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Twenty years after he left office, five years after his death, and a year after what is widely regarded as a watershed election that rejected some of it core tenets, the life and times of Ronald Reagan are poised on the cusp of a transition from memory to history. As with Andrew Jackson, with whom he had much in common, one can speak of an"Age of Reagan" that extended beyond his presidency. As with Jackson too, much perception of Reagan among intellectual elites was strongly negative when in power. Both were viewed as willful, but unintelligent, executives who delegated political operations to fierce partisans. Those partisans in turn reputedly manufactured a faux populism embraced by a gullible public even as they set the nation on a potentially ruinous course.
But as with Jackson, a school of Reagan revisionism has emerged. Two new books illustrate the ongoing range of opinion about Reagan -- and the new consensus, recently articulated by figures like journalist Richard Reeves (Ronald Reagan: the Triumph of Imagination, 2005), and Professor Sean Wilentz (The Age of Reagan, 2008) that this was a man to be reckoned with as a statesman and policy maker no less than in the realm of masterful communication.
In a sense, Gil Troy, who writes regularly for HNN, seems ill-suited to write a book with the title The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009). Troy has carved out a space for himself as a latter-day Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in books like Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents (2008). And in fact, the argument of The Reagan Revolution belies its title: according to Troy, there was no Reagan revolution. This is not to say Reagan was an inconsequential president: Troy portrays him as a man who changed the nation's political climate even if he never changed its topography. And one can elaborate on this sentence with a half-dozen like it: Reagan cut taxes, though he never quite managed to rein in spending. He was perceived as hostile to Civil Rights, even as he maintained affirmative action and the nation underwent a demographic transformation. He rattled a saber with the Soviets yet ushered in a post-Cold War world. And so on.
Troy's mastery of his material and ability to condense it elegantly reflect both deep immersion in his subject and an ability to see forest through trees. But its underlying logic engenders a little restlessness. Reagan succeeded because he was at heart a centrist. As Troy makes clear in Leading from the Center, so was FDR. And Abraham Lincoln. And George Washington. One begins to suspect that for Troy, a successful, non-moderate Reagan would be a contradiction in terms. Yet he was more of an ideologue than any of these leaders. (One again thinks of Andrew Jackson and suspects Troy would tame him as well.)
The Reagan Revolution is a new entry in Oxford University Press's marvelous"Very Short Introduction" series, now over 200 (pocket-sized) volumes strong. Like other books in the series, it does not try to provide an unbroken narrative line. Instead, Troy segments its 130 pages into eight chapters, each of which are titled with questions --"Was Reagan a Dummy?";"Did the Democrats Fiddle as the Reaganauts conquered Washington?";"Did the Reagan Revolution Succeed or Fail?" -- and sequenced into an overlapping, but loosely chronological, discussion. This intelligent strategy makes the book very useful for the casual reader as well as highly flexible for classroom use. It's hard to imagine another book serving such a function any better than this.
As it happens, Troy, who teaches at McGill University, is also the editor, along with Vincent J. Cannato of UMass Boston, of Living in the Eighties, an anthology in another Oxford University Press series,"Viewpoints on American Culture." As one might expect, this is a collection notable for the quality of its scholarship and sturdiness of its prose. But the hallmark of the anthology, perhaps not surprisingly, is balance, not only in terms of opinion, but also generations and even professions. On the Right, former Attorney General Edwin Meese makes a cogent brief for Reagan's presidency as an almost unalloyed triumph, while Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution decisively credits Reagan for ending the Cold War. On the Left, heavyweight historians Sara Evans and Bruce Shulman decry the evisceration of feminism and the decline of public space respectively.
In terms of actually advancing the historiography of the Reagan era, the most important essays are a pair of pieces by Joseph Crespino and Kim Phillips-Fein, both of whom gave papers in a notably lively session at the Organization of American Historians Conference in Seattle earlier this year. In that session and these pieces, Crespino and Phillips-Fein and their generational cohort seek to move beyond the argument, crystallized most succinctly in Thomas and Mary Edsall's 1992 book Chain Reaction, that converging resentments of race, rights and taxes explain the success of the neoconservative movement. Crespino suggests the neocon synthesis in the South is much deeper and broader than such a formulation suggests; Phillips-Fein implicitly challenges Troy (who here zeroes in on Reagan's first hundred days to suggest they were the high-water mark of his"revolution") in emphasizing the scope and depth of Reagan's long-term success in shifting the nation's political discourse.
Perhaps the most satisfying pieces in the collection, however, are those that function as tightly focused case studies. Editor Cannato does a nice job in looking at New York mayoral politics and the ambiguous career of Ed Koch. Mark Brilliant of the University of California at Berkeley uses his own institution as a point of departure for tracing subtle shifts in the evolution of multiculturalism in academic life. Music executive and record producer Steve Greenberg's precise yet resonant analysis of racial -- and racist -- currents in the transition from the seventies to the eighties in popular music is rock criticism of the highest order. David Greenberg performs comparable service in tracing currents within liberalism in the eighties, as does Lauren Winner in her analysis of evangelical religion in the years between the Carter and Reagan administrations.
The field of what might be termed"Reagan Studies" is already well established, and there are no doubt graduate students across the country right now struggling to master a large and growing body of work. But these two works together comprise a remarkable sampler of a discourse in motion. It's morning in Reagan studies.
SOURCE: Providence Sunday Journal ()
When Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities came out in 1961, she had already won a few rounds from Robert Moses, the domineering master planner who had been building parks, bridges, tunnels, and highways in New York City for decades. Thanks partly to her skills as journalist, publicist, and community organizer, Moses’ bulldozers had been forced to spare Washington Square Park and other parts of Greenwich Village.
The early ‘60s echoed with calls for change. Michael Harrington sounded the alarm about poverty; Rachel Carson summoned citizens to protect the environment; and Jacobs galvanized people who cared about urban neighborhoods. City dwellers came together to defy “urban renewal,” with its impersonal high-rise housing, large, blank open spaces, and ever-wider and more disruptive highways, and to promote mixed-use, smaller-scale, resident-friendly neighborhoods.
It required courage to take on Robert Moses, arguably the most powerful public official in America (and surely the most powerful unelected one). As depicted here, Moses is the same ogre portrayed 35 years ago in Robert Caro’s monumental The Power Broker. An intimidating figure holding up to a dozen appointed positions simultaneously, he was literally and metaphorically a bulldozer, a master of the fait accompli who moved preemptively and used every bureaucratic trick to thwart opponents.
Anthony Flint, a former Boston Globe reporter now based at Cambridge’s Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, often makes it sound like Jacobs single-handedly kept Moses from paving over the city: he could have called this narrowly-focused biography “St. Jane and the Dragon.” As we follow Jacobs from public hearings to organizing sessions and back again, there is little on why the grass-roots sprouted so quickly, or why movers and shakers such as political boss Carmine DeSapio and rising politicians Ed Koch and John Lindsay signed on.
Flint has few second thoughts about Jacobs’ program. Only in the book’s last chapter—after Jacobs has helped to defeat “LOMEX” (the 10-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway) and then left New York for Toronto--does he begin to confront the ambiguities of Jacobs’ victories, particularly the fact that “gentrification” can push poor people out of neighborhoods just as roughly as bulldozers do.
Nor would one glean from this book that Moses-style urban development was being widely questioned by the late ‘60s, not just in New York, and not just because of Jacobs. Urban unrest and the deterioration of public housing in cities around the country mocked claims that such development built strong communities. Thanks to “induced demand,” highway construction led to more congestion, not less.
Jacobs, inspired to action by the view from her Hudson Street window, was significant, even essential, as she warned that Moses would “Los Angelicize New York.” But the moment had to be right, too. And her triumph, such as it was, was not a final one.
This tale of the espionage -- or perhaps more accurately, attempted espionage-- careers in the 1940s of husband-and-wife American librarians is a subject of very modest importance, especially as its essence appears in books published (both earlier and later than this one) in the Yale University Press volumes on Soviet espionage activities in America by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes (Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America and Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America) --accounts largely identical to each other, down to exact sentence wording, although for the good reason that there ultimately isn’t much “there there,” Klehr and Haynes don’t mention the Keeneys in their summary volume, Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials that Shaped American Politics.
McReynolds, a library historian at Loyola University in New Orleans, researched this book for over 15 years before dying of cancer in 2002 at the age of 52; Louise Robbins, director of the library school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of books and articles on the history of the American Library Association, especially its response to censorship and other politically-sensitive issues, completed the research and the manuscript.
