.
As Southerners and Northerners increasingly collaborated on the federal government’s Official Report on the war, a curious outcome resulted: the Report incorporated Confederate documents and Southern perspectives to tell a much less damning story about the war.  The resulting document offered a seemingly “neutral,” fact-based accounting of the events of the war, Sternhell argues, which offered little sense of guilt, causation, or accountability.  “The work of managing the confederate records and preparing them for publication… created a documentary basis for the brothers’ war narrative that would shape the nation for decades to come,” she says.  The story of the Federal Archives Bureau and its documentary work on the Civil War offers an interesting and little-known chapter in the bigger story of postwar reconciliation and, indeed, the evolution of historical and documentary practices in the United States.

Jay Gould, strangling commerce and the press with telegraph wires

Richard R. John, "'For the Benefit of the Whole Human Race': The Significance, Memory, and Legacy of the Postal Telegraphy Movement in the Nineteenth Century United States"
A historian who writes on the telegraph, telephone, and postal service, John
has been making the case for years that traditional business history fundamentally misunderstands the role of government in shaping and sustaining private enterprise.  In this paper, he argues that conventional wisdom gets it wrong by supposing that innovative business comes first, and government regulation only comes along after the fact to stifle and constrain the activities of private citizens.  The story of the telegraph is often view as demonstrating Americans’ fundamental preference for leaving communications in private hands, unlike, say, the heavy involvement of the British government in broadcasting (the BBC) or France’s state control of the telegraph.  Historians often assume that inventor Samuel F.B. Morse’s effort to get the federal government to buy his patents and operate the nation’s telegraph network for the public good was a hopeless fool’s errand.  However, as John suggests, public ownership of the telegraph remained a live issue throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth century.  The presumption that Americans always lean toward privatizing such infrastructure is merely the result of an ideological victory, in which defenders of big business established the virtue of “private enterprise” (a term that John argues came into wide use during the battle over Western Union’s telegraph monopoly).  In fact, he pointed out, by far the biggest government agency in the nineteenth century was the postal service, the nation’s premier communication medium, and the Government Printing Office was the biggest publisher of printed material during the same period.

Historians have unfortunately forgotten or overlooked the postal telegraphy movement of the 1860s and 1870s, which sought to incorporate the nation’s telegraph system into the Post Office by buying out private operators (chiefly Western Union).  Attendees at the AHA panel were likely surprised to learn that Ulysses S. Grant supported the idea and a law even passed in 1866 that would allow the federal government to buy up the telegraph lines.  Grant’s postmaster general, John A.J. Creswell, believed that people have a right to “the best and cheapest means of communication and intercourse; no one had the right to extort the public by monopolizing a force of nature,” just like light and air.  Creswell’s words reflect a view that was common in nineteenth century America, which held that the government should foster and even subsidize the freest possible circulation of information within the republic; the Post Office was not, as we assume today, a business that ought to run a profit.  As Paul Starr and others have pointed out, American policy promoted publishing and communication by establishing the postal service and subsidizing the press by providing favorable rates for newspapers (what we now know as “media mail”). Public ownership of the telegraph would have fit into this same policy framework.

As John’s paper made clear, though, the idea of postal telegraphy foundered in the face of machinations by Western Union and the speculator Jay Gould in the 1870s and 1880s.  Americans at the time waged a lively effort to fight monopoly amid a widespread recognition of the threat posed by concentrated economic power, but some began to doubt the value of anti-monopoly legislation.  If anything, some economists argued,
such measures paradoxically strengthened the position of financiers like Gould, who bought and sold industries like it was all a big game.  Appalled by the venality of Gould and the callousness of Vanderbilt (who infamously said, “The public be damned!” when asked about the impact of his business’s actions), later businessmen learned to burnish the image of private enterprise.  They adopted an ethic of public service—most notably Theodore Vail, who justified AT&T’s “natural monopoly” of the phone system by claiming to be committed to a higher motive than profit.  At any rate, the war over control of the telegraph and what it meant for American political culture is a fascinating one, and one hopes that it will become part of a broader history of anti-monopoly thought in the US.
You'd have to be crazy not to like this guy
Yana Skorobogatov, "'The Higher Circles': The Western Intellectual Community and the Campaign for Human Rights in the USSR, 1968–84"

Skorobogatov, a PhD student at the University of Texas, revealed an untold chapter in the history of both Western relations with the Soviet Union and the human rights movement. Focusing on “intellectuals as nonstate actors,” Skorobogatov looks at how members of the intelligentsia in the US and Europe tried to develop a coalition with Soviet dissidents to defend the rights of persecuted intellectuals in the détente era.  In the process, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and professional organizations in the sciences and academia set transnational values above national identity.  Their efforts ran up against predictable resistance from Soviet authorities, who cited a 1932 act banning voluntary organizations as a pretext for suppressing human rights activism among scientists and other scholars.  In response, dissidents argued that they were more like a group of co-authors than a formal organization.
Skorobogatov explained how Western scientists were haunted by the memory of corrupt and abusive science under the Nazis and sought to prevent the same abuses from occurring in the Soviet Union.  They also identified with their counterparts in the USSR, who were increasingly accused of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia in order to incarcerate them under gruesome conditions and silence their dissent.  (Such a maneuver avoided the need for a show trial and successfully impugned the integrity of the deviant scholar by discrediting their most valuable quality—intellect.)  When one accused individual cited the Soviet Constitution to defend his right of free speech, one judge responded with incredulity.  “Who takes Soviet laws seriously?” he said. “You are living in an unreal world.”  (Enough said.)  In response to such abuses, Western scholars decided to employ their “intellectual capital” as a weapon, Skorobogatov said, refusing to participate in or lend their own prestige to important scientific conferences in the Soviet Union.  The efficacy of this tactic is hard to determine on the basis of the talk alone, and at least one audience member raised the question of whether Western scientists worked hard only to defend their “own kind,” as opposed to the many ordinary Soviet citizens who suffered oppression.  In any case, though, this talk offered an intriguing window into the politics of science, international organizations, and human rights, as well as the internal tensions of détente itself.