Zora Neale Hurston in 2017: How Art Can Help Us Remember and Understand Disaster

Princeton University Press will donate the net proceeds from the sale of The Flood Year 1927 to hurricane relief through December 31, 2017

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishHarvey. Irma. Jose. Maria. Since August 17, one hurricane has chased the tail winds of its predecessor without pause. Three of these have made landfall in the United States, making the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season a record-breaker in number and intensity. We are getting used to having each season push the previous one out of our awareness—out of that space we leave in our brains to house the images and statistics of environmental disasters. Can you who live outside Louisiana remember the interminable, flooding rains of August 2016? This season, though, the attention obliteration rate has sped up. In our minds, we hold maps of damage, YouTube clips of world-bending wind, or aerial shots of inundated neighborhoods for but one week, when the mind needs to clear out room for the newer data. If you or your loved ones have not been directly in harm’s way, what will it take to help you remember Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria?

This is where well-crafted works of art can make a difference. Here I am using a broad definition of “art” to include documentary and feature films, books of nonfiction and fiction, collage and painting, drama, in-depth podcasts and so on. Part of why we will long remember Katrina is because of the catastrophic human error at play. Another reason is the artists who fashioned durable cultural markers in its aftermath. From Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke to Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun to Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina to Kara Walker’s “Post Katrina, Adrift,” each artist put significant attention into choices about representation: Lee’s ironic or plangent juxtaposition of sound and image, Eggers’s tight point-of-view narrative focus, Trethewey’s alternation of memoir and lyric poetry, and Walker’s careful reworking of a Theodore Gericault monumental history painting. Their attention to aesthetics, to making meaning and form coalesce, calls us to give our attention to an event long after its apparent end.

Let us go back before 2005, then, and think about art’s relationship to a much older hurricane and flood, a disaster that might have slipped from history were it not for a remarkable work of fiction. I want to think about Zora Neale Huston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and how it has kept awareness of the Okeechobee hurricane and flood of 1928 alive all these years—and how it was virtually alone in doing so until historians and journalists told its story in nonfiction form in the early 21st century.

Located west of Palm Peach, Lake Okeechobee covers over seven hundred and twenty square miles, making it the third largest freshwater lake within U.S. borders. Okeechobee used to release its waters in a slow cascade southward through saw-grass prairies all the way down to the Bay of Florida. Beginning in the 1880s, entrepreneurs from the northern U.S. and Britain dug massive canals west, east, and south of the lake to drain off the vast and now arable acreage to its south. What had been the Everglades became nine foot-deep rich earth—“the muck”—which came to yield large crops of vegetables and, most of all, sugar cane. Knowing that flooding was a possibility in a hurricane-prone region, the state built, between 1923 and 1925, a five-foot-high mud dike along forty-seven miles of the lake’s southern border. Housing for the agricultural laborers, who had emigrated there from throughout the South and Caribbean, stood right up against the presumably contained lake.

On September 16, 1928, a hurricane touched land on the eastern coast of Florida at Lake Worth with 130mph winds. With an eye 25 to 30 miles across, the winds pummeled Palm Beach around 6:45pm and then, moving as a counter-clockwise whirl in the darkness, came at Lake Okeechobee from the northwest corner, pushing a ten-foot wall of water over its bottom rim, and breaking down the paltry dike across a twenty-one mile expanse. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people died that night, almost half of the local population. More than three-quarters of the dead were African-American and Afro-Caribbean. According to one historian, more people of African descent died on that day than any other single day in U.S. history. While sixty-nine white bodies were placed in a marked burial ground at Woodlawn Cemetery in Palm Beach, six hundred and seventy-four black bodies were placed in a mass grave at the pauper’s field in West Palm Beach; another sixteen hundred were interred in Port Mayaca, on high ground to the east of Okeechobee—sites which remained unmarked until 2003. Scores of corpses were lost in the Everglades, and scores more were burned in funeral pyres. African-Americans were conscripted at gunpoint to do all of this work of gruesome clean up, including the putative separation of bodies by race, something the bodies’ decay made unintelligible.

Because Florida leaders were trying to develop the state as a holiday oasis, and a sure real estate investment, they didn’t want news of the disaster to travel. Most of the deaths had taken place quickly, in the middle of the night, fifty miles west of Palm Beach, in a rural locale full of migrant workers. The powerful who had access to national media to broadcast the disaster chose to remain quiet. The powerless did not seem to have a storyteller of note. At least not right away.

Zora Neale Hurston was not in harm’s way during the September 16th hurricane and flood, but she heard oral accounts when in Florida the following spring. In 1935, she then spent time in Belle Glade, a town on Lake Okeechobee’s southeastern edge, when she was gathering music for the Library of Congress, at which point she surely gathered more oral testimony of the flood and its aftermath. In late 1936, while in Haiti, Hurston wrote what would become one of the great American novels of the century, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

It tells the story of Janie Crawford, her search for a natural-feeling and play-filled love, an adventure as big as the horizon, and a way to shed the plantation legacies of her family and region. Hurston the ethnographer included many scenes of tale-telling, believing that how a community amuses itself was as deep a truth as how it withstands assaults. Because of its humor, contemporaneous reviewers—like Richard Wright and Alain Locke—dismissed the novel for its “minstrel” echoes and its lack of “sharp” social analysis. When the novel was revived by black feminists in the 1970s, it was as a story that empowered black women—to seek their desires and to speak when and how they wanted. The 80s and 90s saw critical appreciation of how finely Hurston intertwined the oral black vernacular with standard written English. Since Katrina and the levee disaster of 2005, Hurston’s deep engagement with the overlapping histories of race and environment in the U.S. has become increasingly evident. In other words, people are now paying more attention to the hurricane and flood toward whose crescendo and violent denouement the entire novel moves.

About three-quarters of the way into the novel, Janie is finally married to someone, Tea Cake, whose sensitivity to the green world seems to match her own. They are “natural” together, more aware of fish and trees and bees than social propriety or acquiring property. Picking beans just southeast of Lake Okeechobee, the pair lives in low-lying company quarters pushed up against the massive lake. It is mid-September, 1928. As signs appear of the approaching hurricane, Tea Cake wagers that they should stay behind. He forgets his own environmental knowledge and puts trust in the white bosses who haven’t evacuated. Hurston’s narrator bitingly comments on the weakness of this decision: “if the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always.” Trusting white authority and distrusting one’s own affiliation with nature turns out to be a dismal mistake. The lake bursts through the feeble mud dike and reclaims its old wetlands sovereignty: Okeechobee “seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters.” All in all, “the sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.”

Evacuating too late from the ‘Glades, Tea Cake and Janie make their harrowing way eastward to Palm Beach. During the journey, Janie tries to cover them with debris but is instead carried aloft over and into water. While saving her, Tea Cake is bitten on the cheek by a rabid dog. They finally reach what they believe to be the “city of refuge,” Palm Beach. It turns out, though, that the violence of the storm has here turned into human-on-human violence. Two white guards force Tea Cake at gunpoint to join a “small army” to clear wreckage and separate dead bodies Jim Crow-style. Tea Cake soon goes mad from the rabies and becomes homicidal with his wife. Janie shoots and kills him in self-defense.

When the novel was first published in 1937, its cover featured a woodcut image of a harrowed landscape. A Jehovah-like figure is hurling bolts and winds at the earth; trees bow in response and a house squats in flood waters up to its roof. Clearly, Hurston saw the hurricane and flood, which provided the book’s climax, and brought about the death of its male hero, as central to the story. Though contemporaneous reviewers were distracted by what they took to be the novel’s “quaint” humor, they missed the storm and the fact that Hurston buries prophecies about the storm to come in that very humor. Later critics who focused exclusively on the romantic odyssey also missed the fact that Hurston, through the flood, judges the apparently fitting third husband, and finds him wanting. That he failed to listen to his own environmental experience and defers instead to his white boss indicates the limits of the potential for their love. Finally, the exposé of Jim Crow, deferred through so much of the novel to make space for a study of the southern black community on its own terms, finally arrives with—and in the shape of—the man-made disaster. Hurston carefully included historic details from the ’28 flood that she had gathered through oral research so that the flood would not be simply a dramatic device but also act as a memorial structure to the officially unmarked disaster.