Mary Jane and Philip Keeney met while both were working as librarians at the University of Michigan in 1929, shortly before the stock market crashed. By the mid-1930s, when Philip was head librarian at Montana State University in Missoula, they were both casually involved with leftish political views and movements. In a nationally-publicized 1937 controversy, Philip was fired by Montana State’s new president, apparently due to a mixture of personal antipathies and Philip’s political views, including his attempts to form a faculty union. The Keeneys’ political views became increasingly radical thereafter, but both were able to obtain a variety of federal jobs between 1940 and 1947, were active in several “popular front” groups and socialized with numerous people who were involved in Soviet espionage activities.
According to evidence which the FBI gathered by illegally burglarizing their house, tapping their phone and reading Mary Jane’s diary, both Keeneys had numerous contacts with Russian agents and sought to provide them with information, but they apparently never actually came up with anything. According to the authors, though the Keeneys exerted “considerable effort” seeking to “contribute something of value to the Soviet cause in which they believed . . neither the FBI nor the various [congressional] investigating committees had any evidence of their having given their KGB or GRU [Soviet civilian and military intelligence] handlers anything.” Perhaps this book should probably be re-titled The Librarian Spies Wanna-bees.
Although no evidence of actual espionage was apparently ever uncovered against the Keeneys, they had a long list of acquaintances and political affiliations that were viewed as damning by the authorities, and in 1947 both lost their federal jobs and were denied passports, without being given any specific reasons (which would have revealed the FBI’s illegal activities). Mary Jane was publicly attacked in a 1946 congressional report and was named by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his notorious early 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia (by then, she was working for the United Nations and was soon dismissed and received $6,000 in compensation when U. N. Secretary General Trygve Lie refused to accept a U.N. employee panel recommending her reinstatement).
In 1952, she was indicted for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions before a Senate committee, though later acquitted. The Keeneys eventually founded and ran a cinema club in Washington, D.C. between 1952 and 1958 (which the FBI regularly visited, no doubt to keep up on the latest art films); Philip died in 1962 and Mary Jane passed away in 1969 after retiring from a copy-editing job.
There is little of interest in the book’s central focus. But a few items mentioned, more or less in passing, seem worthy of more investigation: The passive role of the ALA both when Philip was fired in 1937 and when the Keeneys had their troubles with the government during the post-World War II red scare without ever being able to confront the evidence against them; the broader currents involved in the Montana State episode, which occurred at the crest of a national wave of censorship and book banning controversies (see, for example, Shirley and Wayne Wiegand, Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland about the 1940 raid and mass seizure of books at a Communist Party bookstore in Oklahoma, and Rick Wartzman, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath [in 1939 in California]); the reference to Mary Jane Keeney in FBI documents published during the 1949 Judith Coplon trial, which clearly revealed massive FBI illegalities which caused a scandal 25 years later, but which the contemporary mainstream press failed to pursue amidst the growing anti-red hysteria; and the trouble caused the Keeneys by their affiliations with the Washington Bookshop (WB), a vaguely leftish bookstore whose primary sins seem to have been failing to enforce the usual Washington racial segregation practices at numerous cultural events and for daring to include Marxist books in its wide and diverse collection (including some volumes probably purchased primarily by the FBI, which, incidentally, charged me ten cents per page for thousands of pages of photocopies of such books in response to a Freedom of Information Act request about the WB).
Does anyone still care that Walter O'Malley pulled the Dodgers out of Brooklyn in 1957?
You better believe some do...especially people of a certain age and provenance.
Peter O'Malley, Walter's son, cares enough to want to clear his father's name concerning the move. He enlisted a respected author, Michael D'Antonio, to help in the effort. The challenge: to persuade the public and much of the media that O'Malley had no choice but to shift the storied franchise to Los Angeles and, in so doing, consign brokenhearted Brooklynites to the deep minors.
Given access to Walter O's letters and papers, D'Antonio is able to justify the business decision behind the move. O'Malley saw the keys to baseball's profitable future: new stadia, luxury boxes, ample parking, etc. He was ahead of his time. Yet, it wasn't so much what he did that left local Dodger fans bereft; it was what Robert Moses didn't do.
The power game between the ambitious owner and the legendary Power Broker dominates the author's narrative. Simply put, O'Malley wanted land in Brooklyn for a ballpark (plus lots of parking) he would buy at favorable terms. The city would provide infrastructure for the project that would replace outmoded Ebbets Field. Moses said the tract O’Malley wanted for private development wasn't available through condemnation. What Walter could have, Moses said, was a publicly built stadium in Queens. The Queens Dodgers? Out of the question.
“Forever Blue” implies, but D’Antonio never says explicitly, why fans remained unresponsive to the threatened uprooting of the team. If they considered a move to Queens unacceptable, then the idea of the Dodgers playing across the continent from Brooklyn was three-thousand times more unthinkable. The team was embedded in Brooklyn. The match, dating back to the “Trolley Dodgers” at the turn of the century, had a colorful history and, in recent years, a profitable one. The move couldn’t happen.
O’Malley may have scheduled regular-season games in Jersey City to show that he felt Ebbets Field would no longer do. But still the public thought he couldn’t be serious. Moses didn’t care whether Walter O was serious or not. He made clear he had feeling neither for the Dodgers nor their fans. Less clear at the time, but no less certain, was his lack of sympathy for O'Malley, whom he considered a pushy non-insider. In his memoir "Public Works," published a dozen years after “Dem Bums” became Los Angelenos, Moses was dismissive of Walter’s Keep-the-Dodgers-in Brooklyn campaign: he described it as replete with "shenanigans and crocodile tears."
Readers catching up with the history will be puzzled at the outpouring of opprobrium for O'Malley at the time, and the vilification his name still triggers in some quarters. He and most of the baseball world saw his move vindicated when the LA Dodgers, playing in a new dream stadium in the gold-rich West Coast, became a preeminent major-league draw and kept consistently making the post-season, as they did in Brooklyn.
The surface details are well-known. What "Forever Blue" provides is the personal background on the O'Malley side of the story. Walter belonged to a politically connected, upwardly mobile Queens family. His aggressive, wheeler-dealer flair was evident at Culver Military Academy in rural Indiana, then at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia and Fordham Law Schools. The public soon became aware of that flair when he gained control of the Dodgers in 1950, easing Branch Rickey out as general manager.
Under Rickey, the team, fed by a productive farm system that included baseball's first black Jackie Robinson, had earned a pennant-playoff spot in 1946 and won NL titles in '47 and '49. Who was this non-baseball-man O'Malley to get rid of one of the game's bona-fide geniuses? For attentive fans that ousting in '50 was an unforgivable error. Prospects coming up through Rickey's minor league chain - Carl Furillo, Duke Snider, Roberto Clemente (drafted by Pittsburgh), were some of the prominent names along with African-American recruits Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. Those future stars overshadowed fine players like Bruce Edwards, Stan Rojek, Eddie Miksis, and Marvin Rackley, who gave the Dodgers both a solid bench and prime trade material.
D'Antonio points out that Rickey represented a financial burden: his salary and bonus of more than $200,000 was "half the total paid to the entire team and...equal to the salary of the president of the world's largest company, AT&T." O'Malley foresaw in the late forties that money was to become an ever more important factor in a team's fortunes. He felt he could replicate Rickey's success without him, and, defying the skeptics, he did: the Dodgers won -"Rickey-era" aftermath NL pennants in '52, '53, '55 (plus a World Series) and '56. Then teams that were essentially products of the O'Malley regime won pennants in LA in '59, '63, '65, '66, '74, '77, '78, '81 and '88 (the last five under Peter O'Malley, who succeeded his father in the late '60's): nine pennants and five World Series titles in 30 years.
So, Walter O's move was vindicated baseball- as well as business-wise. Why then should the resentment against him persist? "Forever Blue" confirms the convictions of diehard Dodger fans that, despite the many Moses-erected obstacles O'Malley may have tried in vain to overcome, he didn't have to give up on Brooklyn. D'Antonio cites Roger ("Boys of Summer") Kahn as "believ(ing) that with some additional parking facilities the Dodgers could have stayed in Ebbets Field. The stadium would have become a cherished baseball shrine comparable to Fenway Park or Wrigley Field."
