In the cartoons, an astonished character will at times need to grab his eyeballs as they come flying out of his head. Something like that happened to me a few months ago while going through the fall catalog of Columbia University Press. Buried deep in its pages – well behind all the exciting, glamorous titles at the bleeding edge of scholarship – was the listing for Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy by Richard D. Kahlenberg. (It has just appeared in hardback.)
This was a title one might reasonably expect to see issued by a commercial publisher: Shanker, who died in 1997, was for many years the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which he helped build into one of the strongest unions in the AFL-CIO. It now has more than a million members, including about 160,000 who work in higher education; even if only one in a hundred were interested in the union’s history, that is quite a potential audience.
At the same time, it was a surprise to find the book published by a press better known for titles in cultural theory: works embodying a certain abstract radicalism, several miles in stratosphere above the labor movement. And Shanker, besides being a union bureaucrat, was something of a hardboiled ideologue – a fierce Cold Warrior, but no less ardent a Culture Warrior, denouncing both affirmative action and multiculturalism in tones that were, let’s say, emphatic.
Such “tough liberalism,” as his biographer calls it, made the labor leader a punchline in Woody Allen’s post-apocalyptic comedy "Sleeper" (1973). A character explains that no one is quite sure how civilization ended, but historians think it all started when “a man named Albert Shanker got his hands on an atomic bomb.”
A lot has changed since the days when a new movie by Woody Allen was a major event. And in any case, no labor leader has emerged in recent decades with quite the cultural and political profile that Shanker once had. Yet his name still has the power to provoke. There are Shankerites and anti-Shankerites.
Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington, DC, admires Shanker and gives him the benefit of the doubt, more often than not. That tendency comes through, I think, in the IHE podcast we recently recorded. But Kahlenberg is not totally uncritical of Shanker. As we talked following the taping, Kahlenberg mentioned the passions stirred up by the leader's memory.
Some followers remain convinced that “Al” was right about more or less everything -- including the Vietnam War, which Shanker supported. Kahlenberg also looked into charges by Shanker's opponents that he received funds as part of the American intelligence community’s activity within the labor movement.
That accusation is hardly a surprising or implausible. All things considered, it would be surprising if Shanker were not connected with "the AFL-CIA” (as certain networks within the intelligence and labor communities were sometimes called). But Kahlenberg says critics haven’t offered solid evidence to back up the accusation. There is a difference between firm conviction and real proof. This is a matter some historian will eventually need to revisit, nailing things down with serious documentation.
Tough Liberal is not the first book about Shanker. But the previous volume, Dickson A. Mungazi’s Where He Stands: Albert Shanker and the American Federation of Teachers, published by Praeger in 1995, was not really a biography. Nor was it much of a contribution to labor history, given that Mungazi identifies Samuel Gompers (who died in 1924) as the first president of the CIO (established in 1935).
So Kahlenberg has made a real contribution by telling the story of this charismatic and/or megalomaniacal labor leader’s career. I say that as a reader who did not pick up the biography with any admiration for its subject – nor put it down converted to Shanker-style “toughness.” (Actually it made me think maybe Woody Allen was right.) But it’s an engaging book, and essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Cold War liberalism and its complicated legacy.
Further reading (and listening): An excerpt from Tough Liberal is available at Columbia UP's website. An early review of it appears in the latest issue of Washington Monthly. An extremely favorable treatment of the biography and of Shanker himself has recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal. For something altogether less laudatory, see the essay appearing ten years ago in the socialist journal New Politics. And by all means, lend an ear to the interview with Richard Kahlenberg, available as an IHE podcast.
Not all Islamophobes are fanatics. Most, on the contrary, are decent people who just want to live in peace. Islamophobia forms only part of their identity. They grew up fearing Islam, and they still worry about it from time to time, especially during holidays and on certain anniversaries; but many would confess to doubt about just how Islamophobic they feel deep down inside. They may find themselves wondering, for example, if the Koran is really that much more bloodthirsty than the Jewish scriptures (Joshua 6 is plenty murderous) or the Christian (Matthew 10:34 is not exactly comforting).
Unfortunately a handful of troublemakers thrive among them, parasitically. They spew out hatred through Web sites. They seek to silence their critics, and to recruit impressionable young people. Perhaps it is unfair to confuse matters through calling the moderates and the militants by the same name. It would be more fitting to say that the latter are really Islamophobofascists.
Some might find the expression offensive. That is too bad. If we don’t resist Islamophobofascism now, its intolerance can only spread. And we all know who benefits from that. One name in particular comes to mind. It belongs to a fellow who is now presumably living in a cave, drawing up long-term plans for a clash of civilizations.....
Maybe I had better trim the satirical sails before going totally out to sea. As neologisms go, “Islamophobofascism” probably sounds even more stupid than the term it mocks. But there is a point to it.
“Islamofascism” is a noxious and counterproductive term -- a bludgeon disguised as an idea. Its use comes at a cost, even beyond the obvious one that goes with making people dumber. “Islamofascism” is the preferred term of those who don’t see any distinction between Al Qaeda, the Iranian mullahs, and the Baathists. Guess what? They are different, which might just have been worth understanding a few years ago. (Better late than never, maybe; but not a whole lot better.)
The more serious consequence, over the long term, is that of offering deliberate insult to those Muslims who would be put to the sword under the reign of Jihadi fundamentalists. Disgust for cheap stunts done in the name of “Islamofascism awareness” is not a matter of doubting that the jihadis mean what they say. On the contrary, it goes with taking them seriously as enemies.
It should not be necessary to qualify that last point. Somebody who wants to kill you is your enemy, whether you care to think in such terms or not; and the followers of Bin Laden, while subtle on some matters, have a least not been shy about letting us know what methods they consider permissible in pursuit of their ends. The jihadis mean it. Recognizing this is not a matter of Islamophobia; it is a matter of paying attention.
And paying attention means, in this case, recognizing that most Muslims are not our enemies. It is disgraceful to have to spell that out. But let’s be clear about something: The jihadis are not our only problem. As anyone from abroad who likes and respects Americans will probably tell you, we tend to be our own worst enemy.
There is a strain of nativism, xenophobia, and small-mindedness in American life that is always there -- often subdued, but never too far out of earshot. To call this our fascist streak would be absurdly melodramatic. Fascism proper was, above all, purposeful and orderly, while fear and loathing towards the “un-American” is often enough the woolliest form of baffled resentment: the effect of comfortable ignorance turning sour at any demand on its meager resources of attention and sympathy.
This quality can subsist for long periods in a dormant or distracted state -- expressing itself in muttering or small-scale acts of hostility, but nothing large-scale. Perhaps it is restrained by the better angels of our nature.
But it means that the unscrupulous and the obtuse have a ready supply of raw material to mold into something vile when the occasion becomes available, or if there is some profit in it. H.L. Mencken explained that a demagogue is “one who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots." The problem with this definition, of course, is that it is the product of a simpler era and so not nearly cynical enough. For a demagogue now, truth and knowledge have nothing to do with it.
For the really suave expression of Islamophobofascism, however, no local sideshow can compete with an interview that the British novelist Martin Amis gave last year. At the highest stages of cosmopolitan literary influence, it seems, one may express ideas worthy of a manic loon phoning a radio talk-show and get them published in the London Times.
“There’s a definite urge -- don’t you have it? -- to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order,’ ” Amis said. “What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation -- further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.”