Every time Their Eyes Were Watching God is read, there is the potential for a profound encounter with this almost ninety-year-old event. Though Florida boosters at the time did not want the story broadcast, Hurston slowly transformed its obscured details and hidden remains into a meaningful story to withstand the decades. This September, Florida officials have been transparent about the vulnerability of their state. And Florida mayors have been some of the first to prepare in advance for how climate change will change their coastal cities. Even in this condition of open-eyed avowal, artists continue to have a role. Artists’ capacities to summon human care for strangers encountered through narratives and representations and to invest them with meaning is a crucial part of our world.

Susan Scott Parrish is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World and The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

 

The Expanding Blaze: Moderate vs Radical Enlightenment

IsraelIn The Expanding Blaze, Jonathan Israel argues that the American Revolution, the first of a series of revolutionary upheavals in the West during the period of 1775 to 1859, exerted a massive impact on the rest of the world that was ultimately central to the shaping of democratic modernity. According to Israel, the Atlantic revolutions were all linked pragmatically and philosophically, and were propelled forward in part by a tension between moderate Enlightenment ideas and radical Enlightenment ideas.

Israel argues that all “national” enlightenments were characterized by a struggle between moderate and radical Enlightenment streams. More specifically, the Atlantic revolutions all involved debate between democratic and aristocratic republicanism including support for, versus rejection of, universal rights, citizenship for all versus limited suffrage, and disagreement over the place of religious authority in society. On one side of the debate were individuals including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, who admired such philosophers as Locke and Montesquieu. They argued for a more conservative, aristocratic system. On the other side of the debate were people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, who became icons for the Atlantic revolutions for their universalizing, secularizing, and egalitarian beliefs.

The tension between moderate and radical Enlightenment beliefs was particularly felt in the debate about slavery. In the late eighteenth century, European colonial territories in the Caribbean were very prosperous, importing valuable goods back to Europe. The large plantations were headed by white planters and run by hundreds of thousands of slaves. In fact, slaves outnumbered the rest of the population by a huge margin. In order to counter claims that slavery was morally unjustifiable, the Caribbean aristocracy invoked the ideas of moderate Enlightenment philosophers, including Montesquieu’s moral, social and political relativism. Conversely, the anti-colonialism espoused in radical Enlightenment texts of the mid-eighteenth century based their arguments on the basic unity of mankind, the equality of races, and universal human rights. These ideas called into question the prevailing notion that white people possessed an innate superiority and authority over other groups and, therefore, the notion that black slavery was defensible.

To learn more about how moderate and radical Enlightenment ideas influenced the Atlantic revolutions between 1775 and 1848, pick up a copy of Jonathan Israel’s The Expanding Blaze.

Sarah Binder & Mark Spindel on The Myth of Independence

Born out of crisis a century ago, the Federal Reserve has become the most powerful macroeconomic policymaker and financial regulator in the world. The Myth of Independence traces the Fed’s transformation from a weak, secretive, and decentralized institution in 1913 to a remarkably transparent central bank a century later. Offering a unique account of Congress’s role in steering this evolution, Sarah Binder and Mark Spindel explore the Fed’s past, present, and future and challenge the myth of its independence.

Why did you write this book?

We were intrigued by the relationship of two powerful institutions that are typically studied in isolation: Congress, overtly political and increasingly polarized, and the Federal Reserve, allegedly independent, born of an earlier financial panic and the world’s most powerful economic policy maker. The economic conditions that created and sustain America’s century old central bank have been well studied. Scholars and market participants have spent considerably less time analyzing the complex political forces that drove the Fed’s genesis and its rise to prominence. Our research challenges widely accepted notions of Fed independence, instead arguing that the Fed sets policy subject to political constraints. Its autonomy is conditioned on economic outcomes and robust political support. In the long shadow of the global financial crisis, our research pinpoints the interdependence of two powerful policy-making institutions and their impact on contemporary monetary politics.

What does history teach us about contemporary monetary politics?

Probing the Fed’s history affords us a window onto the political and economic constraints under which the Fed makes monetary policy today. We draw two key conclusions about contemporary monetary policy from our study of the Fed’s development.

First, the history of the relationship between Congress and the Fed reveals a recurring cycle of economic crisis, political blame, and institutional reform. When the economy is performing well, Congress tends to look the other way, leaving the Fed to pursue its statutory mandate to boost jobs and limit inflation. When the economy sours, lawmakers react by blaming the Fed and then counter-intuitively often giving the Fed more power. Legislative and central bank reactions in the wake of the most recent financial crisis fit this recurring theme. Even after blaming them, Congress further concentrated financial regulation in the Fed’s Board of Governors. Understanding the electoral dynamics that shape Congressional reactions helps to explain the puzzling decision to empower the Fed in the wake of crisis.

Second, economists and central bankers often argue that the Fed has instrument, but not goal, independence: Congress stipulates the Fed’s mandate but leaves the central bank to choose the tools necessary to achieve it. Our historical analysis suggests instead that Congress shapes both the monetary goals and tools. Creating and clipping emergency lending power, imposing greater transparency, influencing adoption of an inflation target—these and other legislative efforts directly shape the Fed’s conduct. Even today, monetary policy remains under siege, as lawmakers on the left and right remain dissatisfied with the Fed’s performance in driving the nation’s economic recovery from the Great Recession.

What new light do you shed on the notion of central bank independence?

Placing the Fed within the broader political system changes our understanding of the nature and primacy of central bank independence.

First, economists prize central bank independence on grounds that it keeps inflation low and stable. However, we show that ever since the Great Depression, Congressional majorities have typically demanded the Fed place equal weight on generating growth and controlling inflation—diminishing the importance of central bank autonomy to lawmakers. Moreover, we demonstrate that the seminal Treasury-Fed Accord of 1951—a deal that most argue cemented the Fed’s independence—tethered the Fed more closely to Congress even as it broke the Fed’s subordination to the Treasury.

Second, prescriptions for central bank independence notwithstanding, fully separating fiscal and monetary policy is complicated. During the Fed’s first half-century, fiscal policy was monetary policy. The Fed underwrote U.S. government borrowing, either willingly or unwillingly enabling the spending objectives of the executive and legislative branches. Even after the 1951 Fed-Treasury Accord, macro-economic outcomes have played a determinative role in shaping U.S. fiscal policy. And most recently, the Fed’s adoption of unconventional monetary policy in the wake of the financial crisis pushed interest rates to zero and ballooned the Fed’s balance sheet—leading many Fed critics to argue that the Fed had crossed the line into Congress’s fiscal domain. Importantly, even strict proponents of monetary independence recognize that exigent conditions often demand collaboration between the central bank and government, complicating monetary politics.

Third, the myth of Fed independence is convenient for elected officials eager to blame the Fed for poor economic outcomes. In fact, Congress and the Fed are interdependent: the Fed operates very much within the political structure in Washington. The Federal Reserve Act—the governing law—has been consistently reopened and revised, particularly after extraordinary economic challenges. Each time, Congress centralizes more control in the Fed’s Washington-based Board of Governors, in exchange for more central bank transparency and congressional accountability. Because Fed “independence” rests with Congress’s tolerance of the Fed’s policy performance, we argue that the Fed earns partial and contingent independence from Congress, and thus hardly any independence at all.

How does intense partisan polarization in Washington today affect the Fed?