Can we blame O'Malley for having bigger game in mind? No. Will we blame him? Some will to their dying day. I confess to having been in the latter category until I read "Forever Blue." I knew the O'Malleys as neighbors in Amityville, Long Island, where they and my family spent their summers. My mother played bridge with Walter’s wife Kay O'Malley, my brother dated Walter and Kay's daughter Terry. Although I never laid eyes on Walter, I could not avoid encountering friendly Kay O'Malley. I wanted to avoid her because she had cancer of the larynx. When she spoke it was in clicks instead of words. I couldn't understand her, didn't have the patience to try. So I would flee in embarrassment at first opportunity.
D'Antonio made an O'Malley-forgiver out of me with these two paragraphs about Kay’s medical crisis in the 1920’s and Walter’s response:
“Radiation would likely leave Kay infertile, and the surgery would render her unable to speak above a faint whisper. That was if she survived the operation and the cancer didn't recur...
“When Kay began treatment, she and Walter were, in their own words 'engaged to be engaged' but had not told their parents that their relationship was so serious. Imagining Walter without children, easy conversation and perhaps prematurely widowed, Kay tried to break it off. When he learned of it, (Walter's father) Edwin O'Malley also raised objections to their romance. Walter wouldn't listen to either of them. Telling Kay 'I'll love you forever,' he saw her through the pain and exhaustion, and the devoted pair adopted Irving Berlin's...'Always' as their song."
As O’Malley remained loyal to Kay for more than 50 years of courtship and marriage, he tried, as “D’Antonio details, to remain loyal to Brooklyn. He might have tried harder and enlisted more public sympathy and support had he not been so essentially a private man. Of course, had we known more about him, this book would not have been needed.
And, for those of us who remember the Dodger move as a dark moment in our lives, that would be too bad. “Forever Blue” confirms that what happened – given the O’Malley/Moses faceoff – was both avoidable and inevitable. In the end, O’Malley did what he felt he had to do. And 52 years later, hard as it is for some to acknowledge, it’s clear he did the sensible thing.
A melodramatic summary of this book could be entitled Revenge of the Liberal Niebuhrians.
Opponents can justifiably complain that it amounts to a conscious effort by remaining elder Niebuhrian eminences -- and some new fellow-travelers -- to secure their mentor's high status in the American canons of liberal intellectual, theological, and political thought. And these Niebuhrians are adept in going about their business.
Since Niebuhr's death in 1971, struggle on two different fronts has raged over his legacy. The ferocity and overlapping nature of the two debates led to quite a murky portrait of the politically-minded theologian.
On the one hand, a tug-of-war has taken place over the ideological nature of Niebuhr's legacy. In order to justify their break with liberal reform, such neo-conservatives as Catholic theorist Michael Novak have invoked Niebuhr's emphasis on original sin, his relentless critique of progressive utopianism, and his Cold War anti-communism.
Liberal Niebuhrians have cried foul -- insisting that, despite his constantly dialectical mind, their mentor did not go and would never have gone over to the conservative side. And they have pointed out that Niebuhr specifically testified to "my strong conviction that a realist conception of human nature should be made the servant of an ethic of progressive justice and should not be made into a bastion of conservatism."
The other front, which brewed for a long time but especially caught fire in the 1990s, was not over how Niebuhr legacy's should be preserved but whether Niebuhr's legacy was worth preserving.
At the end of the decade, during his Gifford Lecture at Scotland's St. Andrews University, the polemically-minded but pacifist Stanley Hauerwas charged that his Gifford Lecture predecessor of 1939 had ended up as little more than a secular establishment toady cloaked in religious garb. And in the field of intellectual history, younger scholar Eugene McCarraher even dismissed Niebuhr's 1930s radical manifesto Moral Man andImmoral Society as a warm-up for his subsequent role as a "pontifex maximus to Cold War liberals."
Liberal and neo-con Niebuhrians united in outrage over the charges that he was hardly a Christian and a minor-league thinker to boot. Nevertheless, as the 21st century began, liberal Niebuhrians seemed rather besieged if not beleaguered by their two-front challenge.
Then as with so many other things big and small, September 11, 2001 changed the intellectual dynamic on Niebuhr's legacy. While the mass-murder terrorist attack on American soil obviously rocked the anti-Niebuhrian pacifist position, soon thereafter the Bush administration's overreach in Iraq discredited the neo-conservative vision of a new global Pax Americana.
In contrast, the liberal Niebuhrian emphasis on avoiding the extremes of anti-statism and the heavy-handed state in foreign as well as domestic policy again seemed like the sensible intellectual position just as during the Cold War era. A renewed wisdom now seemed to reside in such Niebuhr formulations as "man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."
And in 2007, while starting his historic ascent to the presidency, Barack Obama affirmed that Niebuhr was one of his favorite political philosophers. The theologian, according to the presidential candidate, understood that "serious evil in the world" had to be combated but could not be eliminated and thus that reform efforts had to avoid "swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism."
With all that intellectual momentum in the background, the essays in Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited impressively reconstruct his political theology while also providing specific
analyses of his views on such topics as democracy, pacifism, war, foreign policy, and American politics and culture. Although taking occasional side shots at his prominent critics, the contributors mainly glide through explorations and explications of Niebuhr's thought.
The contributors avoid the suggestion that Niebuhr was flawless -- which would be an odd position for followers of a thinker who emphasized all of humanity's imperfection and constantly acknowledged shortcomings in his own thought. Yet they make a pretty impressive case that Niebuhr cannot be fairly embraced or dismissed as a cheerleader for American civil religion, capitalism, or militarism.
A majority of the book's nineteen essays come from theological scholars. But there is a mix of historians and political scientists as well. And the essay of historian David Noble is a clear sign of the changing times in favor of Niebuhr's liberal legacy.
In his 1985 historiographical study The End of History, Noble expressed mild appreciation for Niebuhr's warnings in such works as The Irony of American History (1952) about American blinders in world affairs. Far more vehemently Noble ripped Niebuhr for becoming "a conservative defender of the American status quo." Noble even seemed to agree with New Left historian William Appleman Williams' proclamation that in religious terms Niebuhr amounted to a "heretic."
Yet Noble in his essay here hails President Obama's embrace of Niebuhr and excuses Niebuhr's "uncharacteristically optimistic" attitude in Irony about American capability to accept limits to its power. He ends his contribution by declaring himself "grateful" for the continuance of the Niebuhrian tradition's effort "to teach us all to accept irony and limits so we might avoid the inevitable tragedy that will follow any claim to omnipotence."
Not surprisingly, criticisms of Niebuhr in this collection have a certain air-brushed quality to them. The common technique is to historicize Niebuhr's shortcomings by acknowledging that he was, in Noble's words, "a participant in the culture of his generation." That is the main reason given for Niebuhr's political theology not being sympathetic enough to the plight of the Palestinians (Ronald Stone), too apologetic in defense of religious orthodoxy and too hostile toward critics of organized religion (Henry B. Clark), and too harsh on his liberal Social Gospel elders (Gary Dorrien).
Only theologian Robin Lovin directly acknowledges that Niebuhr actually fell behind the times on such an important issue as civil rights for African-Americans. During the 1950s, Reverend Martin Luther King and his lieutenants found great inspiration in the prophetic call for a strategy of non-violent resistance that Niebuhr made two decades before in Moral Man. But when King asked him to sign a petition to President Eisenhower on behalf of federal enforcement of desegregation in Little Rock's public schools, Niebuhr refused.
On the one hand, as Lovin acknowledges, Niebuhr in the 1950s was overly concerned about white backlash. Yet Niebuhr was also too sensitive to the presidential prospects of Democrat Adlai Stevenson and the danger of alienating the Southern wing of the Democratic coalition.
Niebuhr even criticized Eisenhower for ultimately deciding to send in federal troops to Little Rock. He was not alone among intellectuals -- Hannah Arendt penned an essay in opposition to the federal intervention there. But Niebuhr's position on Little Rock still put him to the right of Republican Eisenhower.
In an inadvertent way, however, the collection as a whole arguably slights Niebhur's legacy by largely stopping with the 1950s. That is understandable because Niebuhr suffered a physically debilitating stroke the year that Irony was published (1952) and his subsequent books do not evidence major changes in his thought.
Yet as historian Mark Hulsether notes in passing, Niebuhr definitely took a "moderate left turn" during the 1960s" in his political journalism and activities. (Contributor Martin Halliwell also emphasized this point a few years ago in his provocative TheConstant Dialogue: Reinhold Niebuhr and American Intellectual Culture but does not repeat it here.)