The cultural theorist Terry Eagleton issued a response to Amis in the preface to a new edition of his book “Ideology: An Introduction” -- first published in 1991 by Verso, which reissued it a few weeks ago. It stirred up a tiny tempest in the British press, which reduced the argument to the dimensions of a clash between two “bad boys” (albeit ones grown quite long in the tooth).
Quickly mounting to impressive heights of inanity, the coverage and commentary managed somehow to ignore the actual substance of the dispute: what Amis said (his explicit call to persecute all Muslims until they acted right) and how Eagleton responded.
“Joseph Stalin seems not to be Amis’s favorite historical character,” wrote Eagleton, alluding to the novelist’s Koba the Dread, a venture into Soviet political history published a while back. “Yet there is a good dose of Stalinism in the current right-wing notion that a spot of rough stuff may be justified by the end in view. Not just roughing up actual or intending criminals, mind, but the calculated harassment of a whole population. Amis is not recommending such tactics for criminals or suspects only; he is recommending them as a way of humiliating and insulting certain kinds of men and women at random, so they will return home and teach their children to be nice to the White Man. There seems to be something mildly defective about this logic.”
Eagleton’s introduction doesn’t underestimate the virulence of the jihadists. But his remarks do at least have the good sense to acknowledge that humiliation is a weapon that will not work in the long run. (As an aside, let me note that some of us don't have the luxury of either ignoring terrorism or regarding it as something that will be abated by a more aggressive posture in the world. Life in Washington, D.C., for the past several years has meant rarely getting on the subway without wondering if this might be the day. The "surge" did not reduce the faint background radiation of dread one little bit. Funny how these thing work out, or don't.)
Anybody with an ounce of brains and responsibility can tell that fostering an environment of hysteria is useful only to one side of this conflict.“The best way to preserve one’s values,” writes Eagleton, “is to practice them.” Well said; and worth keeping in mind whenever the Islamophobofascists start to rush about, trying to drum up some business.
We shouldn't regard them as just nuisances. They are something much more dangerous. Determined to turn the whole world against us, they act as sleeper cells of malice and stupidity. There are sober ways to respond to danger, and insane ways. It is the demagogue’s stock in trade to blur the distinction.
The United States does not torture. We have been told as much by the president, and more than once, in terms that are clear, forceful, unqualified. Even (so one must surmise) categorical. If the United States permits an interrogation technique, then it cannot be torture. Q.E.D.!
And so it is very disagreeable to have to quote statements such as the following: "Waterboarding is a torture technique that has its history rooted in the Spanish Inquisition. In 1947, the U.S. prosecuted a Japanese military officer for carrying out a form of waterboarding on a U.S. civilian during World War II. Waterboarding inflicts on its victims the terror of imminent death. And as with all torture techniques, it is, therefore, an inherently flawed method for gaining reliable information."
The nattering nabob of negativism in this case happens to be writing in Armed Forces Journal, which might be described as something like a trade journal for the U.S. military. One notes that the comment, published recently, is framed not in moral terms, but strictly with reference to torture's failure to meet the industry's needs: "In short, it doesn’t work. That blunt truth means all U.S. leaders, present and future, should be clear on the issue."
Well, it's a little late for that now, of course. Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh, both of the American Civil Liberties Union, have recently edited a volume called Administration of Torture: A Documentary History from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond (Columbia University Press) that collects government memoranda from 2002 through 2005. They were selected from more than 100,000 pages of material released under the Freedom of Information, though only after litigation.
They add up to an account of how official talk of the "New Paradigm" after 9/11 led American forces to condone acts that would be would be be called torture if anyone else in the world did them. Perhaps we shouldn't get into semantics. But then again, even the expression "New Paradigm" seems a bit evasive. While John Milton was a bit inconsistent as a libertarian, Paradise Lost offers a plainspoken gloss on the thinking reflected in the documents gathered in the Columbia volume:
So spake the Fiend, and with necessitie, The Tyrants plea, excus'd his devilish deeds.
Jameel Jaffer, one of the editors of Administration of Torture, answered a few questions by e-mail. A transcript of the exchange follows.
Q:Your introduction states that the prohibition of torture is "jus cogens." A puzzled layman turning to The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations discovers that this term "refers to a body of principles or norms in international law which override and supercede others" -- such that no treaty, for example, can be in violation of it. Piracy and genocide are prohibited by the same terms. But according to the same dictionary's account, "the precise application of jus cogens is not universally agreed upon."
Does international law include a clear, sharp definition of the criteria for torture? A line where it is distinguished from the kind of vigorous and disagreeable questioning of enemy combatants that is bound to happen during wartime? Or is this a matter in which "the precise application of jus cogens is not universally agreed upon"?
A: Everyone, including the Bush administration, agrees that the law prohibits torture. Torture is proscribed by the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. It is also proscribed by the U.S. torture statute and the U.S. war crimes statute. I don't think anyone seriously argues that torture is anything other than a jus cogens norm. A problem arose in 2002, though, because the Office of Legal Counsel issued legal opinions that defined torture exceedingly narrowly -- vanishingly narrowly, in fact.
The OLC's unconscionably narrow definition of torture allowed the Bush administration to adopt interrogation methods that went far beyond those that had previously been considered acceptable. It's important to recognize, though, that the dispute was not over whether torture was illegal; it was over what kinds of methods would constitute torture. The U.S. torture statute defines torture to mean any act "specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering."
What the OLC did in 2002 was to decide that methods like forcing prisoners into stress positions, waterboarding them, confining them in freezing cold cells, etc. didn't amount to torture. It concluded, absurdly, that an interrogation method would amount to torture only if it caused pain equivalent to that caused by organ failure or death. And it made the argument that even if interrogators engaged in torture, they couldn't be held criminally liable if they were acting under the president's authority as commander in chief.
It's worth pointing out that the Geneva Conventions proscribe not just torture but also cruel, inhuman, and degrading (CID) treatment. In 2002, though, the Bush administration took the position that al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners weren't protected by the Geneva Conventions -- not even by the most basic protections enshrined in "Common Article 3." Ultimately Congress enacted new statutes to make even clearer that CID was illegal. The Bush administration then did for "CID" what it had previously done for "torture": it just redefined the phrase so that the phrase wouldn't encompass the interrogation methods that it wanted to use. We're in court now arguing that the OLC's 2005 memos about CID should be released to the public.
Q: Some of the bureaucratic crosstalk among these documents can be a challenge to keep straight. There are exchanges among the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Other material here quite unambiguously documents inhumane and even lethal treatment of prisoners. Most of that testimony seems to have been gathered in 2004 and '05, following the outcry over Abu Ghraib.
Do earlier documents show that reports of such treatment went up the chain of command? Or did things operate on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis, so to speak?
A: One of the most useful sets of records we obtained through the FOIA came from the FBI. The records I'm thinking of are e-mails and memos written by FBI agents who were stationed at Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003. The e-mails and memos document the agents' concerns with the harsh methods that were then being used by military interrogators. Towards the end of 2002, FBI agents began to express these concerns to their superiors, and on several occasions representatives of the FBI met with General Geoffrey Miller (who was then the commander of the military base at Guantanamo) to convey their concerns to him.
But the problem was not that military interrogators were exceeding the authority they had been given. The problem was that they were exercising the authority they had been given. They had been authorized to hold prisoners in stress positions, deprive them of light and auditory stimuli, strip them naked, isolate them for weeks at a time, and use military dogs to terrorize them. When military interrogators used those methods against prisoners, they weren't inventing the methods ad hoc. The methods had been approved by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.