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, like most national institutions, the Federal Reserve has been caught in the cross hairs of contemporary partisan polarization. Politicians of both stripes call for changes to the governance and powers of the Fed. Most prominently, we see bipartisan efforts to audit Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decisions. On the right, a vocal GOP cohort demands an unwinding of the Fed’s big balance sheet and a more formulaic approach to monetary policy. On the left, Democrats want greater diversity on the rosters of the Fed’s regional reserve banks. With the 2016 elections delivering government control to Republicans, prospects for reopening the Federal Reserve Act are heightened.

Several vacancies on the Board of Governors give President Trump and Republican senators another opportunity to air grievances and exert control. Trump inherits a rare opportunity to nominate a majority of members to the FOMC, including the power to appoint a new chair in early 2018 should he wish to replace Janet Yellen. Will he turn to more traditional monetary “hawks,” who seek to rollback crisis-era policies, thus tightening monetary policy? Or will Trump bend towards a more ideologically dovish chair, trading some inflation for a pro-growth agenda?

Washington leaves a large—and politicized—mark on the Federal Reserve. The Myth of Independence seeks to place these overtly political decisions into broader, historical perspective, exploring how the interdependence of Congress and the Federal Reserve shapes politics, the economy and financial markets. As Ben Bernanke expressed, “absent the support of some future White House, although it might be difficult to get passed and signed legislation that poses a serious challenge to the basic powers of the Fed, it unfortunately would not be impossible.”

BinderSarah Binder is professor of political science at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her books include Advice and Dissent and Stalemate. Mark Spindel has spent his entire career in investment management at such organizations as Salomon Brothers, the World Bank, and Potomac River Capital, a Washington D.C.–based hedge fund he started in 2007.

Landon R. Y. Storrs: What McCarthyism Can Teach Us about Trumpism

Since the election of President Donald Trump, public interest in “McCarthyism” has surged, and the focus has shifted from identifying individual casualties to understanding the structural factors that enable the rise of demagogues.

After The Second Red Scare was published in 2012, most responses I received from general readers were about the cases of individuals who had been investigated, or whom the inquirer guessed might have been investigated, under the federal employee loyalty program. That program, created by President Truman in 1947 in response to congressional conservatives’ charges that his administration harbored communist sympathizers, was the engine of the anticommunist crusade that became known as McCarthyism, and it was the central subject of my book. I was the first scholar to gain access to newly declassified records related to the loyalty program and thus the first to write a comprehensive history. The book argues that the program not only destroyed careers, it profoundly affected public policy in many fields.

Some queries came from relatives of civil servants whose lives had been damaged by charges of disloyalty. A typical example was the person who wanted to understand why, in the early 1950s, his parents abruptly moved the family away from Washington D.C. and until their deaths refused to explain why. Another interesting inquiry came from a New York Times reporter covering Bill de Blasio’s campaign for New York City mayor. My book referenced the loyalty case of Warren Wilhelm Sr., a World War II veteran and economist who left government service in 1953, became an alcoholic, was divorced by his wife, and eventually committed suicide. He never told his children about the excruciating loyalty investigation. His estranged son, born Warren Wilhelm Jr., legally adopted his childhood nickname, Bill, and his mother’s surname, de Blasio. I didn’t connect the case I’d found years earlier to the mayoral candidate until the journalist contacted me, at which point I shared my research. At that moment de Blasio’s opponents were attacking him for his own youthful leftism, so it was a powerful story, as I tried to convey in The Nation.

With Trump’s ascendance, media references to McCarthyism have proliferated, as commentators struggle to make sense of Trump’s tactics and supporters. Opinion writers note that Trump shares McCarthy’s predilections for bluffing and for fear-mongering—with terrorists, Muslims, and immigrants taking the place of communist spies. They also note that both men were deeply influenced by the disreputable lawyer Roy Cohn. Meanwhile, the president has tweeted that he himself is a victim of McCarthyism, and that the current investigations of him are “witch hunts”—leaving observers flummoxed, yet again, as to whether he is astonishingly ignorant or shamelessly misleading.

But the parallels between McCarthy’s era and our own run deeper than personalities. Although The Second Red Scare is about McCarthyism, it devotes little attention to McCarthy himself. The book is about how opponents of the New Deal exploited Americans’ fear of Soviet espionage in order to roll back public policies whose regulatory and redistributive effects conservatives abhorred. It shows that the federal employee loyalty program took shape long before the junior senator from Wisconsin seized the limelight in 1950 by charging that the State Department was riddled with communists.

By the late 1930s congressional conservatives of both parties were claiming that communists held influential jobs in key New Deal agencies—particularly those that most strongly challenged corporate prerogatives regarding labor and prices. The chair of the new Special House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, Martin Dies (a Texas Democrat who detested labor unions, immigrants, and black civil rights as much as communism), demanded that the U.S. Civil Service Commission (CSC) investigate employees at several agencies. When the CSC found little evidence to corroborate Dies’s allegations, he accused the CSC itself of harboring subversives. Similarly, when in 1950 the Tydings Committee found no evidence to support McCarthy’s claims about the State Department, McCarthy said the committee conducted a “whitewash.” President Trump too insists that anyone who disproves his claims is part of a conspiracy. One important difference is that Dies and McCarthy alleged a conspiracy against the United States, whereas Trump chiefly complains of conspiracies against himself—whether perpetrated by a “deep state” soft on terrorism and immigration or by a biased “liberal media.” The Roosevelt administration dismissed Dies as a crackpot, and during the Second World War, attacks on the loyalty of federal workers got little traction.

That changed in the face of postwar Soviet conduct, the nuclear threat, and revelations of Soviet espionage. In a futile effort to counter right-wing charges that he was “soft” on communism, President Truman expanded procedures for screening government employees, creating a loyalty program that greatly enhanced the power of the FBI and the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. State, local, and private employers followed suit. As a result, the threat of long-term unemployment forced much of the American workforce not only to avoid political dissent, but to shun any association that an anonymous informant might find suspect. Careers and families were destroyed. With regard to the U.S. civil service, the damage to morale and to effective policymaking lasted much longer than the loyalty program itself.

Public employees long have been vulnerable to political attacks. Proponents of limited government by definition dislike them, casting them as an affront to the (loaded) American ideals of rugged individualism and free markets. But hostility to government employees has been more broad-based at moments when severe national security threats come on top of widespread economic and social insecurity. The post-WWII decade represented such a moment. In the shadow of the Soviet and nuclear threats, women and African-Americans struggled to maintain the toeholds they had gained during the war, and some Americans resented new federal initiatives against employment discrimination. Resentment of the government’s expanding role was fanned by right-wing portrayals of government experts as condescending, morally degenerate “eggheads” who avoided the competitive marketplace by living off taxpayers.

Today, widespread insecurity in the face of terrorism, globalization, multiculturalism, and gender fluidity have made many Americans susceptible to the same sorts of reactionary populist rhetoric heard in McCarthy’s day. And again that rhetoric serves the objectives of those who would gut government, or redirect it to serve private rather than public interests.

The Trump administration calls for shrinking the federal workforce, but the real goal is a more friendly and pliable bureaucracy. Trump advisers complain that Washington agencies are filled with leftists. Trump transition teams requested names of employees who worked on gender equality at State and climate change initiatives at the EPA. Trump media allies such as Breitbart demanded the dismissal of Obama “holdovers.” Trump selected appointees based on their personal loyalty rather than qualifications and, when challenged, suggested that policy expertise hinders fresh thinking. In firing Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for declining to enforce his first “travel ban,” Trump said she was “weak” and had “betrayed” her department. Such statements, like Trump’s earlier claims that President Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim, fit the textbook definition of McCarthyism: undermining political opponents by making unsubstantiated attacks on their loyalty to the United States. Even more alarming is Trump’s pattern of equating disloyalty to himself with disloyalty to the nation—the textbook definition of autocracy.