It appears that the prophetic example of Martin Luther King in particular re-awoke Niebuhr to new openings and possibilities on the political landscape and made him grow less solicitous toward the incrementalism of mainstream statesmen. By 1966 Niebuhr was claiming King to be "the most creative Protestant, white or black." He endorsed King's opposition to the Vietnam War and even dismissed the significance to his differences with King's pacifism. The exasperated conservative theologian Paul Ramsey remarked that "Reinhold Niebuhr signs petitions and editorials as if Reinhold Niebuhr never existed."
Recognition of his movement to recapture the prophetic outsider spirit during the 1960s complicates an already complex Niebuhr legacy. But it makes his legacy even richer than is otherwise expertly laid out in Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited.
Hildegard Goss-Mayr, an Austrian Catholic peace advocate, has led a remarkable life teaching, organizing, and practicing nonviolence since the end of World War II. Little-known but widely influential, her work began in Europe but took her to Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and North America, always involving local struggles for peace, justice, freedom, and reconciliation. This book fills one void and helps fill another: the first is the absence of secondary material available on the career of Hildegard Goss-Mayr; the second is the scarcity of material available on the successful application of nonviolent direct action to the most difficult problems of the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries.
Hildegard Goss-Mayr was born in 1930. Her father, Kaspar Mayr, a German Army veteran of World War I, inspired by a Christian vision of peace, became a pacifist after witnessing the carnage of trench warfare. He worked for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), an ecumenical movement promoting nonviolence, and made the family home in Vienna when IFOR moved its office there to further work on German/Polish reconciliation. The rise of Hitler and Nazi racist ideology forced an end to this work and IFOR moved its office to Paris. Kaspar’s travel documents were confiscated so he and his family stayed in Vienna. He was considered a subversive and the Mayr home was kept under surveillance.
Family politics rubbed off on Hildegard. At twelve she refused to salute the Fuhrer’s passing motorcade when her school class was expected to offer the raised arm and “Heil Hitler!” Years later she remarked, “At the time I didn’t realize its importance, but that experience has marked my life.”
At eighteen Hildegard and her brother attended an International Youth Conference in England, organized by the British FOR, meeting others of their generation from throughout Europe seeking to find their place in the post-war world. She began studies in philosophy, philology, and history at the University of Vienna in 1948 and spent her second year studying democracy at a program for German and Austrian exchange students at Albertus Magnus College in Connecticut. Her academic work was so strong that she wrote a senior thesis as a sophomore. After returning to the University of Vienna she received her doctorate in philosophy with a Gold Medal never before awarded to a woman and presented by the President of Austria.
Given the militarism of the Warsaw Pact/NATO Cold War, Hildegard was convinced that East/West reconciliation was needed more than ever. Following World War II the IFOR office had been reestablished and in 1953 Hildegard was asked to join its staff, providing an opportunity to build on her pacifist heritage. Her early work focused on East/West dialogue grounded in truth, advocacy of nonviolence, reconciliation, and establishing contacts through and among churches, all of which were discounted by the two sides of the Cold War. During this bridge-building work Hildegard met Frenchman Jean Goss in 1954.
Eighteen years Hildegard’s senior, Jean grew up in poverty with four siblings and his mother, his father having abandoned the family. When Hitler rose to power and war engulfed France, Jean became a highly decorated soldier, yet he came to realize that he was not killing Hitler but other ordinary men like himself. This realization led to a mystical experience at Easter, 1940, when Jean received God’s nonviolence in one night and found himself captured by the Germans. He witnessed his pacifist conversion to his fellow prisoners and even his captors.
Eventually, a group of prisoners joined him in trying to practice absolute love. After the war Jean joined the French Fellowship of Reconciliation and eventually became its leader. Along the way of his nonviolent activism, Jean met Hildegard in Paris while she was organizing a gathering of Western European Catholic pacifists. Jean the mystic activist joined forces with Hildegard the scholarly organizer. They married in 1957 and worked together through an IFOR center in Vienna that Hildegard had proposed for East/West work.
Organizing through the church, Hildegard taught nonviolence throughout Eastern Europe and Jean distributed pacifist leaflets, even in Red Square. In ’62 they were involved with US/USSR tensions over Soviet missiles in Cuba. Also in the early ‘60s they were influential in the Second Vatican Council urging East/West dialogue. They were part of a “peace lobby” influencing the Roman Catholic hierarchy to rethink their traditional just war position on the grounds that modern warfare does not discriminate between combatants and innocents, and that atomic, biological, and chemical weapons are immoral. Promoting a gospel of nonviolence, the Goss-Mayrs advocated for Church recognition of conscientious objector status and civil disobedience for Catholics opposed to war.
This led them to working with the Church in Latin America, focusing on the plight of the oppressed and nonviolent liberation. They taught nonviolence throughout South America (Adolpho Perez Esquivel, 1980 Nobel Peace Laureate, learned nonviolence from them), and organized a conference in Colombia in 1974 that gathered sixty-five representatives from twenty-two countries and resulted in the creation of Servicio Paz y Justica, perhaps better known as SERPAJ, the leading Latin American peace coalition. In the late 1970s Archbishop Oscar Romero convinced Hildegard of the importance of an international campaign to pressure Latin American governments, shining a light on injustice and human rights violations.
By the mid ‘80s Hildegard was invited around the world to teach nonviolence and organize nonviolent direct actions. Some of her most lasting and visible work was in the Philippines where she persuaded fifteen Bishops to bear witness to one hundred ten other Bishops on behalf of the gospel of nonviolence. Using the church as the organizational structure, the “people power” movement grew. When President Ferdinand Marcos proposed an election to prove he was not a dictator but had popular support, Corazon Aquino, widow of martyred Senator Benigno Aquino, who had attended Hildegard’s nonviolence seminar, stepped up to challenge Marcos. After Marcos’ agents published false election results, the Minister of Defense and head of armed forces defected and declared allegiance to Aquino, the people rallied in support, and the unarmed forces of the Philippines achieved a nonviolent revolution.
Hildegard then turned to Africa, organizing nonviolent action for liberation from colonial powers throughout the continent. Jean’s unexpected death in 1991 was a severe blow, but inspired by Jean’s life and faith, Hildegard continued their work alone. She continues a schedule of speaking and consulting, now a cherished wise elder of the international peace movement.
Richard Deats, former FOR Executive Director and editor emeritus of Fellowship, has told a fascinating story from an insider’s perspective, making Hildegard Goss-Mayr’s remarkable career available to a wide audience. If the book has a shortcoming it is that the reader is left wanting more about the life and work of this incredible woman. The book includes eight short articles by Hildegard Goss-Mayr, a chronology of her life, and a list of works cited. Recommended for academic and public libraries, for use in courses on social change and nonviolence, and for general readers interested in the peace movement.
When it comes to works of history published for a popular audience -- a phrase hard not to consider a contradiction in terms these days -- it often appears that authors are constantly rehashing the same old stories. The fact that there's very little new information about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Napoleon's invasion of Russia, or Hitler's ascension to power doesn't seem to stop new versions from coming with the regularity new models of toaster ovens or lawn mowers, to cite two comparably dowdy examples of consumer products that manufacturers tweak slightly from time to time but which remain essentially the same.
This sense of repackaging seems all the more inevitable when dealing with ancient history, where primary sources are scarce and truly new findings are scarcer still. Perhaps more than more contemporary history, though, an act of generational translation -- very often the result of fresh literal translation -- leads to new accents of interpretation. A distinguished academic scholar will occasionally synthesize a body of literature in such a way that it compels professional and amateur attention alike, as did Donald Kagan's one-volume distillation of his four-part study The Peloponnesian War (2003). But that book is exceptional, in more ways than one.
John R. Hale was an undergraduate student of Kagan's at Yale, though he's an archeologist, not a historian, and his publication record runs as much toward Scandinavian maritime history as it does the ancient world. In Lords of the Sea, he tells a familiar story of the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire through the relatively novel lens of naval power and its decisive impact on shaping the democratic character of Athenian society in the Golden Age. This is a substantial work of historical scholarship, deeply grounded in its sources and marked by nuances that will likely escape generalist readers. But there are three reasons why it is an appealing book for such readers.