Q: Your Freedom of Information Act request (and subsequent litigation) led to the release of more than 100,000 pages of material. It sounds like this might be the tip of the iceberg. Two years ago the CIA destroyed videotapes of the interrogation of Al Qaeda figures, and recordings of the questioning of Jose Padilla have been "lost."
How much do you know about the kinds of material you are being denied access to? Are you aware of documentation that may already have gone down the memory hole?
A: Donald Rumsfeld famously distinguished between the "known unknowns" and the "unknown unknowns". Here, the known unknowns -- the records we know that the government is withholding -- include photographs of prisoner abuse at facilities other than Abu Ghraib; a September 2001 Presidential directive that authorized the CIA to set up a system of secret prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere; and an August 2002 Justice Department memorandum that advised the CIA about the legality of waterboarding and other extreme interrogation methods.
We learned several weeks ago that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel is withholding three legal memos, all written in May of 2005, that narrowly construe the laws against cruel treatment and contend, wrongly, that waterboarding and other extreme methods can be used without offending those laws. When we learn of documents like the May 2005 memos, it's difficult not to wonder what else is still out there -- what unknown unknowns will come to light tomorrow.
Q: You write: "Senior administration officials, perhaps emboldened by Congress's failure to conduct any serious inquiry into past abuse, continue to violate domestic and international law." This volume reads like a dossier for a trial in the Hague. Suppose that did come to pass. Who would end up in the dock? Who is most culpable? (We're speaking hypothetically, here, of course, since that outcome does seem unlikely.)
A: I think any investigation would have to look at the very highest levels of the Bush administration. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (who later became Attorney General) wrote legal memos that were intended to allow interrogators to use inhumane methods and to insulate interrogators -- and officials -- from war crimes charges. John Yoo, a lawyer for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, wrote legal memoranda that allowed the use of torture. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld authorized interrogators to use inhumane methods at Guantanamo, and Lieut. General Ricardo Sanchez authorized interrogators to use similar methods in Iraq. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller supervised the use of inhumane methods at Guantanamo and oversaw the "Gitmo-ization" of Abu Ghraib.
And it was President Bush, of course, who directed the CIA to set up secret detention centers abroad, allowed the CIA and Defense Department to adopt methods that in some cases amounted to torture, and said that al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners should be treated humanely only to the extent consistent with "military necessity." All the available evidence suggests that principal responsibility for the abuse and torture of prisoners belongs not to small groups of "rogue soldiers" but to senior officials in the Bush administration.
As has become the annual tradition, the American Historical Association is out with its report lauding the health of the academic job market in history. The report, culled exclusively from job listings in Perspectives (an AHA publication) and Ph.D. completion statistics reported by history departments, shows that there are more available positions than there are historians produced. Other disciplines issue similar reports. While the AHA report may be viewed favorably by some such as scholars in Asian history, the most underpopulated field for historians, for others it reflects a general lack of concern from the association for the untenured and the graduate student. And the problems discussed here apply to many other disciplines as well.
As a national organization and the most powerful entity in the historical job market, the AHA has done surprisingly little to help the newest members of their profession. On the whole, historians pride themselves on their concern for social justice. In 2005, for example, the Organization of American Historians uprooted its annual conference and moved it to another city in a show of solidarity with hotel workers. When it comes to the plight of the discipline’s own working class, the unemployed job seeker, this compassion and concern is absent. In its place is an annual report from the AHA talking about how good it is for some. For others, there isn’t much the AHA can do. I find this lack of action, especially when compared to what is normally shown for the less fortunate, disheartening.
While the AHA can do nothing to overcome the dearth of tenure-track positions (which is a reality that deans, trustees, and legislators control), the association has a great deal of control over two things: job market statistics and the interview process. These areas, which some might say are of secondary concern, have made the job search a very inhospitable place. For one, the association could conduct a statistically sound study of the job market based on an actual survey of departments and job seekers. Drawing attention to the total number of jobs and the number of Ph.D.’s produced in the past year overlooks the fact that visiting faculty and independent scholars are also on the market. A more thorough census would provide better information to AHA members and possibly even a snapshot of many other employment concerns, including how the positions stack up in terms of pay, tenure-track status, and other key factors.
More importantly, the organization could do a number of things to reform the poorly designed hiring process that leaves applicants floating in a limbo of uncertainty throughout much of November and December. The lack of communication between search committees and job seekers is so common that it is now taken for granted along with death and taxes. Job applicants no longer expect any professional courtesy. While this results in a good bit of anxiety for anyone on the market, it can also lead to undue financial hardships that could easily be avoided. As a former editor of the H-Grad listserv and one currently searching for a tenure-track position, I can safely say that these concerns are pressing on the mind of most applicants.
The key to these job market reforms is the AHA itself. As the group most vested in the hiring process, it has done little to actively rectify some of the more egregious concerns with the job market. I have compiled a short list of changes that could be adopted with one vote at a business meeting. And most of these changes would benefit not just the AHA, but other disciplinary associations, especially in the humanities, where good, tenure-track jobs are not widely available. While this will absolutely not correct the disparity between job seekers and open positions, it will go a long way towards making the process a more fair and equitable institution.
1. Take a more accurate census of the job-seeking population annually. There is a glut of history Ph.D.'s. Everyone knows this. Yet for the past three years, the AHA has been trumpeting the idea that the job market is improving based solely on data that have no correlation with the actual situation. The AHA, like other associations, bases its data on job applicants solely on the number of new Ph.D.’s, ignoring the fact that so many of the past few years’ new doctorates remain either unemployed or in temporary positions, off the tenure track and with low pay and benefits. By only counting the new Ph.D.’s, the figures for job-seekers are significantly lower than they should be. The research being produced by the AHA needs to be more accurate so as to guide job applicants and graduate students as to their chances of finding a position. Since candidates who utilize the AHA Job Register at the annual meeting have to be registered as a meeting attendee, the AHA should include a census form with the conference registration. Questions such as "Are you a job seeker?," "What is your area of specialty?," "Have you ever had a tenure-track position?" and “How many years have you been on the job market?” would give a more accurate picture of just how truly dire the job market is. A follow-up survey every April would round out the study and enable applicants to assess their position in the market for the following fall. Job seekers could then make career choices based on tangible facts, rather than hearsay and propaganda.
2. Make the Job Register service a privilege that has to be earned. The AHA has a good deal of influence on the job market but has yet to utilize it in any significant way. Since most tenure-track positions are advertised in the AHA Perspectives and interviews are conducted at the AHA annual meeting, the AHA should mandate certain conditions that must be met before interviewing and advertising space is sold. If those conditions are not met, the AHA should deny departments the right to use their facilities and their ad space, thus adding substantial cost to the interviewing institutions. University HR departments and academic deans, often cited as the reason search committees are unable to communicate with applicants, would either allow the departments to comply with these provisions and foot the bill for a more expensive interview process. Lack of communication and the posting of identical positions without a hire for three or more years are two of the problems that stand out at the moment, but the usage could be expanded in future years to address new situations as the AHA sees fit.