Might the demise of McCarthyism hold lessons about how Trumpism will end? The Second Red Scare wound down thanks to the courage of independent journalists, the decision after four long years of McCarthy’s fellow Republican senators to put country above party, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions in cases brought by brave defendants and lawyers. The power of each of those forces was contingent, of course, on the abilities of Americans to sort fact from fiction, to resist the politics of fear and resentment, and to vote.

StorrsLandon R. Y. Storrs is professor of history at the University of Iowa. She is the author of Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers’ League, Women’s Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era and The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left.

Happy birthday to Henry David Thoreau

by Jeffrey Cramer

Cramer“You would find him well worth knowing.” These are the words Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about “a man of thought and originality,” Henry David Thoreau.

July 12th marks the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth in Concord, Massachusetts. Although at the time of his death in 1862 he was little more than a Ralph Waldo Emerson wannabe, today he is known around the world for his thoughtful writings on our place in the world. His writings on social reform inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and protesters against the war in Vietnam. His natural history writings were a great impetus to John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Bill McKibben, and he is considered by many to be the father of the American environmental movement. His words in support of John Brown or against the Fugitive Slave Law are as courageous and as forthright as any written by our founding fathers. And as the man who “hears a different drummer” he has emboldened many readers to pursue their own unique paths with independence and confidence.

The world in which Thoreau lived was not so very different from ours. It was a time in which everything he believed and everything for which his country stood was being challenged. We live in hard times of a different character, when our country, when the world, is being divided politically, morally, and ethically. It is a time of deep personal reflection, deliberate and attentive questioning, and perhaps the most necessary thing of all, open dialogue and conversation. “We are all schoolmasters,” Thoreau wrote, showing us that we all have something to share. But he also said that we should “seek to be fellow students,” reminding us that we all have something to learn.

Thoreau can teach and inspire and antagonize and outrage, but ultimately give us something against which to try our own lives and that is what great writing offers the reader. In reading Thoreau we may not always find the answer to our questions, but we find the question. We may find words we agree with or we may find words we cannot agree with, in part or at all, but we do find a challenge to our complacency.

When George Eliot reviewed Walden, she said she would “Let Mr. Thoreau speak for himself.” Following Eliot’s advice, here are a few phrases in which Thoreau speaks for himself.

 

Nothing is so much to be feared but fear.

It costs us nothing to be just.

How insufficient is all wisdom without love.

What does education often do! It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free meandering brook.

I have sometimes heard a conversation beginning again when it should have ceased for lack of fuel.

A government which deliberately enacts injustice, and persists in it, will at length ever become the laughingstock of the world.

Any truth is better than make-believe.

 

 

Francisco Bethencourt: Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’

Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon
6th May to 3rd September 2017
Curator: Francisco Bethencourt, Charles Boxer Professor, King’s College London,
and author of Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century

When Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century was translated into Portuguese I was invited by the director of Padrão dos Descobrimentos to organize an exhibition on that subject there. The monument had been created in 1960 by the Salazar regime to commemorate Portuguese overseas exploration and colonialism, obviously ignoring the suffering inflicted on other people. I immediately accepted the challenge to transform a comprehensive book into an exhibition naturally based on images and focusing on the Portuguese case. I needed an argument, a narrative, and a structure.

I decided to focus this exhibition on two interlinked realities: racism, understood as prejudice against those of different ethnic origins, combined with discriminatory actions; and citizenship, seen as the right to live, work, and participate in the political life of a country, equally involving duties and responsibilities. The tension between exclusion and integration lies at the heart of this exhibition. I invite viewers to reflect on various historical realities and recent developments, with the help of objects—paintings, sculptures, engravings, shackles, manillas, ceramics, posters, photographs, and videos. Images are presented in a crude way, but they also reveal subtle contradictions, hinting at what lies beyond outward appearances.

The exhibition is arranged into two parts, early modern and modern, and six sections: a) the hostility towards Jews and Moors living in medieval Portugal, which was renewed after forced conversions; b) a focus on people of African origin who were enslaved and transported to Portugal, Brazil, and Asia; c) the representations of native peoples of the New World and Asia, which led to the first European conception of a hierarchy of the world’s people; d) the Portuguese colonies, where slave labor was replaced by forced labor; e) the contradictory realities of the 20th century, in the colonies and Portugal alike; f) the dynamics involved in the attempt to repair the fractures in the contemporary and post-colonial period.

Racism was always confronted with informal forms of integration, which became predominant in the postcolonial period. The assertion of citizenship followed the Revolution of April 1974 and the independence of the colonies in 1975. It is a new period, still under the shadow of informal racism, but in which new values of legal equality have been supported by the state. The anti-racist norm became a reality, still to be systematically implemented. The last section of the exhibition shows the recent work of Portuguese and African artists, who use colonial memory to reflect on new issues of collective identity.

During the period under consideration, Muslim expulsion took place, as did the forced conversion of Jewish people, the slave trade, the colonization of territories in Africa, America and Asia, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, and immigration.

The exhibition aims to encourage the public to question past and present relations between peoples, combining emigration with immigration, exclusion and integration, lack of rights and access to citizenship.

BethencourtFrancisco Bethencourt is the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London, and the author of The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478–1834.

Kathryn Watterson on I Hear My People Singing

WattersonIn I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African-American Princeton, Kathryn ‘Kitsi’ Watterson illuminates the resilience and ingenuity of the historic black neighborhood, just outside the gates of Princeton University, through the words of its residents. Watterson recently answered some questions from writer Kristin Cashioli, providing insight into this extraordinary labor of love that began nearly two decades ago.

What does this project mean to you?  Why is it so special?

KW: Wow, that question gave me goosebumps. When this book began, it was a simple effort to collect the life stories of the elders in the Witherspoon neighborhood.  This was thrilling work, and was second nature to me as a writer and journalist. Since I was a child, I’ve seen African Americans as national heroes. Imagine yourself living in the heat of laws and efforts to thwart you, keep you in poverty, to punish, demean, and often kill you; imagine that every single day, you encounter negative stereotypes because of the shade of your skin or the shape of your nose. Racism and segregation are so cruel and invasive, and it’s just amazing how black people live with some form of violence against them at all times. Even though Princeton wasn’t as bad as many places, it still had these patterns. Most white people never experience something so crushing on a daily basis. To see the great strength that dealt with this assault, rose above it, and created from within it, makes this project special. The humanity in these residents’ lives, the richness of their vision, and the way they came together made working on this project an honor. Turning this project into a book as a way to preserve these vital stories has been a gift to me.

What sets your book apart from others about race and justice issues?

KW: It’s the speakers’ voices that make this so powerful and intimate. There is such a panorama of diverse, complex individuals and their experiences. They are the heart of the book. I’ve been told that historians have done a lot of writing about racial issues in the North during the 18th and 19th centuries, but that this book will add to the scholarship of northern segregation in the 20th century. This is not a traditional oral history–it is its own creation, one that’s highly accessible and allows readers to imagine the inside experience as if they’d been there themselves.

What aspects of your research most inspired and surprised you?

KW: I was most surprised to discover the continuity of prejudice that this community has dealt with and addressed nonstop for more than three and a half centuries.  Its origins began with slavery, long before the village of Prince Town or the university existed. The designs of racism were established when slavery was an accepted practice, and have continued in other forms through America’s and the neighborhood’s history. In my research, I felt I kept uncovering the deep roots of racism. To see something that disrupts families and the lives of children so blatantly encouraged and accepted by fellow human beings is unnerving.  It’s very similar to the way we accept the prison system today. We act like it’s normal.