The first is its the scope. Hale begins, as so many accounts do, with the rise of collective Greek power in checking the expansion of the Persian Empire. He vividly evokes the vision of Themistocles, the Athenian visionary who viewed naval power as the key to Athenian ascendancy in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. This naval orientation leads Hale to shave the fabled battle of Marathon in 490 BC (a victory of land-based hoplites) from of his narrative. It also leads him to shift his gaze from the heroics of the Spartan general Leonidas at Thermopylae a decade later (recently mythologized again in the 2007 film 300) to focus more intently on its Athenian naval prologue at Artimesium and the subsequent Athenian naval triumph at Salamis, the battle that sealed Persian defeat. As one would expect, Hale proceeds to sketch out the Periclean Golden Age that followed, as well as the turmoil of the decades-long Peloponnesian War, which occupies much of this 300 page account. Yet Hale does not end his story there, pushing it story forward to chart Athenian revival before the final collapse of its hegemony in the rise of Macedonian power in the last quarter of the fourth century BC. So there's simultaneously something comprehensive, and pleasingly off-center, in the not-quite conventional framing of this history. It's interesting, for example, to see King Phillip of Macedon as an active military strategist with his son Alexander as a relative footnote, rather than the other way around.
The second asset of Lords of the Sea is Hale's palpable enthusiasm and authority on maritime culture in greater ancient Attica. An internationally recognized expert in the field of underwater searches for sunken warships, he describes the evolution of the Greek trireme in such a way that this arcane corner of military history comes to life in descriptive and often graceful prose. Though his detailed accounts of multiple battles can at times grow a little tedious, he's nevertheless able to evoke the role of weather, daylight, and deeply human factors like hubris or anxiety and their often decisive consequences on the course of engagements and wars.
Finally, Lords of the Sea is a notably well published book. Again, part of that is the writing, as in Hale's extended metaphor of the Athenian navy as a mollusk that we know only through its shell ("A living sea creature, all muscle and appetite and growth, generated the glistening shell of inspiring art, literature, and political ideals," he notes in his introduction."Today we admire the shell for its own beauty, but it cannot be fully understood without charting the life cycle of the animal that generated it.") Part of doing so involves great care and acuity in pointing out the role of maritime themes and metaphors in great Athenian dramatists like Euripides and philosophers like Plato. One senses a strong editorial hand behind Hale that is present and welcome. And so are the wealth of documentation, the extensive timeline and glossary, the neatly segmented chapters, and, especially, the wonderful maps and diagrams, done by the unsung Jeffrey Ward, whose work graces so many fine works of history. Having just finished a military history Afghanistan with insufficient and sketchy maps, I was especially appreciative of handsome ones here.
My chief reservation about Lords of the Sea is what I regard as an under-developed analysis of what Athenian democracy actually meant. Hale tends to celebrate it without really engaging its tensions, in particular the relationship between democracy and empire, the way Athenian freedom depended upon the tribute it coerced, even extorted, from vassal states. And it is only late in the book, in seeming admiration of the Athenian decision to deal with the need for more military manpower by expanding citizenship even to slaves, where we begin to implicitly grasp just how narrow the scope of its democracy really was. At the very end of the story, Hale does suggest that old and new client states of Athens did get exasperated with its imperial style, even as critics of democracy (Plato among them) struggled with some success to get the upper hand in Athenian politics. This might have been a theme to wrestle with more directly. Of course, it would be foolish to uncritically measure Athenian democracy by the standards of American democracy (which, as we know, has its own issues regarding an expansive sense of empire and a narrowing sense of citizenship). But it equally foolish to invoke democracy as what made Athens glorious without a clear sense of its limits, much less its alternatives. Lords of the sea are not democrats of the sea.
Still, this is an engaging, useful, volume that's likely to prove durable. Students of ancient history, broadly construed, will find Lords of the Sea to be a pleasurable, and edifying, experience.
With unemployment on the rise, trade unionism in decline, and management continuing to cut the cost of labor, the American worker has come under renewed scrutiny by scholars and journalists seeking to explain his and her condition. Fast disappearing for many, the idea of job security has been superseded by high risk opportunities that often do not yield high rewards. There is. too, worker distress deriving from temporary, contingent, and generally precarious employment. Often the condition of labor is subordinate to larger political or societal goals, such as becoming an Olympic host city or creating a global university.
Using the pre-Reagan era as his benchmark for labor security, Andrew Ross, who chairs New York University’s Department of Social and Cultural Change, argues that “the last three decades of deregulation and privatization have reshaped the geography of livelihoods for almost everyone in the industrialized world, and for a large part of the population in developing countries.” The earlier era of stability was a “lost utopia” recalled with “tall tales indulged by the elderly.” Geographical mobility is nothing new, the author notes, but with globalization it is made complicated by sophisticated competition. In technology industries, “brainpower is now organized on an international basis, with engineers and their knowledge circulating between Silicon Valley and East Asian nodes: Hsinchu, Penang, Singapore, and Shanghai.” Essential to these “creative industries” is intellectual property, the object of fierce competition in an “IP jackpot economy.”
As Ross explains in some detail, the competition for creative thought has been governmental as well as corporate. Its products included a “Creative Britain” campaign and cultural programs in several cities, including Glasgow, Vienna and Rotterdam. Sensitive to the value of cultural nationalism, the Chinese practiced it promoting Hong Kong, Shanghai and the 2008 Olympic Games in Shanghai. With excellent insight into local politics, Ross dissects the failed attempts by New York and London to represent themselves as “global cities” to secure the 2012 Olympics.
What Ross really accomplishes is the placement of labor history on a twenty-first century footing. By concentrating on significant aspects of the contemporary utilization and organization of labor, he resists the temptation to mourn for the past while still recognizing its value. In addition, by calling attention to the contingency nature of much of the labor devoted to such areas as urban planning and promotion and the expansion of higher education at home and abroad, he sheds light on a usually overlooked component of the workforce. In the name of cost-effective flexibility government officials, corporate executives, and university administrators plunge forward to compete and expand.
As Ross explains, they advance their programs highly dependent on those who possess creative intelligence, but it is the welfare of the latter that is often sacrificed. Lest the secure escape his criticism, he also takes tenured academic faculty to task for neglecting to champion improved working conditions for adjunct, part-time instructors and the cause of academic freedom. The latter, he observes, has been “severely curtailed” by “commercial ties with industry funders,” more so than it was by the Pentagon during the Cold War.
As Ross ably demonstrates, the world of insecure contingent labor is a real one, and even the normal state of affairs. Consistent with how Americans in particular view themselves, those who thrive in it are our best citizens. Persons primarily concerned with job security, through civil service employment, for example, are often regarded with disdain, even contempt. As for security itself, through government programs or union contracts, it is of relatively recent vintage, often associated with the New Deal and its successors into the 1960s, but still never the top priority for true economic heroes.
Under the influence of Reaganism, when the prevailing wisdom was that government was the nation’s “problem” and unions impeded progress, Americans permitted public and private “safety nets” to disintegrate. Predisposed to insecurity, and hopeful of receiving rewards for taking risks, workers accepted the new contingency arrangements. In the face of the current recession, it remains to be seen to what degree this acceptance will continue.
Sam Tanenhaus, a senior editor for the New York Times, has written a useful book about modern conservatism and its discontents. It is a short intellectual history tracing the pedigree of ideas that have informed conservative (and liberal) thought over the past couple of centuries focusing mainly on the last fifty years. Tanenhaus breezily sifts through the ideological highlights giving readers a primer on the tenets of conservative thought.
Using snippets from Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, William F. Buckley, Jr., and other icons of the Right, Tanenhaus takes us through the John Birchers, Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and the Gingrich revolution, all the way to Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and the "noisemakers and pyrotechnicians" that dominate conservative talk radio. Tanenhaus fills this slender, lightly sourced volume with well-chosen texts that illuminate the revanchism of the contemporary Right and how far today's conservative movers and shakers have drifted from their true intellectual roots. "Today it is almost taken for granted," Tanenhaus writes, "that the American Right is intrinsically hostile to both governmental and social institutions, seeing in each a purveyor of false values that imperil the 'true America.' " (p. 20) And as a result of adhering to this rigid ideology, in Tanhenhaus's view, "conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology." (p. 7)
Tanenhaus is a brilliant and masterful writer but this venture into intellectual history is not devoid of weaknesses. As is the case with other histories of ideas, Tanenhaus gives his readers disembodied voices plucked from their historical contexts where the nexus of thought and action, theory and praxis is either broken or simply ignored. This tendency is best illustrated when Tanenhaus contrasts the ideas informing the conservative/right and the liberal/left.