3. Require that search committees inform applicants of their interview status via e-mail 30 days before the annual meeting. Graduate students, visiting lecturers, and independent scholars are, on the whole, not independently wealthy. Traveling across the country to stay at an upscale hotel in a major city just after the holiday season is a lot to ask, especially if a candidate has no interviews. Applicants, though, are at the mercy of the search committees, some of whom notify interviewees a week or less before the annual meeting. Applicants are forced to either keep their rooms and plane tickets past the cancellation date in the hopes that their phone will ring or pay higher airfares and higher hotel rates for last-minute bookings. Letting candidates know their interview status a month in advance would alleviate that situation and prevent the least paid of the profession from shouldering the heaviest and most burdensome travel costs. The AHA should set guidelines that search committees must let all job applicants know whether they will have an interview at the AHA 30 days before the annual meeting or face some sort of Job Register sanction up to suspension from its benefits for a set period of time as determined by the AHA.
4. Establish a general listserv for search committees and job seekers. Search committees are notorious for their lack of communications. Job seekers have pooled their resources into a number of academic career wikis, but these can be misused and are dependent on the truthfulness of the poster. The AHA can alleviate this uncertainty by creating a listserv and mandating that those who use the Job Register would agree to notify the AHA by e-mail at important phases of the job search process. Which steps those are would be open for negotiation, but everyone, committees and candidates alike, would know what those benchmarks are ahead of time. The AHA, and this is the critical step, would aggregate these notifications and send them out via a daily listserv to all job applicants who choose to subscribe. Under this system, for example, all who applied for the position in Pre-Modern China at Boise Valley State could know that the search committee has made AHA invitations, has made invitations for on-campus interviews, or that Dr. Damon Berryhill had accepted the position. Job applicants, who usually have no idea how the searches are progressing, would be more informed when fielding other offers and would no longer need to contact each institution directly for updates. Participation would also be in the hiring institution’s best interests, as it would reduce the need to communicate one on one with job candidates (a very time consuming task for search committee members) but still create a much more open system of communication for job seekers.
It is frustrating to me when scholars who have spent years examining the forces of reform and progress will take no action to better the lives of their fellow historians. Individuals who have studied the great reformers and crusaders of the past will simply throw up their hands and exclaim “its just the market!,” when confronted with horror stories of graduate students and visiting faculty on the hunt for tenure-track jobs. These people do nothing as if, by some sort of divine incantation, the injustices of the hiring process are set in stone and beyond human control. This is the attitude that needs to change the most.
It is worth mentioning that graduate students make up the largest constituency group of the AHA membership. As the H-Grad listserv and the academic careers wiki continue to gain popularity, it will not be much longer before job seekers figure out how to organize themselves and make their voices heard one way or another. One anonymous poster on the job wiki for American historians has already suggested that all job seekers flood this year’s business meeting and vote no on every provision until the AHA takes up job market reform. The leadership of the AHA should adopt these reforms, or at the very least make a reasonable effort to study them, in order to make the job market a more tolerable place for the profession’s newest members and to take the first steps toward a more equitable and open hiring process.
Michael Bowen is assistant director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and a visiting lecturer in the history department at the University of Florida.
Hurricane Katrina is a disaster so recent that it is, in a sense, still underway. It isn’t just that large parts of New Orleans are in ruins after two and a half years, or that many of its residents are gone for good. According to one survey, something like a third of the population now living in the city intends to leave . The Journal of American History has just published a special issue, “Through the Eye of Katrina: The Past as Prologue?” that presents 20 papers covering New Orlean’s unique place in the American social and cultural landscape. It is also a reminder of just how much of city’s historical ambiance is now well and truly in the past, lost for good.
The issue is available online, in an edition that includes both audio slideshows and a set of maps and timelines. Rather than try to describe everything available in “Through the Eye of Katrina,” I’d like to take a short look here at two papers from it in particular. They frame the events of August 2005 as part of an unfinished story.
The final paper, “What Does American History Tell Us About Katrina and Vice Versa?” is by Lawrence N. Powell – a professor of history at Tulane University and one of the issue’s editors. That seems an odd place for it to appear. The paper feels very much like an introduction, and it can be recommended as a good place for the reader to start.
My impression is that Powell would like very much to believe that something like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s argument in The Cycles of American History (1986) is true. The idea is that our political life and national temper go through more or less regular swings of the pendulum, whether between liberalism and conservatism, or between public-mindedness and an emphasis on private interests.
This idea has been around for at least 100 years. The first widely circulated version was put presented by Henry Adams’s somewhat eccentric younger brother Brooks in the 1890s. Another cyclical theory was put forward by Arthur Schlesinger Sr., who predicted from it that a long period of conservative dominance would begin in the United States around 1978. Given that he died one year after Barry Goldwater’s run for president in 1964, this seems unusually farsighted. The model advanced in the mid-1980s by Junior (who passed away in 2007) held that U.S. history tends to go through cycles lasting 30 years each – with 15 years of expansive public-mindedness being followed by 15 of conservative retrenchment.
Powell doesn’t endorse any particular timetable in his paper, which is probably for the best. (Historians should avoid poaching on the professional expertise of astrologers.) But he does suggest that Katrina might yet prove to be a “detonating event” in setting off whatever seismic changes in public life are now underway.
Assuming, that is, that any such shifts really are underway. “American politics have been in a conservative phase for so long,” writes Powell, “thirty-five years and counting, that is hard to imagine an abrupt shift in the national Zeitgeist happening anytime soon.” He notes that the spirit of privatized effort “has been hard to miss in the Katrina recovery” – with the preferred mode of public assistance taking the form of tax credits for developers and “multimillion-dollar debris-removal contracts that were sole-sourced to politically connected corporations.”
But however locked into trickle-down thinking the current recovery efforts have been, the experience of Katrina has raised concerns about the state of the country’s infrastructure and emergency-preparedness. That may, in turn, require national action at the level of policy and budget – no matter what the talk-radio Zeitgeist says about it.
"We have probably gone too far down the road of states’ rights federalism,” writes Powell, “for some sort of New Deal–type agency such as the Tennessee Valley Authority to arise any time soon. The need for such a regional entity, with the capacity to coordinate relief and recovery activity across multiple levels of government and between public and private actors, has never been more apparent than now. All the same, the pendulum does seem to be swinging back toward the public sphere. When conservative southern Republican politicians start intervening in the insurance market or call for regulating outsourcing (as the governor of Florida has recently done), it is a sign the country is overdue for a conversation about the role of government.”
Geographers make an important distinction between “site and “situation,” as Ari Kelman points out in his paper “Boundary Issues: Clarifying New Orleans’s Murky Edges.” And in the history of the city, it is been a difference that’s made a difference. “Site” refers to the concrete geographical specifics of where an urban area is located. By contrast, “situation” is a matter of human attitude and need – what advantages it offers, relative to other places.
Site and situation are related, of course. But they can be at odds – and in New Orleans, are they ever. Kelman notes its “near-perfect situation” as a city built “on the east bank of the continent’s greatest river, near its outlet, in an era before technologies began circumventing the vagaries of geography.....Just downstream from the city lay the Gulf of Mexico, which provided access to the Atlantic world of trade.” But the site is near-perfect in its potential for disaster: a city built on sediment, with the riverfront being its highest point of elevation, with most of it below sea level and having no natural drainage.
Kelman, who is an associate professor of history at the University of California at Davis, describes three centuries of attempts by the city to compensate for its “site” problems through engineering – a series of efforts that have had complicated implications for its economy and social structure. It’s a valuable narrative that helps to place the events of August 2005 in a long-term perspective.
But when Kelman reaches the point of addressing the post-Katrina future, something puzzling happens. In the final lines of the paper, he writes: “It now appears New Orleans will try again to engineer itself out of harm’s way, once more attempting to improve its levees and drainage system. The various committees seem captivated by the notion that it is possible to separate the city from its surroundings, a myth that will not die, no matter how many of New Orleans’s residents do.”