The most inspirational parts of this research were definitely the stories of individuals who blossomed throughout their lives in their service to others. I fell in love with Rev. William Robeson (Paul Robeson’s father) who, after escaping from slavery, went to Lincoln University, studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, earned two degrees in Theology, and then moved seamlessly into his ministerial leadership and family life in Princeton. His wisdom and grace are extraordinary. I also was enthralled by Betsy Stockton, formerly enslaved as well, who started schools in the 1830s for a people who had been forbidden to learn how to read or write. She founded the Witherspoon School for Colored Children and engaged the entire community in growing a school system that deeply understood the importance of education.

What do you hope your readers will take away from your book?

KW: So often in my own urban neighborhood, I see young black men crossing the street or walking with their heads down so as to deflect the fear they have learned to expect from white people passing by who clutch their bags or glance away. I especially want white readers to understand the impact of this diminishment and to recognize why black lives matter—just as it’s taken for granted that white lives do. I want to open readers’ minds, let them in on another level, and allow them to know how it feels. I want them to realize the courage it takes for an individual to live with hope and with the belief that the human experience we share is sacred.

How did you arrive at the title?

KW: Paul Robeson, the great orator, singer, and social justice advocate, wrote, “I heard my people singing,” when he was describing the beloved Witherspoon neighborhood where he was born. Back when we were conducting interviews in 2000, one of my students, Lauren Miller, suggested it as the title. One of the things we did during that time was to hold several public presentations at the library, the community center, and the university. Students read excerpts from the interviews we had, and residents in the audience heard their own words spoken back to them. It was like hearing singing—all of these different voices blending together. It was exhilarating and was exactly what I wanted people to hear—this fantastic chorus of voices. For me, in their stories, I hear America singing. I hear what this country could be. I feel lifted up, and I think everyone who has been involved with this book feels the same.

What is the greatest thing you have learned from writing this book?

KW: That magic happens. It all started with Hank Pannell’s love for the community and his urgency about saving these unique stories. When he told me that what he and his other Witherspoon neighbors really wanted was an oral history, I thought, how could I possibly do this? What seemed like an impossibility became a reality because it was built on love. I got swept up by the beautiful spirit of this neighborhood, and so did my students. It was contagious. This book shows what can happen when people come together, caring for and honoring one another.

What has been the greatest compliment and toughest criticism given to you as an author?  How have these helped you?

KW: The greatest compliments I’ve been given as an author are from people who’ve told me after reading one of my books, “This changed my life.” It’s been a moment or an emotional connection or a story that opened up the world for them somehow and moved them to new insights and a deeper understanding of our human experience. I’m humbled by this, as well as encouraged, because I, too, have been transformed by doing this work.

The toughest criticism that stands out is when someone wise tells me I’ve gotten something wrong, missed a point, or missed the bigger picture. These incidents act as a vehicle for learning. They sharpen my thinking and help me immensely with revisions. For this book, critical feedback that I received from three historians opened up my perspective and helped me discover more about the centuries of segregation and slavery in the North.

What is your next project?

KW: Before I found out that Princeton University Press wanted to publish I Hear My People Singing, I was immersed in a novel about a Philadelphia-based newspaper reporter at odds with the police in the 1970s. I’m eager to get back to work on it, as well as on several short stories that are treading water, waiting to get to the shore.

Kathryn ‘Kitsi’ Watterson is an award-winning journalist and writer, as well as a beloved teacher of writing. The author of nine books, including Women in Prison, Not by the Sword, You Must Be Dreaming, and Growing Into Love, she’s drawn to issues of justice and to expressing the full range of human experience. Her creative writing classes at the University of Pennsylvania, as they were at Princeton, are known for their close sense of community and personal empowerment, engagement with the world, and a great deal of fun and laughter. In addition, she sings, drums and plays percussion with an improvisational band, The Unity. She lives in the City of Philadelphia.

 

Jerald Podair on the building of Dodger Stadium

PodairThis April marks the 55th anniversary of Dodger Stadium’s grand opening. The stadium is well-known in the world of professional sports for its beauty as well as its history, but when Walter O’Malley moved his Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1957 with plans to construct a new ballpark next to downtown, he ignited a bitter argument over the future of a rapidly changing city. For the first time, City of Dreams by Jerald Podair tells the full story of the controversial building of Dodger Stadium—and how it helped create modern Los Angeles by transforming its downtown into a vibrant cultural and entertainment center. Podair recently took some time to answer a few questions about the book, and how Dodger Stadium came to serve as the field of battle between two visions of Los Angeles’s future.

What drew you to Los Angeles as a historical subject?

JP: I’ve always had the native New Yorker’s outsized pride in his home city, but if New York was America’s city of the twentieth century, Los Angeles may well be its city of the twenty-first. Our national multicultural experiment—one the rest of the world is watching closely—will, for better or worse, play out in Los Angeles. So I became fascinated by the ways in which Los Angeles grew and developed during the twentieth century, especially during the years following World War II, when it began to turn outward toward the nation and world.

I also came to study Los Angeles through the equally fascinating historical figure of Walter O’Malley, who altered the historical trajectories of America’s two most important cities when he moved his Brooklyn Dodgers west in 1957. The New York portion of O’Malley’s story is well documented, the Los Angeles period much less so. O’Malley was strikingly unfamiliar with Los Angeles when he moved there—his total time spent in the city amounted to less than ten days—and he had not anticipated the serious obstacles he would face in building his new stadium. There is a myth, especially prevalent in New York, that O’Malley enjoyed smooth sailing once he arrived in Los Angeles and that the road to Dodger Stadium was an easy one. This, as I discovered, was emphatically not the case. I was drawn to writing about O’Malley and his struggles in Los Angeles as a way to understand the larger story of that city’s journey to power and status in postwar America.

And why Dodger Stadium?

JP: No American sports venue epitomizes its home city as does Dodger Stadium. It would be out of place anywhere else. Dodger Stadium serves as a form of civic glue for a fractured, transient city. The people of Los Angeles disagree about many things, but not about Dodger Stadium. To them, it is an object of pride and fascination. So it seemed to me that Dodger Stadium would be the perfect vehicle through which to tell the story of the emergence of Los Angeles as a modern city through its signature sports venue. I’m always telling my students at Lawrence University to take a smaller (but not small) story and use it to tell a larger one.  This book is an instance of taking my own advice.

You argue in your book that the battle over building Dodger Stadium was really a battle over the modern identity of Los Angeles. What do you mean by that?

JP: The battle over Dodger Stadium divided the city of Los Angeles in half. Two clashing visions of the city’s future lay at stake. A revitalized downtown—which Dodger Stadium would anchor—was essential to the first of those visions, championed by business interests such as the Chandler family, publishers of the Los Angeles Times, and political elites led by Mayor Norris Poulson. Their Los Angeles was an ambitious city of “no little plans,” with civic institutions that matched its growing economic and cultural power. They wanted a downtown comparable to those in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles’s rival to the north, San Francisco.

But Los Angeles was also a city of what the historian Kenneth Starr has called the “Folks,” white middle class property owners with Midwestern roots who had settled in peripheral areas and who felt little connection to downtown and what it represented. To them, Dodger Stadium was a diversion of taxpayer resources—and the Folks identified very strongly as “taxpayers”—from the basic, everyday functions of government in their neighborhoods: schools, roads, policing, and sanitation. So their more circumscribed understanding of what Los Angeles should be and the purposes it should serve clashed with the vision of those who were identified, both geographically and philosophically, with downtown.

Between 1957 and 1962, Dodger Stadium served as the field of battle between these two visions of Los Angeles’s future. We know of course that the stadium was built, so the advocates of “no little plans” won that round. But even today, the argument over the city’s identity continues. Downtown Los Angeles is a much more vibrant place than it was when the Dodgers arrived in 1957, if you measure by institutions and edifices—museums, concert halls, sports arenas, restaurants, high-end apartments, and office towers—but it still lacks the coherency and depth, the soul, if you will, of more historically established downtowns. It remains a work in progress. And there are still those who, like the Folks who opposed Dodger Stadium in the 1950s and 1960s, view downtown as a drain of resources from their own communities. In many ways, they continue to see downtown Los Angeles as irrelevant to their lives. So in that sense, the argument over Dodger Stadium and the city’s modern identity continues today.