One example is his seeming embrace of the Tom Brokawian thesis of 1960s "excesses" leading to the discrediting of the Left. Using a useful metaphor that recurs in the book, Tanenhaus writes: "The liberal sun, even as steadily enlarged, swerved off its consensus course and strayed into the astral wastes of orthodoxy. And the conservative movement, building a coalition of disenchantment and alienated elements of the old Democratic coalition -- blue-collar urban ethnics, Jewish and Catholic intellectuals repelled by the countercultural enthusiasms of the New Left -- shaped a new consensus." (p 66) This observation may be true on the surface but it doesn't explain why or how these "countercultural enthusiasms" developed in the first place.
The African-American civil rights movement touched a sensitive nerve deep in the American psyche that laid bare the contradictions about "freedom" and "equality" that a generation of people had internalized. As the movement matured from its integrationist roots in the South to grapple with the deeper problems of economic inequality in the North (as the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. illuminates) the thoughts and actions of the movement changed and became more radicalized (meaning they focused more on the "root" of the problem). Tanenhaus discusses the "Moynihan Report" on the black family sympathetically without acknowledging that what got Moynihan in trouble was his emphasis on "pathologies" found in the black family and tracing this "sickness" back several generations to slavery. (The historians Herbert Gutman and Eugene Genovese, in very different ways, demolished the sloppy premises of the Moynihan Report years ago.) My point here is that in 1960 if one were to tell John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy that by the end of the decade all three of them would be gunned down and blacks would tear apart 200 cities in rebellious rage they never would have believed you. Their evolving thoughts on the issue of race relations changed through the actions they witnessed and participated in. No countercultural "excesses" there.
Similarly, Tanhenhaus's discussion of the intellectual context of the Vietnam War leaves much to be desired. There were plenty of Americans who felt that their government was guilty of "excesses" by sending 58,000 Americans to their deaths, killing over 2 million Vietnamese, and dropping more tons of bombs on Vietnam than were used by all sides in World War Two. Like the civil rights movement, as the Vietnam War dragged on and became ever more violent and costly it produced a new set of oppositional ideas that arose from the thoughts and actions relating to the movement to end that bloody war. Here Tanhenhaus's argument could have benefited greatly by including at least a few snippets of text from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. They were the two figures of the 1960s that best embodied what Tanenhaus sees as a fusion of Burkian pragmatism and governmental activism to provide for a better society and protect (conserve) what is good about America. The fact that both these men were assassinated only added to the perceived "excesses" of the era. Tanenhaus barely mentions the effects these killings had on Americans in the late 1960s.
Finally, there was also a set of liberal/Left ideas that emerged from the cauldron of thoughts and actions relating to civil rights and the peace movement that comprised a new awakening to injustices by other subaltern groups: Latino farmworkers, women, gays and lesbians. One can argue that once the second wave feminist movement took off in the early 1970s that everything the Left did was "excessive" because it brought politics into the bedroom and the kitchen and the workplace. The conservatives were really just a bunch of reactionaries when it came to the women's movement and especially the LGBT movement -- and continue to be so to this day. No need to turn to Edmund Burke to explain this phenomenon.
Tanenhaus might have also grappled with how Ronald Reagan actually did more damage to modern conservatism than any other figure. I know it sounds counterintuitive but what Reagan did in the 1980s is combine profligate government spending with a 1960s-style hedonism that emphasized getting rich, living in the moment and let the devil take the hindmost; get what you can now and consume like crazy; greed is good. Reagan, like George W. Bush (who was the farce who followed the tragedy), left the country weaker with huge trade imbalances and a battered middle class. There's nothing "conservative" about that.
And then there's the Cold War to which Tanenhaus gives short shrift. The Soviet Union did not threaten U.S. national security in the way the conservatives always claimed. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Libya, etc. were just used as bogey men to scare the public into turning over more of their tax dollars to the military-industrial complex and elect Republicans. The current tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan are the latest examples of this falsehood. If the Pentagon cannot protect the lower 48 then why have a defense department and a permanent war budget? No, the conservatives sold the country a bag of goods about the "Communist threat" and no amount of eloquence from William F. Buckley, Jr. or others can change that fact.
Tanenhaus has written a thought-provoking book that I highly recommend but I believe it is far to early to declare the "death of conservatism." The reason I believe Tenhenhaus's conclusion is terribly premature is that conservatives' ideas don't matter. The only thing that matters is power. And they still have power. They have corporate-backed think tanks; they have corporate-backed astroturf groups; they have their own 24/7 media outlets; they have armies of lobbyists and oodles of campaign cash; and they have foot soldiers from all walks of life dedicated to furthering their cause. They have the legions of anti-abortion activists. They have the NRA. And so on, and on. But above all, their ace in the hole is that conservative ideas serve the most powerful interests in society.
Conservative ideas will continue to percolate to the top and be widely disseminated in our political discourse because they reinforce the status quo. Even today, with the Republicans out of national power and the total failure of the Alan Greenspan/Milton Friedman free-market utopia that is the lifeblood of the conservative movement, we hear calls for deregulation, "free trade," and privatization (and staying in Iraq and Afghanistan forever). Even when the Republicans are a satellite orbiting the majority party in power their ideas resonate because they are the ideas that serve corporate capital (and always will).
As a historian I believe that events will determine whether we've entered a new thirty-year "cycle" of liberal dominance or if we're just witnessing a replay of the early 1990s. There's simply too much unfinished business for the Democratic Party and liberals these days to proclaim the "death of conservatism."
Winkler credits Seeger with understanding the power of song as a collective enterprise to energize the masses and bring about social change. The genius of Seeger, according to Winkler, is not simply the impact of his influential compositions, but rather the ability to pick up his banjo and convince others to join him in song. Thus, Seeger represents the epitome of participatory democracy in his life and music.
“To Everything There Is a Season,” drawing inspiration from the Seeger composition “Turn, Turn, Turn” made famous by the Byrds, traces the life of Seeger from his somewhat privileged New England background through his dedication to the causes of labor, peace, civil rights, and environmentalism. Although accepted into Harvard, Seeger found little about the academic life appealing, but after dropping out of school he found inspiration in the music of common people. Folklorist Alan Lomax introduced Seeger to Woody Guthrie, whom Seeger acknowledged as having the greatest impact upon his musical career. The somewhat puritanical Seeger and the carousing Guthrie made for a somewhat unusual pair, but they formed the Almanac Singers and played a prominent role in CIO organizing efforts.
During the Second World War, Seeger served briefly in the military and married Toshi Ohta, who would become his lifetime companion. Like his pal Guthrie, Seeger had tremendous expectations for the post war world after the defeat of fascism. Seeger formed People’s Songs which he envisioned as forming the nucleus for a singing labor movement. But despite Seeger’s best efforts, People’s Songs did not survive the post war reaction. The folksinger was disappointed that labor and liberals lacked the resolve to combat anticommunism hysteria and abandoned progressive causes such as Henry A. Wallace’s 1948 presidential bid.
But Seeger found commercial success with The Weavers, whose hits included “Good Night, Irene,” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” Writing of The Weavers, Winkler concludes, “Seeger was not building the kind of singing labor movement he had sought earlier, but he and his fellow musicians were making Americans aware of their musical past. With their pleasing harmonies and lively sound, The Weavers were building a new audience ready to ignite a huge folk music revival in the decades ahead” (63). Although Seeger left the Communist Party by the early 1950s, his past associations came back to haunt him. In February 1952, FBI informant Harvey Matusow testified before HUAC about The Weavers’ communist connections. The popular singing group was a victim of the blacklist as concert dates were cancelled, and by December 1952 the group disbanded.
In some ways Seeger welcomed the freedom of no longer having to conform in order to achieve commercial success. After The Weavers, he used his talent for gathering groups to sing by entertaining and teaching in the schools, summer camps, and college campuses. Nevertheless, Seeger was summoned before HUAC in 1955. After challenging the right of the committee to inquire about his personal political beliefs, Seeger was cited for contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. His conviction, however, was overturned on appeal in 1962, and he was able to devote his voice and banjo to the civil rights movement.