This left me scratching my head. Just what alternative is there to improving the levees and drainage system? Is the implication that site has so trumped situation that repopulating New Orleans is a bad idea? While Powell’s article expresses ambivalence about prospects for the future, I found Kelman’s remarks inscrutable – so decided to ask him for clarification.
It turns out that confusion is a reasonable response, because Kelman himself intended his final remarks to be ambiguous. He has been studying the city’s history and its reconstruction efforts and has written about Katrina for The Nation and The Christian Science Monitor. He isn't against either hydraulic engineering or repopulating the city, as such. But at this point, no he sees no cut-and-dried policy option recommends itself as a real solution to its current problems.
"There’s no good solution to what ails New Orleans," he told me by email. "That was true before Katrina; it’s true now. Higher levees and better drainage conjure the illusion of safety without offering any real guarantees that people will be safe, particularly if the next storm comes soon, if the money runs out (a sure thing), or if global warming isn’t a hoax. The illusion of safety, then, makes it easy for people to live in harm’s way without reckoning with the danger. But, on the other hand, making people leave their communities heaps social insult atop environmental injury – not that I see the social and the environmental as being easily separable.”
So what is to be done?
"I have no idea," he writes. "Better leadership – a coordinated effort between federal, state, and local authorities, with real input from the grassroots, like Common Ground and others – would have been nice. But Katrina had the bad manners to come calling during the Bush years.... So we suffered through our first libertarian catastrophe. And we seem not to have learned much from it. That’s pretty grim, I know.... But we need to do more for the city. Maybe we will after this coming November."
Well, OK. Keep hope alive, etc. But in the final analysis it seems as if both Powell and Kelman are counting on the idea that a swing of the pendulum must be coming – and that when it does, things will start to change. Whole campaigns are being run on the principle that revitalized optimism can fundamentally transform the American situation.
Perhaps it can. But if Katrina taught us nothing else, it proved that situation isn’t everything. Anyone who wants lasting change needs to think about engineering some improvements to the site. That won't come easily, and it takes a lot of optimism to think that will happen at all.
"Chicago 10," which opened in theaters a few days ago, is one of the most exciting movies ever made about any aspect of the 1960s. It is also among the most frustrating; for it turns out that excitement is only just so much of a virtue in a documentary film. Sensation minus context is desensitizing. And in a number of ways "Chicago 10" marks an almost complete triumph of visual intensity over historical memory.
Yet it is also the product of some impressive digging in the video archives. Much of the footage in it was shot by television crews roaming the streets during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. Thousands of people had gathered in Chicago to protest the Vietnam war, by any means necessary; and thousands of cops marched in formation to prevent them from doing so, also by any means necessary. Guns were not actually fired in the process, which is something of a miracle. In one harrowing scene, a group of demonstrators taunts the police, challenging them to shoot.
You see Walter Cronkite on the evening news (a sober and avuncular anchorman, like nobody now in broadcasting: the living voice of the middle of the American road) comparing Mayor Daley’s city to a police state. There is a shot of a placard in the streets of Chicago saying “Welcome to Prague.” For this was one of those moments in history when the whole world was not just watching but, it seemed, performing from a common script. At the same time as Chicago was turning into an armed camp, Soviet troops were busy putting down Czechoslovakia’s experiment in reforming its own regime.
The confrontation in Chicago between the protesters and the forces of law and order is chronicled, day by day; and the tensions build up to a frenzy when the police go on a rampage. One unnamed and seemingly apolitical Chicagoan describes sitting in a bar, minding his own business, when the cops stormed in, making everybody leave under the threat of being pounded senseless. Anyone with long hair did not get a choice in the matter.
The street scenes are intercut with animated sequences based on transcripts of the government’s prosecution of those it accused of organizing the demonstrations. This is not the first time the court case has been put on screen (both the BBC and HBO have done so in previous decades) nor will it be the last, since a film called "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is in production this year. That title is something of a misnomer, since the Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale was the eighth defendant until his case with severed from that of his alleged co-conspirators. In "Chicago 10," the figure is bumped up to include the two lawyers who represented Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, et al. -- since they, like the defendants, were cited for contempt of court.
As hyperkinetic eye candy, “Chicago 10" is as good as it gets. A soundtrack with Eminem rapping his fantasy of an anti-Bush insurrection is, I suppose, one way to make history come alive. Likewise with turning the courtroom antics of the revolutionaries look like something out of a video game. But the mash-up between archival footage and music-video aesthetics has the effect of stripping the events out of any sort of historical context. In making their work as up-to-date as possible in style and overtone, the movie makers seem never to have asked whether they might also be doing a disservice to the past.
All the fast cuts and visual tricks here might be justified by reference to the presumed demands of Today’s Youth, with their supersaturated yet shrinking attention spans. But if kids born in the 1990s really are the intended audience, why give that quick shot of the sign reading “Welcome to Prague” without any explanation for it? (My apologies, of course, if it turns out that Today’s Youth are completely up to speed on postwar Eastern European history.)
How is it that the film never mentions that student protests in France a few months earlier led to a general strike that almost brought down the government there? The “May events” in Paris were still on many people’s minds as the summer wound down; they help to make sense of what might otherwise look like plain craziness, at times, in the streets of Chicago. But no hint of the outside world ever breaks into any frame of the film. It revisits the past in an almost isolationist, if not solipsistic way -- quite as Tom Brokaw did in a recent TV program that treated the year 1968 as if it had unfolded almost entirely within the United States. (The convulsions in Paris, Prague, and Peking that year were dispatched in about two minutes.)
In the case of "Chicago 10," the perspective is shallow as well as narrow. Events are not simply yanked out of the past and detached from their contemporary global significance.They are shown without concern for long-term causes or effects. Incidents and images are presented without any reference at all to a larger narrative in which they might have some meaning. No effort is made to discuss the effects of the Chicago protests and the conspiracy trial in American politics. And that really takes some doing.
When we talk about the “culture war” now, the expression is usually just a very tired metaphor. But what happened outside the Democratic convention was an early battle in it, and a very literal one.
The turmoil gave many people a sense that the whole country was hurtling towards a much greater showdown. That prospect has dimmed for the protesters who marched in the streets, then, but it never really did for the “silent majority,” as the winner of the presidential campaign later that year put it.
In his bookChicago ‘68 -- first published 20 years ago by the University of Chicago Press, which is now reissuing it -- David Farber, now a professor of history at Temple University, quotes a position paper that Richard Nixon wrote as a candidate: “The first right of every American, to be free from domestic violence, has become the forgotten civil right of the American people.”
Obviously Nixon did not mean freedom from having your head massaged by a policeman’s billy club. The Republican candidate’s complaint was that the government was abdicating its responsibility to protect the individual’s right to be left in peace. “Instead,” writes Farber in his paraphrase of Nixon’s argument, “that state has pledged itself to a policy of inclusion, a policy that insists that the state has the right to intrude in local affairs and order private citizens to accept the rights of other citizens -- the blacks, the Latinos, the poor, the protestors -- to intrude on their privacy. Such a policy, Nixon is implying, naturally leads to a situation in which certain citizens would intrude violently into other people’s lives, marching and sitting in an taking over streets and even burning and destroying private property.”
The upheaval in Chicago consolidated that feeling. But it also added something else -- an element still lingering in the mix of resentments that fuels so much of American political culture. “Chicago 10" exists because there were so many TV cameras in the streets. And it’s clear that the police gave members of the press extra special attention -- beating them with the gusto they would otherwise have reserved for, say, student radicals carrying the Vietcong flag. Sympathy for the police and contempt for the news media were, for the “silent majority,” two sides of a common rage.
“Both stem from a mistrust of disembodied authority,” writes Farber. “Both feelings come from a suspicion that some outside, elite power has taken control of what should be commonsensical and local.”
A better movie would have found some way to portray that suspicion, and to address how much of it is still in the air, four decades later -- a legacy that has outlasted any dream in the streets that year.
It was three months before the Bicentennial and a group of high school students in Boston were saying the Pledge of Allegiance. One of them held a large American flag. But this was not the commonplace ritual of citizenship that it might sound. The teenagers, all of them white, were just as swept up as their parents in the protests over court-ordered desegregation of the Boston public schools; and much of the rhetoric swirling around the anti-busing movement appealed to the old patriotic tropes of resistance to tyranny, defense of the rights of the citizen, and so on. The kids who milled around in front of City Hall in Boston were enjoying their chance to share in the Spirit of ‘76 while also skipping class on a Monday morning.
The people in the anti-busing movement were not, they often insisted, racists. It so happened that a young African-American lawyer named Ted Landsmark had a meeting at City Hall that morning to discuss minority hiring in construction jobs. He turned the corner and walked into a scene that would be recorded for posterity by Stanley Forman, a photojournalist for The Boston Herald American. In a picture that won Forman his second Pulitzer Prize in as many years, we see Landsmark in the right-hand half of the image. Dressed in a three-piece suit, he is the only black person in the crowd. But what dominates the scene is the teenager who had been holding the American flag a little earlier, during the Pledge, and now wields it as a weapon, seeming to drive it like a lance into Landsmark’s body. Forman later titled his photograph “The Soiling of Old Glory.”
Frozen in mid-action, the image is brutal. But what makes it especially so is the expression on the kid’s face – a look of pure hatred and rage, his teeth showing, his upper lip curled in what seems to be (according to some research in affect theory) the universal physical manifestation of disgust. Other people in the crowd look on with what seems to be interest or even pleasure. It appears that nobody is ready to help Landsmark. A man standing just behind the lawyer seems to be holding him, so that kid with the flagstaff can get a clear shot.
But according to Louis P. Masur in The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America, just published by Bloomsbury Press, the picture is a misleading in that regard. Masur -- a professor of American institutions and values at Trinity College, in Connecticut -- analyzed the other images the photographer shot that day and finds a different story unfolding.
“The man who, in a a previous image, is in motion racing to the scene has arrived and is grabbing Landsmark,” writes Masur. “It would appear that he has joined the fray to get in his punches and, worse yet, is pinioning Landsmark’s arms so that the flag bearer has a clear line of attack. In fact, the person holding Landsmark is Jim Kelly, one of the adult organizers of the protest, and he has raced in not to bind Landsmark but to save him from further violence.... He dashed in to try to break up the fight. In another photograph taken a moment later, he can be seen holding his arms out wide trying to keep the protesters back as Landsmark stumbles to safety.”
Knowing this, writes Masur, “changes our understanding of the photograph.” To a degree, perhaps, yes. But no degree of recontextualizing can gainsay the interpretation of the scene offered by the victim of the assault. “I couldn’t put my Yale degree in front of me to protect myself,” Landsmark told a newspaper reporter a few days after the attack. “The thing that is most troubling is that it happened not because I was somebody but because I was anybody....I was just a nigger they were trying to kill.”
The image is iconic. It does not simply reproduce an event; it crystallizes something out of life itself.
“The camera freezes time,” as Masur writes, “giving us always a moment, a fraction of a narrative that stretches before and after the isolated instant.” The Soiling of Old Glory reconstructs some of that narrative – drawing for the most part on published sources, especially the account of the Boston busing crisis given by the great American journalist Anthony Lukas in his book Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985).
Protesters often insisted that they hated busing, not African-Americans -- but as someone put it at the time, nobody went out to beat up a school bus. Masur treats the photograph itself as a turning point in the crisis. “However strenuously the anti-busing movement emphasized issues other than race,” he writes, “the photograph shattered the protesters’ claim that racism did not animate their cause and that they were patriotic Americans fighting for their liberties. The photograph had seared itself into the collective memory of the city and installed itself in the imagination of both blacks and whites.”
Masur understands the photograph as leading, “at first, to turmoil and self-scruitny, and later, to progress and healing.” Such a perspective is bound to be appealing to many people, especially given the desire now to imagine a “post-racial” America. In any case, the photograph itself certainly sticks in one’s memory – and not just as a document of a particular conflict. An analyst must try to account for something of its power; and this task is not any easier given the relative neglect by scholars of photojournalism itself as a topic for critical study.
Unfortunately, in the course of meditating upon the image, Masur sometimes exhibits rather serious failures of what is sometimes been called “hermeneutic tact.” This is a feel for the limits of interpretation: a sense that ingenuity might, beyond a certain point, involve a kind of violation of what the process will bear. Hermeneutic tact, like the social kind, is impossible to codify. But you know when someone has violated it, because you wince.
At one point, the author claims that the mob member wielding the flag like a spear “suggests the stabbing of Christ in the side by the Roman solider Longinus, who afterward was converted to Christianity and was canonized.” No, it doesn’t – not even if you squint really, really hard. Here, free association leads to something akin to a context salad. Likewise with some musings about the title Forman gave his photograph: “The verb soiling means defiling or staining,” writes Masur. “But with the root soil, it also suggests planting. Flags are thrust into the ground as statements of control, whether by explorers in the New World or by American astronauts on the moon. In an extreme act of desecration and possession, the protestor, it seems, is trying to implant the flag into the black man and claim ownership.”
We now have a precise technical term for this sort of thing, thanks to the efforts of Harry Frankfurt. A good editor would have found a way to remove such passages, or at least buried them in the quiet graveyard of the book’s apparatus. They are distracting yet take nothing away from the lasting power of the image itself. Looking at it, I felt the urge to reread Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro” – a speech from 1852 that Masur, oddly enough, never cites, though it is hard to think of a more pointed and fitting account of how certain beloved symbols may serve as instruments of oppression. More was happening within the frame of Stanley Forman's action shot than any single analysis can quite exhaust.
We are coming to the end of a decade with no name. As the 1990s wound down, there was a little head scratching over what to call the approaching span of 10 years, but no answer seemed obvious, and no consensus ever formed. A few possibilities were ventured -- for example, “the Noughties” -- but come the turn of the new millennium, they proved about as appealing and marketable as a Y2K survival kit. Before you knew it, we were deep into the present decade without any commonly accepted way of referring to it.
The lack seems more conspicuous now. We are in the penultimate year of the '00s (however you want to say it) and much of the urgent rhetoric about “change” in the presidential campaigns implies a demand for some quick way to refer to the era that will soon, presumably, be left behind.
It has become second nature to periodize history by decades, as if each possessed certain qualities, amounting almost to a distinct personality. To some degree this tendency was already emerging as part of the public conversation in the 19th century (with the 1840s in particular leaving a strong impression as an era of hard-hitting social criticism and quasi-proto-hippie experimentation) but it really caught on after the First World War. In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (Norton, 1991), the late Christopher Lasch wrote: “This way of thinking about the past had the effect of reducing history to fluctuations in public taste, to a progression of cultural fashions in which the daring advances achieved by one generation become the accepted norms of the next, only to be discarded in turn by a new set of styles.”
Thus we have come to speak of the Sixties as an era of rebellion and experimentation, much of it communal. And you could read books by 1840s guys like Marx, Kierkegaard, and Feuerbach in cheap paperbacks, if you weren’t too stoned. In the Seventies, the experimentation continued, but in a more privatized way (“finding myself”) and with a throbbing disco soundtrack. By the Eighties, greed was good; so were MTV, pastel, and mobile phones as big as your head. In the Nineties, it seemed for a little while as if maybe greed were bad. But then all the teenage Internet millionaires started ruling over the end of history from their laptops while listening to indie rock and wearing vintage clothes from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.
Of course there are alternative points of emphasis for each decade. This kind of encapsulated history is not exactly nuance-friendly. But it’s no accident that bits of popular culture and lifestyle have become the default signifiers summing up each period of the recent past. “The concept of the decade,” wrote Lasch, “may have commended itself, as the basic unit of historical time, for the same reason the annual model change commended itself to Detroit: it was guaranteed not to last. Every ten years it had to be traded in for a new model, and this rapid turnover gave employment to scholars and journalists specializing in the detection and analysis of modern trends.”
Well, we do what we can. But it seems as if the effort has failed miserably over the past few years. The detectives and analysts have gone AWOL. There is no brand name for the decade itself, nor a set of clichés to clinch its inner essence.
While discussing the matter recently with Aaron Swartz, a programmer now working on the Open Library initiative, I found myself at least half agreeing with his impression of the situation. “This decade seems Zeitgeist-free,” he said. “It’s as if the Nineties never ended and we’re just continuing it without adding anything new.”
But then I remembered that my friend is all of 21 years old, meaning that roughly half his life so far was spent in the 1990s. Which could, in spite of Aaron’s brilliance, somewhat limit the ability to generalize. In that regard, being middle aged offers some small advantage. My own archive of memory includes at least a few pre-literate recollections of the 1960s (the assassinations of 1968 interrupted "Captain Kangaroo") and my impression is that each new decade since then has gone through a phase of feeling like the continuation of (even a hangover from) the one that went before.
It usually takes the Zeitgeist a while to find a new t-shirt it prefers. On the other hand, I also suspect that Aaron is on to something -- because it sure seems like the Zeitgeist is having an unusually hard time settling down, this time around.
In the next column, I’ll sketch out a few ideas about what might, with hindsight, turn out to have been the distinguishing characteristics of the present decade. Perhaps the fact that we still don’t have a name for it is not an oversight, or a bit of bad semantic luck. According the Lasch, decade-speak is a way to understand the past as a story of progress involving the rise and fall of cultural styles and niches. If so, then it may be we might have turned a corner somewhere along the way. The relationship between progress, nostalgia, and the cultural market may have changed in ways making it harder to come up with a plausible general characterization of the way we live now.
More on that in a week. Meanwhile: What do you call the current period? Does it have its own distinct “structure of feeling”? When we fit it into our thumbnail histories of the recent past, how are we likely to understand the spirit of the age?
Last week Intellectual Affairs discussed the effects of an irresistible force on an immovable object. The force in question is our habit of referring to each recent decade as if it had a distinct quality or even personality: the '50s as an era of straightlaced conformity, for example, or the '70s as (in Tom Wolfe’s phrase) “the Me Decade.” This tendency has dubious effects. It flattens the complexity of historical reality into clichés. It manifests a sort of condescension to yesteryear, even. But decade-speak is a basic element in ordinary conversation -- and the habit is so well-established as to seem, again, irresistible.
If so, the past several years have been a period that won’t budge, if only because we lack a convenient and conventional way to refer to it. Expressions such as “the Aughties” or “the Noughties” are silly and unappealing. I ended the last column by asking what readers were calling this decade. Many of the responses involved expressions of disgust with the era itself, but a couple of people did propose terms for what to call it. One suggestion was, simply, “the Two Thousands,” which seems practical enough. Another was “the 2.0 Decade” -- an expression both witty and apropos, though unlikely to catch on.
Perhaps some expression may yet emerge within everyday speech -- but we’re winding down “the Zeroes” (my own last-ditch suggestion) without a way of referring to the decade itself. For now, it is an empty space in public conversation, a blind spot in popular memory. That may not be an accident. The past several years have not exactly been lacking in novelty or distinctiveness. But the tempo and the texture of the changes have made it difficult to take everything in -- to generalize about experience, let alone sum it up in a few compact stereotypes.
Rather than give an extensive chronology or checklist of defining moments from the present decade -- whatever we end up calling it -- I’d like to use the rest of this column to note a few aspects of what it has felt like to live through this period. The effort will reflect a certain America-centrism. But then, decade-speak is usually embedded in, and a reflection upon, a particular national culture. (German or Italian musings on “the Seventies,” for example, place more emphasis on the figure of the urban guerrilla than the disco dancer.)
These notes are meant neither as memoir nor as political editorial, though I doubt a completely dispassionate view of the period is quite possible. “Your mileage may vary,” as a typical expression of the decade goes. Or “went,” rather. For let’s imagine that the era is over, and that time has come to describe what things felt like, back then....
The decade as unit of meaning does not normally correspond to the exact chronological span marked by a change of digits. We sometimes think of the Eighties as starting with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, for example, or Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. Conversely, that period can be said to end with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or as late as the final gasp of the Soviet state in 1991. The contours, like the meanings, tend to be established ex post facto; and they are seldom beyond argument.
In this case, there was a strong tendency to think of the decade as beginning on the morning of September 11, 2001 -- which meant that it started amid terror, disbelief, and profound uncertainty about what would happen next. Within a few weeks of the attacks, there would be a series of deaths from anthrax-laced envelopes sent through the U.S. mail. (Among the puzzles of the entire period is just why and how the public managed to lose interest in the latter attacks, even though no official finding was ever made about the source of the anthrax.)
Over the next two years or so, there would be a constantly fluctuating level of official “terror alerts.” Free-floating anxiety about the possibility of some new terrorist assault would become a more or less normal part of everyday life. Even after early claims by the administration of a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorists were disproven, a large part of the public continued to believe that one must have existed. Elected officials and the mass media tended not to challenge the administration until several months into the Iraq War. The range of tolerated dissent shrank considerably for at least a few years.
Simultaneously, however, an expanding and wildly heterogeneous new zone of communication and exchange was emerging online -- and establishing itself so firmly that it would soon be difficult to recall what previous regimes of mass-media production and consumption had been like. The relationship between the transmitters of news, information, and analysis (one the one hand) and the audience for them (on the other) tended to be ever less one-way.
It proved much easier to wax utopian or dystopian over the effects of this change than to keep up with its pace, or the range of its consequences. At the same time, screens and recording devices were -- ever more literally -- everywhere. Devices permitting almost continuous contact with the new media kept getting smaller, cheaper, and more powerful. They permeated very nearly the entire domain of public and private space alike. Blaise Pascal’s definition of the universe began to seem like an apt description of cosmos being created by the new media: “an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”
Quoting this passage, Jorge Luis Borges once noted that Pascal’s manuscript shows he did not originally describe the sphere as infinite. He wrote “frightful” instead, then scratched it out. Looking back on that unnamed (and seemingly unnameable) decade now, it seems like the right word. Whatever meaning it may yet prove to have had, it was, much of the time, frightful.