In your book, you discuss the political cultures of New York and Los Angeles in the years following World War II. How did they differ?

JP: I think the very different political cultures of New York and Los Angeles determined that Walter O’Malley would get what he needed—affordable land on which to build his privately financed ballpark—from one city but not from the other. New York’s municipal politics in the 1950s featured a strong orientation toward the public sector and organized labor that, while not necessarily anti-capitalist in nature, did not offer an entrepreneur like O’Malley a particularly sympathetic atmosphere.  This meant that when he asked for assistance from New York City officials in acquiring land parcels in Brooklyn that were beyond his individual financial means in order to construct a stadium with his own funds, he was branded—unfairly, in my view—as seeking a “giveaway.” But in Los Angeles, publicly owned land at Chavez Ravine overlooking downtown was made available to O’Malley in exchange for property he owned elsewhere in the city. Los Angeles officials were thus willing to do what their counterparts in New York were not.

In my view, this was because the political culture of Los Angeles—where the statist reforms of the New Deal had less staying power than in New York—was more hospitable to businessmen, especially one like O’Malley whose private undertaking promised to advance the public good. In New York, the focus was almost obsessively on O’Malley’s profits; that the city would benefit from a new Dodger ballpark was deemed of lesser importance. In Los Angeles, the weight accorded these considerations was reversed. In deciding a taxpayer suit seeking to void the Dodger Stadium contract in favor of O’Malley, the California Supreme Court said as much. The Dodgers were permitted to make money on the deal, the court ruled in 1959, as long as there were tangible benefits accruing to the people of Los Angeles. Those benefits—a world-class stadium, not to mention millions of dollars in property taxes paid by the privately held stadium—were enough to justify state assistance to a private entrepreneur. O’Malley moved to Los Angeles for this very reason. Although O’Malley was a businessman and not a philosopher and probably would not have used the term “political culture” to explain his decision to leave New York, this is clearly what he had in mind. Had New York’s political culture been different, he undoubtedly would have remained there. And that would have been Los Angeles’s loss, since along with Walter’s son and successor Peter, the O’Malleys are widely regarded as the best sports ownership group in the city’s history.

Why are Los Angeles politics so difficult to untangle?

JP: One my previous books examined the byzantine politics of New York City, but I can tell you, my hometown has nothing on Los Angeles. For one thing, New York has party identifications. Los Angeles’s nonpartisan system makes it difficult to identify who belongs where. Yes, I knew that say, Mayor Norris Poulson was a Republican (he had served as a GOP congressman) and that Edward Roybal, a Mexican American city councilman who opposed the Dodger Stadium contract, was a Democrat, but there was nonetheless a disorienting quality to the political landscape that made it hard to follow.

Also unlike New York, there were few ethnoreligious identifying markers to guide me. Los Angeles had racial divides, of course, but during the 1950s it was a largely white Protestant city that lacked the deep-seated tribalism of New York. Beyond the Melting Pot, the classic book about the resilience of ethnic and racial politics in New York, could not have been written about Los Angeles. Los Angeles did not have a political machine like New York’s Tammany Hall or even a “power broker” like Robert Moses, who determined what got built in New York during the postwar years. I’m not saying that bosses and dictatorial bureaucrats are good things, of course, but they certainly make a city’s political terrain easier to “read.” Los Angeles’s politics were also relatively decentered, with media taking the place of strong party organizations and referenda (such as the 1958 vote on the Dodger Stadium contract that determined its fate) devolving power to the grassroots.

Approaching Los Angeles, I felt a bit like Walter O’Malley himself, who stepped off the plane from New York in October 1957 to encounter a Los Angeles political landscape with no parties, no machines, no power brokers, no white ethnics, and no center. Disconcerting, to say the least. But like O’Malley, once I got my bearings, I found Los Angeles a fascinating place to be. I feel that the surface of this city’s history has barely been scratched.

How does your book speak to current issues involving public financing for stadiums and arenas in cities seeking to attract or retain sports teams?

JP: When it was completed in 1962, Dodger Stadium was the first privately funded sports venue since Yankee Stadium forty years earlier. Over the past half-century, it has earned a great deal of money for both Dodger ownership and—since it is on the tax rolls—the city and county of Los Angeles. In contrast, municipally financed stadiums invariably fail to recoup their costs in line with their projected timetables. San Francisco’s city-built Candlestick Park, which when it opened in 1960 was compared favorably with the yet-to-be-completed Dodger Stadium, took over 30 years to pay itself off, far longer than expected.

While the costs of private stadium construction are almost prohibitively high today, Dodger Stadium offers a lesson for cities seeking to build sports arenas without saddling themselves with debt or blowing up their budgets: get as much private money as you can. That is easier said than done, of course, because the threat of ownership to leave town or to reject an offer from a suitor city is omnipresent. But private financing beats public spending every time. Walter O’Malley had a personal stake in making Dodger Stadium the cleanest, most welcoming, most efficiently run and most attractive sports venue in America, because it belonged to him. He was responsible for it, good or bad. Around the same time Dodger Stadium went up, the municipally owned Shea Stadium opened in New York to house the National League’s new franchise, the Mets. Arriving well over budget, Shea Stadium was charmless and hulking, with dirty corridors and bathrooms and surly employees. The city of New York maintained it poorly. Unlike Dodger Stadium, no single individual was accountable when things went wrong at Shea Stadium, as they often did. The contrast between private and public ownership could not have been starker.

Another lesson of the Dodger Stadium story is one that many sports economists will dispute, but which I hold to nonetheless: these teams are worth keeping. Something goes out of a city’s soul when a sports franchise leaves. Certainly that was the case in New York, where aging Brooklyn Dodger fans still lament their team’s departure. For all the brave talk about “not needing” a team, after it goes there is an emptiness that even improved municipal bottom lines cannot fill. This is a distinctly non-empirical view I’m propounding, and I’m sure that “the numbers” argue against me, but to cite one example, the last time I was in Seattle I saw “bring back the Sonics” signs in windows, years after their NBA team left for Oklahoma City. Ask Seattle fans—and the city ardently pursued a replacement team a while back—how the money they saved when the Sonics left town feels jingling around in their pockets. It’s cold comfort. They want their team back. Similarly, ask Brooklyn fans what they’d do if they could do it all over again in 1957. The “let them leave” bravado would vanish. They’d want their Dodgers back. They’re baseball fans, not accountants.

Are you a Dodgers fan?

JP: No, I’m actually a lifelong (and long-suffering) fan of the New York Mets, who are the spiritual successors of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team I am too young to remember personally. But studying and writing about Dodger Stadium—for my money, America’s most beautiful ballpark—has certainly pulled me in the direction of its featured attraction. When you’re sitting in the upper deck at Dodger Stadium at dusk on a summer night in LA with the organ music playing and the San Gabriel Mountains beckoning in the distance, it’s hard not to root for the home team.

Jerald Podair is professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is the author of The Strike That Changed New York and Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer and City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.

Jerald Podair: The story of Dodger Stadium

Dodger Stadium, which opened in Los Angeles on April 10, 1962, was the single most controversial building project in the city’s modern history. It was constructed in Chavez Ravine, a neighborhood overlooking downtown, whose Mexican American residents had been dispersed for a public housing project that was never built. In 1957, the city of Los Angeles attracted the Brooklyn Dodgers by promising team owner Walter O’Malley Chavez Ravine for his new stadium on favorable terms. O’Malley agreed to build Dodger Stadium at his own expense.