The struggle to outlaw Jim Crow in the American South developed simultaneously with a revival of the American folk movement, and Seeger was an influential figure in both of these social movements. Seeger journeyed to the South to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project organized by SNCC, and his rendering of “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the Southern struggle as the folksinger joined Martin Luther King, Jr., on his 1965 Montgomery march. Seeger, however, was uncomfortable with the emergence of black power, and by the mid 1960s, he found a new cause in the growing protest against the Vietnam War.
In 1966, Seeger composed “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” as an allegorical commentary on the foreign policy of President Lyndon Johnson. Due to his political past, Seeger was banned from appearing on television. In 1967, however, he was invited to perform “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. His performance of the song was censored by CBS, setting off a storm of protest which resulted in Seeger’s second appearance on the show. This time his protest song aired to the nation. Nevertheless, The Smothers Brothers show was cancelled, and the war raged on. Seeger was frustrated by the intransigence of Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon, but he kept on singing; leading a half-million war protesters in 1967 at the nation’s capital in the singing of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”
But even before the Vietnam War ended, Seeger was turning his attention to a new crusade. Living along the Hudson River, Seeger was concerned with the industrial waste found in the water. To emphasize the need to clean up the river, Seeger raised money to construct a Hudson River Sloop which he christened Clearwater. The vessel traveled along the river with Seeger and his associates providing concerts to draw attention to cleaning the river and the broader cause of environmentalism. Winkler perceives the Clearwater as a fitting capstone to Seeger’s career, writing, “Mobilizing thousands it helped to set the country on a more responsible course, using the power of song to point the way to a better, cleaner America. As it rolled down the Hudson River, its soaring masts and billowing sails propelling it through the water, it underscored a powerful vision of hope and possibility and natural beauty that transcended difference” (166).
Winkler’s book is obviously a labor of love. Seeger and his wife, Toshi cooperated with the project, sitting for numerous interviews and reading the final manuscript. For Winkler, perhaps the highlight of the project was when Seeger invited him to pick up his guitar and join the banjo player in song; underscoring Winkler’s theme that Seeger should be celebrated for his ability to elicit everyone to participate in the power of song. The book is carefully written by a scholar who identifies with Seeger and his causes. Some conservative critics will likely fault Winkler for not dealing more directly with Seeger’s communist past. In more recent interviews, Seeger acknowledges that he underestimated Joseph Stalin’s capacity for evil deeds, but he refuses to denounce communism, suggesting “communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches made of it” (184). Winkler also comments on Seeger’s admiration for the Vietnamese communist leader, Ho Chi Minh. Those expecting an apology for Seeger’s politics will have to look elsewhere.
Winkler refers to his book as a narrative history rather than a conventional biography. Accordingly, this short volume is unlikely to replace David Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing (originally published in 1990 and revised most recently in 2008) as the standard biography of Seeger, although Winkler suggests that Seeger disagrees somewhat with Dunaway’s efforts to explain Seeger’s motives and thoughts. Dunaway’s extensive interviews with Seeger are available in the American Folkway Center at the Library of Congress and were used by Winkler in his research. At the least, Winkler’s fine book should introduce readers to Seeger and encourage further exploration of Dunaway’s scholarship. But of greater significance is the encouragement that Winkler gives his readers to listen and sing along with Seeger’s music. Bonus benefits with the Winkler book include a preface by folksinger Tom Paxton and a compact disc of ten Seeger tunes.
The title of this novel is a series of interconnected jokes. Given the emphasis on the diversity of womens' experiences central to contemporary feminism,"a short history of women" is tantamount to a contradiction in terms, a self-evident admission of omission typical of the kind that even well-intentioned men, like the cluelessly condescending professor who in 1914 delivers a lecture with this title early in the novel, make all the time. Any attempt to tell the story of women would almost necessarily have to be long, and yet this book is a conspicuously svelte 237 pages. And given the sometimes fierce internecine battles that have raged in the last century, the women it portrays -- relatively wealthy, white, educated Anglo-Saxons -- verge on demographic parody. This sense of self-aware, compressed irony is the hallmark of the novel. And it is deadly serious.
A Short History of Women consists of a series of fifteen vignettes, rendered largely as interior monologues, centering on five generations of an Anglo-American family spanning from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries. The first of these figures, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, dies as a result of a hunger strike in 1918, as the First World War and the suffrage movement come to a climax in Britain. Townsend leaves behind two young children. Her daughter Evelyn (who, given the first-person narration of her segments, is apparently the locus of the story), becomes a successful scientist at Columbia University. Evelyn's brother, Thomas, is sent to San Francisco and ultimately has a daughter, who marries a World War II POW, divorces him after a half-century, and lives long enough to get herself arrested for protesting the Iraq War. The couple has three children, a son who dies in middle age and two daughters, both of whom we hear from. We get a glimpse of the fifth generation of these women in the Yale undergraduate who posts a cheeky Facebook profile that pays homage to her great-great grandmother.
It would be hard to overstate the artistry that goes into the elliptical, yet resonant, narration of these lives. Walbert demonstrates an exceptionally fluid sense of historical consciousness, moving across time with a grace and clarity reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. Even as she does so, she's able to incorporate a variety of other figures, ranging from the husbands, lovers, and companions of these women, as well as a peripheral figure like an African American maid or working-class G.I., with insight and compassion.
And yet there's something dismaying, perhaps even upsetting, about the major characters and the author's ambiguous stance toward them. This is, by and large, a miserable family unable to find fulfillment. (We can have hope for the latest generation, but historical precedent is not promising.) Political emancipation, occupational and educational opportunity, sexual expression, successful child-rearing: if they aren't elusive they aren't satisfying. And the cost of these women's choices are stark and evident to character and reader alike. Is it really acceptable, for example, to kill yourself and leave two children behind in the name of suffrage, because you say you have no choice, as Evelyn does on the opening page of this book? The men in this story are hardly monsters; at least two are notably decent, if perhaps ineffectual (or prematurely dead). If these women can't be happy, who can?
Perhaps Walbert is saying that this really is the history of women: thwarted aspiration. As Evelyn says at one point late in the story,"I often wished for more, or rather, other things, and that was it, wasn't it? The wishing?" These are people haunted by the promise of modernity, the idea that life really can be different, be better, than it currently is. This is true for men, too, of course, but for women only more so."A problem without a name," Evelyn's daughter Dorothy tells her husband, echoing Betty Friedan."It's who we are by God, it's our type, our lot, our cross to --" But she never finishes her sentence because she senses he's not interested. He is, but he's simply not as dissatisfied his life generally (or his marriage specifically) to the extent his wife is. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud's famous question,"What do women want?" The answer is: something else.
For these women, it seems, feminism, like communism, seems to have become a secular god that failed, and a truly transcendent vision of life is impossibly remote, if not retrograde. They lack the gift of faith, and, at the same time, are unable to reliquish their commitment to a sense of choice that finally oppresses them. It's hard to fault them for that, and hard not lose patience with them.
This is especially true because there are plenty of women for whom feminism has been a genuinely liberating force, if not always an unalloyed blessing. It's been instructive in this regard to finish this book and begin reading Gail Collins's forthcoming When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (which I will review as well). Here we encounter some people, at least, who find a measure of contentment with the pursuit of happiness, whether or not it is entirely attained.
I'm very aware in writing this review that I do so as a man who almost surely is demonstrating a kind of obtuseness that is at least lamentable and quite possibly infuriating to the target audience of this novel. In the end, I don't really know what Kate Walbert wants (or whether she knows what she wants, either). But I honor the intelligence and artistry that went into the provocative and troubling novel.
Thulani Davis, journalist, novelist, and now, historian, is a sixth cousin to one of the most important antebellum Presidents, Tennessee’s James K. Polk. At least three of her great grandparents were members of some of the South’s great slaveholding families. One of her great-great uncles, Leonidas Campbell, was a Confederate Army officer and a man who succeeded to the Mississippi State legislature in the wake of his black predecessor’s lynching – on Campbell’s own plantation grounds. Still, it should come as no surprise that Ms. Davis is herself black and at least three of her great-grandparents were slaves. It should come as no surprise because Davis’s very tangled and intertwined ancestry of slaveowners and slaves is not so unusual. Indeed, as her My Confederate Kinfolk argues, such knotted relationships may be characteristic of the histories of millions of Americans today; which means, too, that this history, and its public denial, stand as a cornerstone of American history and of the ongoing problem of race we have in America to this day.