Last week, Intellectual Affairs gave the recent cable TV miniseries “Sex: The Revolution” a nod of recognition, however qualified, for its possible educational value. The idea that sex has a history is not, as such, self-evident. The series covers the changes in attitudes and norms between roughly 1950 and 1990 through interviews and archival footage. Most of this flies past at a breakneck speed, alas. The past becomes a hostage of the audience’s presumably diminished attention span.
Then again, why be ungrateful? Watching the series, I kept thinking of a friend who teaches history at Sisyphus University, a not-very-distinguished institution in the American heartland. For every student in his classroom who seems promising, there are dozens who barely qualify as sentient. (It sounds like Professor X, whose article “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” appears in the latest issue of The Atlantic, teaches in the English department there.) Anything, absolutely anything, that might help stimulate curiosity about the past would be a godsend for the history faculty at Sisyphus U.
With that consideration in mind, you tend to watch “Sex: The Revolution” with a certain indulgence -- as entertainment with benefits, so to speak. Unfortunately, the makers stopped short. They neglected to interview scholars who might have provided more insight than a viewer might glean from soundbites by demi-celebrities. And so we end up with a version of history not too different from the one presented by Philip Larkin in the poem “Annus Mirabilis” --
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
-- except without the irony. A belief that people in the old days must have been repressed is taken for granted. Was this a good thing or not? Phyllis Schlafly and reasonable people may disagree; but the idea itself is common coin of public discourse.
But suppose a television network made a different sort of program -- one incorporating parts of what one might learn from reading the scholarship on the history of sex. What sense of the past might then emerge?
We might as well start with the Puritans. Everybody knows how up-tight they were -- hostile to sex, scared of it, prone to thinking of it as one of the Devil’s wiles. The very word “Puritan” now suggests an inability to regard pleasure as a good thing.
A case in point being Michael Wigglesworth -- early Harvard graduate, Puritan cleric, and author of the first American best-seller, The Day of Doom (1642), an exciting poem about the apocalypse. Reverend Wigglesworth found the laughter of children to be unbearable. He said it made him think of the agonies of the damned in hell.You can just imagine how he would respond to the sound of moaning. Somehow it is not altogether surprising to learn that the Rev’s journal contains encrypted entries mentioning the “filthy lust” he felt while tutoring male students.
In short, a typical Puritan -- right? Well, not according to Edmund Morgan, the prominent early-Americanist, whose many contributions to scholarship over the years included cracking the Wigglesworth code. (He is now professor emeritus of history at Yale.)
Far from being typical, Wigglesworth, it seems, was pretty high-strung even by the standards of the day. In a classic paper called “The Puritans and Sex,” published in 1942, Morgan assessed the evidence about how ordinary believers regarded the libido in early New England. He found that, clichés notwithstanding, the Puritans tended to be rather matter-of-fact about it.
Sermons and casual references in letters and diaries reveal that the Puritans took sexual pleasure for granted and even celebrated it -- so long, at least, as it was enjoyed within holy wedlock. Of course, the early colonies attracted many people of both sexes who were either too young to marry or in such tight economic circumstances that it was not practical. This naturally meant a fair bit of random carrying on, even in those un-Craigslist-ed days. All such activity was displeasing unto the Lord, not to mention His earthly enforcers; but the court records show none of the squeamishness about that one might expect, given the Puritans’ reputation. Transgressions were punished, but the hungers of the flesh were taken for granted.
And Puritan enthusiasm for pleasures of the marriage bed was not quite so phallocentric as you might suppose. As a more recent study notes, New Englanders believed that both partners had to reach orgasm in order for conception to occur. Many Puritan women must have had their doubts on that score. Still, the currency of that particular bit of misinformation would tend to undermine the assumption that everybody was a walking bundle of dammed-up desire -- finding satisfaction only vicariously, through witch trials and the like.
Our imagined revisionist documentary would be full of such surprises. Recent scholarship suggests that American mores were pretty wild long before Alfred Kinsey quantified things in his famous reports.
Richard Godbeer’s Sexual Revolution in Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) shows that abstinence education was not exactly the norm in the colonial period. Illegitimate births were commonplace; so was the arrival of children six or seven months after the wedding day. For that matter, cohabitation without benefit of clergy was the norm in some places. And while there were statutes on the books against sodomy -- understood as nonprocreative sexual activity in general -- it’s clear that many early Americans preferred to mind their own business.
Enforcing prohibitions on “unnatural acts” between members of the same sex was a remarkably low priority. “For the entire colonial period,” noted historians in a brief filed a few years ago when Lawrence v. Texas went to the U.S. Supreme Court, “we have reports of only two cases involving two women engaged in acts with one another.... The trial of Nicholas Sension, a married man living in Westhersfield, Connecticut, in 1677, revealed that he had been widely known for soliciting sexual contacts with the town’s men and youth for almost forty years but remained widely liked. Likewise, a Baptist minister in New London, Connecticut, was temporarily suspended from the pulpit in 1757 because of his repeatedly soliciting sex with men, but the congregation voted to restore him to the ministry after he publicly repented.”
History really comes alive, given details like that -- and we’ve barely reached the Continental Congress. The point is not that the country was engaged in one big orgy from Plymouth Rock onwards. But common attitudes and public policies were a lot more ambivalent and contradictory in the past than we’re usually prone to imagine.
There was certainly repression. In four or five cases from the colonial era, sodomy was punished by death. But in a society where things tend to be fluid -- where relocation is an option, and where money talks -- there will always be a significant share of the populace that lives and acts by its own lights, and places where the old rules don't much matter. And so every attempt to enforce inhibition is apt to seem like little, too late (especially to those making the effort).
You catch some of that frantic sense of moral breakdown in the literature of anti-Mormonism cited by Sarah Barringer Gordon in her study The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2002. Novels about polygamous life in Utah were full of dark fascination with the lascivious excess being practiced in the name of freedom of religion – combined with fear that the very social and political order of the United States was being undermined. It was all very worrying, but also titillating. (Funny how often those qualities go together.)
The makers of “Sex: The Revolution” enjoyed the advantage of telling stories from recent history, which meant an abundance of film and video footage to document the past. Telling a revisionist story of American sexual history would suffer by visual comparison, tending either toward History Channel-style historical reenactments or Ken Burns-ish readings of documents over sepia-toned imagery.
But now, thanks to the efforts of phonographic archivists, we can at least listen to one part of the sexual discourse of long ago. A set of wax recordings from the 1890s -- released last year on a CD called “Actionable Offenses” -- preserves the kind of lewd entertainment enjoyed by some of the less respectable Americans of the Victorian era. And by “lewd,” I do not mean “somewhat racy.” The storytelling in dialect tends to be far coarser than anything that can be paraphrased in a family publication such as Inside Higher Ed. A performance called “Learning a City Gal How to Milk” is by no means the most obscene.
Anthony Comstock -- whose life’s work it was to preserve virtue by suppressing vice -- made every effort to wipe out such filth. It’s a small miracle that these recordings survived. The fact that they did gives us a hint at just how much of a challenge Comstock and associates must have faced.
When a popular program such as “Sex: The Revolution” recalls the past, it is usually an account of the struggle to free desire from inhibition. Or you can tell the same tale in a conservative vein: the good old days of restraint, followed by a decline into contemporary decadence.
Both versions are sentimental; both condescend to the past.
In the documentary I’d like to see, the forces of repression would be neither villains nor heroes. They would be hapless, helpless, confused -- and sinking fast in quicksand, pretty much from the start. It would be an eye-opening film. Not to mention commercially viable. After all, there would be a lot of sex in it.