Critics of the contract between the city and the Dodgers under which the land was transferred labeled it a “giveaway.” Over the next five years they fought a multi-front battle to have the contract voided. They initiated a ballot referendum challenging the contract’s validity that failed by a razor-thin margin and brought a series of taxpayer lawsuits that were initially successful but eventually reversed by the Supreme Court of California. There was also a racially charged eviction of Mexican American homeowners from the Chavez Ravine land by city authorities.

The battle over Dodger Stadium was a civic war that divided Los Angeles in half. But it did not divide the city along the lines we might expect, especially if we adopt the essentialist view of race and class that seems to be in vogue today. It is tempting to view the Dodger Stadium story as a simple one of rich white people on one side and poor people of color on the other. But the truth is more complicated. There is no question that the city’s Latino community was deeply wounded by the Chavez Ravine removals. The evictions have been the subject of plays, films, and songs, and are credited with inspiring the Chicano movement in Los Angeles. They remain a subject of bitter memory today. But a majority of residents of the city’s heavily Latino East Los Angeles council district defied their own anti-contract councilman to vote in favor of the Dodger Stadium deal in the closely contested ballot referendum. Latinos have also constituted the Dodgers’ most loyal and enduring fan base through the years. Fair-weather fans come and go, but the Latino community remains Dodger Blue. The divided character of the Latino response to the Dodger Stadium controversy thus defeats attempts to cast it solely in racial terms.

The most vociferous and passionate opponents of the Dodger Stadium deal, in fact, were white. They were the people the late California historian Kenneth Starr has called the “Folks”: middle-class homeowners, often with Midwestern or Southern roots, who lived in the peripheral areas of the city and harbored conservative cultural and economic sensibilities. Fearful of resources in their outlying communities being siphoned off for the benefit of large-scale undertakings downtown, the Folks were fiercely opposed to the Dodger Stadium project. Their campaign to keep it from being built allied them with the evicted residents of Chavez Ravine and their supporters in the city’s Latino community. Both groups united around the rights of property owners, no matter how humble, to keep what was rightfully theirs.

The coalition in favor of the stadium contract also defied simplistic race-and-class based expectations. Conservative downtown commercial and financial leaders lined up behind the stadium project, as did more liberal representatives of the city’s “Westside,” a center of the building-and-loan, construction, and entertainment sectors with a substantial Jewish population. Both shared an interest in revitalizing a downtown core whose civic and cultural amenities lagged significantly behind those of Los Angeles’s chief rival cities, New York and San Francisco.

These elites were joined by a crucial ally: the city’s African American community, which backed the stadium project overwhelmingly. The Dodgers, were, of course, closely associated with civil rights, having brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues in 1947. Robinson was a Los Angeles-area native and his endorsement of the Dodger Stadium project was critical in gaining African American support for it.

The battle over Dodger Stadium thus produced interracial, cross-class alliances on both sides of the partisan divide. We can, of course, interpret these alignments as counterintuitive and even aberrational. But this view implies that identity is destiny, and that our political configurations can always be explained by the simple binaries of race and class. At Dodger Stadium, interest politics overcame identity politics. And that may not be a bad thing. In an identity-obsessed contemporary political environment, Dodger Stadium’s example of boundary-crossing allegiances is one we should take to heart.

PodairJerald Podair is professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is a recipient of the Allan Nevins Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians for “literary distinction in the writing of history.” He is the author of City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.

Fighting for Land in the City of Dreams

City of Dreams - Jerald PodairOn Friday, May 8th, 1959, in front of a waiting audience of newspaper journalists and television cameras, the City of Los Angeles commenced the eviction of the Arechiga family from their two homes in Chavez Ravine. Sheriff’s deputies broke down the barricaded doors and dragged the Arechigas from the buildings before bulldozers moved in to demolish them. Local television stations showed live footage of the eviction and demolition. It was the latest and most dramatic episode in the tangled story of the Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles.

The Arechigas were among the last remnants of an established Mexican-American community in Chavez Ravine. The semi-rural canyon had provided homes for Mexican-American families for decades, but its location just north of downtown Los Angeles made it an obvious target for redevelopment following the Second World War, as the city struggled to house a rapidly growing population. Initially the Ravine was slated for an enormous public housing project, planned for over 3,300 units, in buildings designed by modernist architects Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander. The City Housing Authority moved rapidly to relocate residents, using federal funds to acquire the land via eminent domain. However, McCarthy-era Los Angeles proved unsympathetic to these “socialist” plans, and in 1953 newly-elected mayor Norris Poulson made good on his election promises to block the Chavez Ravine development.

Through the mid-’50s, Chavez Ravine was a ghost town, with only a handful of residents clinging on. The Arechigas continued to fight the condemnation orders against their homes, arguing that the abandonment of the housing project rendered the orders void, and attempted to pay taxes on the property. The City, for its part, declined the payments, and allowed the case to continue through the courts.

In 1957 the situation changed as a group of LA politicians and administrators, Poulson among them, pitched Los Angeles to Brooklyn Dodgers-owner Walter O’Malley as a new home for the team. O’Malley considered a new, substantially larger stadium essential to the Dodgers’ future, but the land on which to build it was not to be had in New York. Could Chavez Ravine offer a solution? O’Malley found himself embroiled in a complex political and legal battle between rival factions that was ultimately decided by the California Supreme Court in January 1959. The land could be used to build his stadium. But the land was not yet empty, and the massive publicity around the eviction of the Arechigas threatened to derail the stadium plan.

Four days after the eviction, there was a stunning new development. An article in the Mirror News newspaper revealed that the Arechiga family owned no less than seven other homes. Public opinion rapidly turned against the Arechigas. A few days previously they had been pitied as penniless citizens made homeless by a heartless administration; now they were pilloried as grasping obstructionists determined to wring a higher price for their land from the taxpayer. Their battle was lost; the Arechigas did not accept the condemnation payment on the property until 1962, but they could only look on as construction began on Dodger Stadium.


Read the full story of the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles, and the battles surrounding the construction of Dodger Stadium, in Jerald Podair’s City of Dreams, available now from Princeton University Press.

Tony Smith on how Woodrow Wilson shaped America’s foreign policy

Why Wilson Matters by Tony SmithThe liberal internationalist tradition is credited with America’s greatest triumphs as a world power—and also its biggest failures. Beginning in the 1940s, imbued with the spirit of Woodrow Wilson’s efforts at the League of Nations to “make the world safe for democracy,” the United States steered a course in world affairs that would eventually win the Cold War. Yet in the 1990s, Wilsonianism turned imperialist, contributing directly to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the continued failures of American foreign policy. In Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today, Tony Smith traces how Wilson’s thinking about America’s role in the world evolved in the years leading up to and during his presidency, and how the Wilsonian tradition went on to influence American foreign policy in the decades that followed. Smith recently took the time to answer questions about his book.

How does Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy (1913-1921) relate to today’s world?

TS: Wilson never articulated a grand strategy for the United States. Still, his two terms in office, and especially his design for the League of Nations, laid out concepts for how to “make the world safe for democracy” that came to life with the challenges Washington faced to win the peace after victory in World War II. The package of Wilson’s proposals for a system of world peace called for an alliance of democratic governments, working to promote an integrated international economic system, through multilateral agreements that included first and foremost collective security, all maintained under American leadership. What at first would be a Pax Americana would in time become a Pax Democratica. The result is what we call “Wilsonianism,” the American variant of liberal internationalism. We can distinguish a “preclassical” stage of liberal thinking that goes back to our Revolution, a “classic” period with Wilson, a “hegemonic” stage during the cold war, and an “imperialist” phase that began in the 1990s. This last stage is best called “neo-Wilsonianism.”

Was President George W. Bush the heir of the Wilsonian mantle in world affairs?