In My Confederate Kinfolk Davis centers her narrative on the life of her maternal great grandmother, Chloe Tarrant Curry, born a slave in 1850, and on the family of her maternal great grandfather, William Argyle Campbell, born in 1852 as the youngest son of a prominent slaveowning family. Chloe and Will began living together in the mid- to late-1870s, had a child, Georgia, Davis’s maternal grandmother, in 1878, and remained together until the time of Will’s death in 1902. Through the telling of the Curry and Campbell family story lines Davis seeks to reframe a popular understanding of American history, emphasize the centrality of the African American story and the power of African American culture to American history, and debunk the romanticism of a lost Southern civilization.
In accord with her book’s title, Davis spends the greater part of her book in tracing the lives of her Confederate kinfolk, that is, the white side of her family. In part, this may be because the documentary record is so much better for her white family: letters, diaries, property and court records, even county histories, offer Davis abundant sources for telling this side of her family history. But I also suspect that Davis puts the effort into researching this history precisely because these people – whatever they did with their lives, whatever racial animus they held, however much or little they took for granted the privileges accruing to them from their ownership over other human beings – these people were, nonetheless, family. And this is the first thing that Davis wants us to understand.
She puts considerable effort, for example, into following the lives of three Campbell women: her great-great grandmother, Louisa Terrill Cheairs Campbell; her great- great Aunt, Will’s sister, Sarah Rush Owen; and a cousin, Louisa Cheairs, “Lulu.” If I’m not mistaken, Davis finds something admirable in each of these women, despite their evident racial prejudices. Quite clearly, all three are strong women. Her great- great grandmother, for example, illegally and repeatedly crossed Union lines to bring medicines and materials to her Confederate uniformed sons, much of the time keeping a pair of grandchildren in tow. Early in the war, when she was compelled to host a dinner for Union officers in her Springfield, Missouri home, she was asked by a general whether she wished the Union forces success. “I am a Southern woman,” she replied. “And you have sons in the Confederacy?” he asked. “Four… and I wish they were fifty and I were leading them’ ” . Davis wants us to know that when we look at millions of African American people in this country we need to see a people shaped, not only genetically, but culturally, as the descendants of slaves and of slaveowners. Indeed, we see a people who, perhaps more than any other people, are quintessentially “American.”
Notwithstanding the energy Davis devotes to depicting her white relations My Confederate Kinfolk’s most important character is Chloe Tarrant Curry, Davis’s African American great grandmother. And she is important to Davis not because she represents the African American side of Davis’s family, but because she is incomparably strong and large of spirit. On her husband Will’s death in 1902 Chloe inherited the Campbell land, and successfully defended this inheritance against Will’s sister’s legal challenge, and this, in Mississippi at the nadir of African American life in the United States. Chloe became the matron of the extended Tarrant family, a woman, who, although she remained illiterate her entire life, funded the education of any Tarrant child willing to put in the effort.
Born in Alabama Chloe was still a teenager at the close of the Civil War. To help understand her great grandmother’s Alabama years, Davis draws on the journals of a Union Army chaplain, Elijah Edwards. Edwards had arrived in Selma, Alabama, twenty-odd miles from the Marion plantation where Chloe had been living, during the closing days of the war. From Edwards we get a powerful picture of what these days must have been like for Chloe and other African Americans at the time:
Soon as it was definitely known that Lee had surrendered the murder of negroes commenced. It seems as if the defeated could by turning upon the unhappy cause of all their reverses and shooting them in this way revenge themselves and keep up their feeling of superiority. The negroes have been shot down at sight in some neighborhoods. The policy of their murderers is to kill them since they cannot retain them as slaves .
Two months later, Edwards’s journal reports more of the same: “They still shoot Negroes and try to force others to work on their plantations asserting that there has never been any emancipation proclamation…. There is a class down here radically contumacious and barbarous .”
Chloe must have experienced this “radically contumacious and barbarous” class of landowners as a 15 year old. At 18 she married a former slave two years her senior, James Curry, and the two worked for a number of years as domestic servants, probably in the household of Chloe’s former masters, the Tarrants. In any case we definitely know that the two set off for Yazoo County, Mississippi in 1875, leaving four children in Alabama. Again, in the absence of evidence Davis can only speculate here as to the Currys’ motives. But one reasonable explanation is that as late as 1875 Mississippi was a better place for African American people than was Alabama, given the short-lived experiment in Reconstruction in Alabama, and the continued life of Reconstruction in Mississippi.
In Mississippi, Davis draws on Albert Morgan’s writings to depict Chloe’s environment. Morgan was himself an exceptional individual, a Union Army officer who stayed in the South after the Civil War, set up a plantation in Yazoo County, and hired free black labor to work his plantation. Treating these workers with dignity earned him the enmity of the region’s white landowners and the respect of the area’s black population. Because of the local landowners’ hatred Morgan was forced off the plantation he was renting and he became a leader of the Republican Party in Mississippi, serving in a variety of official capacities in the state. Davis’s book reminds us that men like Morgan, and Edwards, were the now forgotten honorable exceptions to white violence in the post-Civil War South. After Reconstruction’s defeat in Mississippi, Morgan would author a powerful account of his years in Mississippi: Yazoo; or On the Picket Line of Freedom in the South.
Morgan’s story is the story of the prolonged struggle over Reconstruction in Mississippi, and of its ultimate overthrow. Backed by the power of the Federal Government, Republicans in Mississippi had won four successive elections, largely with black votes. But Mississippi whites, with the former slaveowners in the lead, determined on resistance. Here we see in Morgan’s words what Chloe must have seen in Yazoo County, Mississippi: the white South’s refusal to accept the Civil War’s verdict. According to Morgan,
The greatest minds in the state, on the ‘superior side of the line,’ were gravely debating the question, which would be the wiser policy for the white man, emigration and the abandonment of the State to the negro, or a general rearming of the white race with the purpose of checking by force the ‘threatened supremacy’ of the negro race. To such persons these were the only alternatives .
In uncovering Chloe’s story, then, Davis must excavate a buried part of American history: the hatred, brutality, and violence that white Southerners used to destroy black rights following the Civil War. From Morgan, Davis learns for the first time of the organized planning that white Southerners, landowners first of all, put into overthrowing Mississippi’s Reconstruction government. In Yazoo, white leaders openly published their plans for overthrowing black rights during the election of 1875. Thus, Chloe and her husband, James Curry, arrived in Yazoo at the very moment that the Democrats were beginning their ultimately successful destruction of black rights.
But from Morgan, Davis gleans still more important information: the tremendous dignity and courage of Mississippi’s African American population. Morgan, writes Davis, “saw in those he met what I see in my great grandmother: energy, determination, incredible endurance, and ambition” . Davis especially brings these qualities to bear in the climax to My Confederate Kinfolk. Will Campbell had willed his estate to Chloe, and Will’s sister, Sarah Rush Owen, apparently sued Chloe to reclaim the property. Having lost the court battle – a white woman losing a law suit to a black woman in Mississippi in 1902! – Rush Owen bitterly penned a letter to Chloe’s attorneys challenging the illiterate black woman’s ability to retain the already debt encumbered estate. But, as Davis argues, this was “one contest in which the formidable Sarah was outmatched.” Says Davis:
If all Chloe had to do was stay there and raise cotton and pay those debts, Sarah would be waiting a very long time for Chloe to be crushed under the weight of it and repent, or pray for death, or whatever wish Sarah was trying to articulate in her letter…. As [Chloe’s daughter] Georgia wrote, work ‘was all that had confronted … [Chloe] all of her life.’ ….
That first harvest, whether 100 bales or 600, was an incredible victory over slavery, starvation, the loss of loved ones, and the terrible odds against many. It was a triumph for the bond between Chloe and Will and the promises people make to live on, to keep going what has been built, and to take care of those who need help. It’s the victory we have when we get another day to do the work that is ours to do, when we are allowed by good fortune to press body, mind, and soul to the a task we have actually chosen. Chosen, not by force of a whip, but by our own determination to win another day [267-268].
Davis’s book, in short, is a moving testimonial to the African American spirit. At the same time Davis’s choice of title, My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Confronts Her Roots, underlines the incredible truth that American history is very much a family’s story, a family in which one part disowns, enslaves, and tramples upon the rights of the other part. And in the use of the term “freedwoman” to describe herself, Davis reminds us of one further truth: the history she recounts is far from over. Those of us wishing better to understand this history would do well to read Davis’s book.