TS: Certainly the Bush Doctrine (defined as the National Security Strategy of the United States in September 2002) seemed to show continuity between Wilson’s thinking and that of the Bush administrations of 2001-2009. The key difference lay in the defensive character of classical and hegemonic American liberal internationalism and the offensive posture of neo-Wilsonian imperialism. The neo-Wilsonian belief that democracy was a “universal value” that had “universal appeal” such that the United States could embrace a “just war” doctrine that overthrew the Westphalian system of state sovereignty in terms of a “responsibility to protect” peoples everywhere from autocratic government would never for a moment have been entertained by Wilson. Wilson did not march on Mexico City in 1914, nor on Moscow or on Berlin in 1918. By the same coin, he would surely not have approved the attack on Baghdad in 2003, nor is there reason to think he would have celebrated the April Spring eight years later.

Why, then, is Wilson’s name so often associated with American imperialism?

TS: At the root of the problem is the failure to study Wilson’s political thinking about the origins and character of democratic government developed during the decades when he was one of this country’s leading social scientists, ideas he later followed as president. The result is that American liberal internationalism has lacked a clear identity to give it a compass in foreign relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. To call Wilson, as so many have, “a crusader,” “messianic,” and “utopian” is simply to misunderstand the prudent restraint he repeatedly showed in thinking that democratic government would quickly, easily, or indeed ever at all expand worldwide. Yes, he was “idealistic” and “moralistic” in thinking democracy was the best form of government for peoples capable of enjoying its blessings of liberty. But a utopian, and so an imperialist, he never was. Let’s call him a “realistic liberal.”

Why does all this matter?

TS: The American tradition of human rights and democracy promotion, like that which sponsors open economic relations, all in the name of making the world safe for democracy, has badly overplayed its hand. Its belief that our way was the only way led to a clash of civilizations the fruits of which we can see on every side, from the Muslim world, to China and Russia to economic inequality at home. The tragedy is that a way of thinking that did so much to establish the strength of the free market democracies between the early 1940s and the early 1990s should have been the source of its own undoing is an irony whose logic needs to be grasped. Here lies the explanation for how the greatest successes in the Republic’s history in foreign affairs—going from the creation of the Bretton Woods System to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, passing by occupation policies for Germany and Japan—should give way to a change in its course that would lead to the invasion of Iraq under Bush and the surge in Afghanistan and enthusiasm about the Arab Spring under Obama –policies which now constitute the greatest defeats in our country’s history in world affairs.

Is liberal imperialism related to the economic crisis that has best the world since 2007?

TS: Most certainly it is. To read the criticisms of Economics Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz is to see the logic of Wilson’s thinking applied to our day with the same concern from American power and American democracy being steadily eroded by what Wilson called “predatory” capitalism. He feared its machinations globally, and not only domestically. Wilson was right.

What can be done?

TS: Neo-Wilsonianism is now deeply embedded in American elite institutions. The neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party in the 1990s bears much of the blame for popularizing and militarizing the Wilsonian tradition. However, the neoliberal movement within the Democratic Party did most of the intellectual heavy-lifting in the development of this thinking, as can be seen from a review of the Obama years and the policies advanced by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The international regulation of the capitalist world and the growth of a national security state simply have too much momentum behind them for us to have much confidence in a progressive future. That said, the faith of an earlier day returned under FDR with astonishing success and may yet be able to light the future before it is too late. Nation- and state-building that Washington likes to discuss so much with respect to our efforts to reform peoples abroad might better begin at home. From income inequality, to campaign finance reform, to prison conditions there should be quite enough here and with our democratic partners to keep us busy. “Physician, heal thyself.”

Tony Smith is Cornelia M. Jackson Professor emeritus of political science at Tufts University. The best know of his earliest work on American liberal internationalism is America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (published by Princeton University Press in 1994 and again, in an expanded version, in 2012).

Leah Boustan: What Mid-Century White Flight Reveals about the Trump Electorate

BoustanIn the months since Donald Trump’s surprise win of the U.S. presidency, two prevailing explanations for the electoral upset have emerged: either Trump voters were swayed by racism or by economic anxiety. Trump’s campaign embraced a series of racist stereotypes—Mexicans are criminals; blacks live in inner-city hellholes—but it also promised to bring back jobs to America’s declining manufacturing regions.

History suggests that the real story is probably a mix of these two explanations. Historical events that we have attributed to racism are often partially motivated by economic concerns. Looking back, we can see the reverse is also true; decisions perceived as strictly economic calculations can be tinged by racism.

One such example is white flight from central cities. In the mid-20th century, the share of white metropolitan households living in cities fell from 64 percent to 36 percent. White flight is typically attributed to racist attitudes of white residents who worried about a black family moving next door; Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to white suburbanization as a “triumph of racist social engineering.” But a closer reevaluation of this chapter in urban history reveals that white flight was motivated by both racism and economic anxiety.

In 1940, the majority of African Americans still lived in the rural South. At the time, even northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, which today have large black communities, were less than 10 percent black. Prompted in part by new factory positions opening during World War II, large waves of black migrants left the South.

Black migration definitely coincided with white relocation to the suburbs. But, many white suburban moves were unrelated to black arrivals, driven instead by rising incomes after the War, the baby boom, and new highway construction. Indeed, suburbanization was prevalent even in cities that received few black southerners, like Minneapolis-St. Paul. But there is a strong relationship between the number of black migrants to a northern city during this period and the number of whites who chose to relocate to the suburbs. For every black arrival, two whites left a typical city, a figure that puts a precise value on what contemporaries already knew: when black people move in, white people move out—à la the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun.

Still, only a portion of white flight can be traced to the classic dynamic of racial turnover. Cities were simply too segregated by race for many urban whites to actually encounter black neighbors. In 1940, the average white urban household lived more than three miles away from a black enclave. Yet despite substantial distance from black neighborhoods within the city, many white families chose to relocate to the suburbs as black migrants arrived.

Why did white households flee black neighborhoods that were miles away? Changing city finances played a role. As southern black migrants settled in northern cities in large numbers, this lowered the average income of the urban population. Cities responded with a combination of higher property taxes and shifts in spending priorities. Indeed, some white households left cities to avoid this rising tax burden, an economically motivated choice for sure, but one that cannot be fully separated from race and racism.

We can learn a lot about the fiscal motivation behind white flight by focusing on the choices of white residents in neighborhoods on city-suburban borders. Peripheral urban neighborhoods shared the racial composition and housing stock of their suburban counterparts, and enjoyed the same local parks, bus lanes and shopping streets. Yet, by crossing to the suburban side of the border, families could buy into a different local electorate, one that was more racially homogenous and better-off, and thus able to afford quality public schools and lower property taxes. (As an aside, I personally lived in three of these border areas—Cambridge-Somerville, MA; Minneapolis-Edina, MN and Los Angeles-Beverly Hills, CA—and found crossing the border to be imperceptible on the ground.)

Houses on the suburban side of the border are always a little more expensive because they offer access to suburban schools and other public goods. Using data on 100 such neighborhoods, I found that this cross-border housing price gap grows by a few percentage points as black migrants flow into the city – even if new black arrivals live miles away. White households were willing to pay more for suburban houses not only to escape black neighbors but also to join a different tax base.

The debate about how Trump prevailed is currently a stalemate between those who point to real sources of economic anxiety and those who fall back on “it’s racism, stupid!” But casting blame on other racial groups during times of economic downturn is a tried-and-true political tool. Even if the major source of job loss in U.S. manufacturing has been automation, it is relatively easy to encourage voters to blame Chinese manipulation or greedy immigrants. Trying to separate racism from economic anxiety can obscure more than it reveals. History instead urges us to consider how economic concerns and racial animus intertwine.

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BoustanLeah Platt Boustan is professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the author of Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets.