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).

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Flatbush

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. We’ve been featuring a selection of these on our blog, with several more to come. Today we take a look at Flatbush.

Flatbush is made up of different subdivisions, each with a strong sense of community and its own identity. This diverse neighborhood is full of great places to shop, dine, see charming Victorian and Queen Anne style homes, and of course, shop:

At the intersection of Caton and Flatbush Avenues, I take a quick walk through the Flatbush Caton Market. It’s a small indoor mall, basically a large, high-ceilinged shed occupied mostly by specialty stores selling clothing, pocketbooks, jewelry, and what New Yorkers call ‘tchotchkes’ of every kind. Many of the stores emphasize ethnic themes, especially from Haiti, which is not surprising since there’s a large Haitian presence here.

Flatbush

The Chateau Frontenacis one of the most beautiful buildings to be found in Brooklyn

Brooklyn is home to numerous places of worship and located in Flatbush is a rare find: A Cambodian Buddhist temple.

At 26  Rugby Road, just off Caton Avenue, I discover a genuinely unusual place. It’s a Cambodian Buddhist temple in a large private home, one of only two Cambodian temples in the city, the other located in the Bronx. Religious and national flags flutter in the pleasant breeze on a bright, sunny Sunday morning…

One of the most architecturally beautiful buildings is located in Flatbush: Chateau Frontenac. The exterior and interior are visually pleasing and the building has attracted numerous famous individuals. A John Lennon documentary was filmed there and it was even the home for some of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Walking south on Ocean to Tennis Court, I turn right, stop short, and behold, a stunning building on the right called the Chateau Frontenac. Built in 1929, its exterior is one of the prettiest in Brooklyn. It’s a red brick building trimmed with white stone, with emblems of the French royal court, like the heraldic salamander, carved into it. Note the beautiful pilasters that frame the arched entranceway and the graceful wrought-iron entrance to the inner courtyard.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

Jeremi Suri: Is Trump blustering toward Armageddon?

Jeremi Suri, the editor for our America in the World series, has penned a powerful longform piece in The American Prospect, detailing how he thinks Trump could stumble into war:

“Trump will quickly and irretrievably lose control of his threats and commitments, and he will find himself pressured to pursue unwanted wars to preserve the very image of toughness that will get him into trouble in the first place. His belligerent deterrence will induce global war-fighting, as happened repeatedly during the Cold War. This time, the damage will be much greater and perhaps existential. We are witnessing the rapid demise of the American-led world order that for 70 years averted war among the largest states. The next few years, perhaps just the first year of the Trump presidency, will bring us to a dangerous new precipice in multiple parts of the globe. America doesn’t face the risk of war in just one theater of conflict. Under President Trump, the United States faces that risk in at least four separate theaters.”

Suri goes on to outline what he perceives as risks in several complicated strategic spaces: The Middle East, Europe, North Korea, and the South China Sea. Suri sets his warning in historical context, asking whether past precedent can offer a warning to current policy-makers. Read the full piece here.

Explore our America in the World series here.

 

Susan Scott Parrish on the current significance of the Great Mississippi Flood

Parrish“Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment.”

In 1927, the south experienced one of the most extensive environmental disasters in U.S. history: heavy rains led to the flooding of the Mississippi river, spanning nearly thirty thousand square miles across seven states. More than a half million people were displaced, and due to the speed of new media and the slow progress of the flood, it became the first environmental disaster to be experienced on a mass scale. Drawing upon newspapers , radio broadcasts, political cartoons, vaudeville, blues songs, poetry, and fiction, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish shows how this disastrous event took on public meaning.

There were other major disasters in the early 20th century U.S. What was unique about the flood you focus on?

SP: Unlike other devastating floods of the era—in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), Galveston, Texas (1900), and the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida (1928)—which all occurred in a matter of hours, this Mississippi River flood moved so slowly and lasted so long that national audiences could be pulled in, through newly established media circuits, to the events as they unfolded. One of William Faulkner’s narrators called it “the flood year 1927” because the disaster truly lasted an entire year. Moreover, unlike the Johnstown and Okeechobee floods, both also man-made disasters, in which the powerful industrialists involved in the first case and the Florida boosters in the second sought to avoid publicity, in 1927 white southerners, as well as African American pundits and environmentalists throughout the nation, were determined to bring attention to the flood. I would argue, in fact, that not only was this the “worst” flood of the entire 20th century in terms of displaced persons and property damage, but it was also the most publicly engrossing U.S. environmental disaster. As such, it allows us a signal opportunity to ask the following questions: How do—and how should—humans communicate with themselves about politically charged eco-catastrophes? What are the stages through which mass-mediated societies encounter disaster? Do certain media entail better, or more productive, or more democratic epistemologies of crisis? What can we learn from 1927 about how to make transformative expression, and knowledge, out of disaster today and in the future?

Why was this flood so meaningful to people?

SP: Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood. As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie and that Federal institutions like the Red Cross and the National Guard were abetting its reestablishment. Though the death toll from the flood was less extensive than that of other contemporaneous disasters, it was the way that this flood—for northern, southern, white, and black publics—uncannily rematerialized the defining American nightmares of slavery and civil war that made it so culturally engulfing. Moreover, the flood gave the lie to many of the early 20th-century promises of a modernizing, technocratic society: here was, in the words of environmentalist Gifford Pinchot, “the most colossal blunder in civilized history.”

The subtitle of your book is “A Cultural History;” can you explain what you mean by that phrase?

SP: Well, I began the book as a literary history, something along the lines of an environmentally-oriented version of Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, which considered the literary reckoning with World War One. I eventually came to see, though, that this flood became a public event across multiple media platforms. Fiction was important for our long-term memory of the flood, but other media were crucial to how the flood became significant while it occurred. I first discovered that William Faulkner, living a few counties away from the river in 1927, took up the flood beginning with the book he wrote in 1928—The Sound and the Fury (1929)—and kept writing about it through As I Lay Dying (1930) and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939). I found a number of stories and pieces of life writing that Richard Wright, living in Memphis in 1927, wrote about the flood in the 1930s. And I came upon many other literary chroniclers as well: Sterling Brown, Will Percy, Lyle Saxon and Ruth Bass, to mention just a few. As I dug deeper into the archive, though, I realized that this flood represented an important moment in the histories of radio and print journalism, theater, and music as well. How northern and western media sought to package the South to raise money for evacuees; how an environmentalist critique went national; and how black journalistic protest remained largely enclaved are all important topics for the history of how media manufacture events which in turn create “publics.” Among the major pundits who weighed in on the flood were W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White, H.L. Mencken, and even, on the radio in Berlin, Walter Benjamin. After I noticed advertisements in newspapers for “monster” flood benefits—the biggest ones produced in the “Vaudeville” variety mode—I gradually realized that the way most citizens around the country came in live contact with the flood was in a theater. In particular, international comedians of color who hailed from the South, Will Rogers and the duo “Miller & Lyles,” offered a trenchant but popular kind of critique of white disaster consumption. Their messages crossed the color line in the way that newspaper editorials did not. Finally, Bessie Smith’s song, “Back-Water Blues,” also popular on both sides of the color line, and on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, offers a remarkable example of the way that black experience of displacement moved across space through sound. All in all, my book tests some classic ideas—expressed by the likes of Walter Lippmann and Jurgen Habermas—that the optimal form of democratic public reckoning with reality occurs through deliberative print media. “Entertainment,” for these theorists, is anathema to truth seeking. By contrast, the archive convinced me that, during the flood itself, Vaudeville comedy and blues entertainment communicated evacuee experience more wholly and more broadly than any other media.

One of your sections is titled “Modernism within a Second Nature,” can you explain how your book contributes to our understanding of modernism?

SP: And what does “Second Nature” mean? For many, the flood was an example of modernization adrift, of a kind of temporary drowning of that Progressive-era sense amongst Americans that theirs was a time of “the perfection of method and of mechanism” that could “spread well-being among the masses.” We have understood that artistic movement known as modernism as expressing at times enthusiasm, but at other times, profound doubts about various kinds of modernization, on the battlefield, in communications, in politics. We have not tended to think enough though about how modernist artists responded to the eclipsing of “nature” with a “second nature.” Second nature is a phrase Henri Lefebvre used to describe how, increasingly with modernity, “nature’s space has been replaced by a space-qua-product” of human design. I think this sense that industrialism’s second nature was not necessarily a “perfection” that would spread “well-being,” but was rather an imperious blunder that could bring intense misery especially to “the masses”—this sense was felt acutely amongst both whites and blacks in the South in 1927. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were the southern modernist authors who, in their stories about the flood, communicated that a rural environment could be thoroughly fabricated by humans, and fabricated in such a way as to intensify its inherent risks, so that these environments could become—indeed, had become—as political and modern and violent a product as a machine gun or a tank.

Given that the flood inundated the lower Mississippi Valley, do you see the book as primarily about the South?

SP: Yes and no. The environmental history leading up to the flood involved the entire Mississippi watershed, and how it was altered (through logging, wetlands drainage, grasslands removal and a levees-only engineering policy). And the media history, in so far as communication about the event was produced and consumed nationally, and internationally, also involves a much wider geography. It was a disaster most keenly and physically experienced in the Deep South, but the event took on meaning across a much broader mediascape. Though the South is often associated with “disaster” (of slavery, of defeat in war, of underdevelopment), it may surprise readers to find southern editorials in 1927 explaining this flood not in terms of God, but in terms of human miscalculation. Scholars who work on southern cultural topics today tend to be interested in how “the South” was created within global systems like mercantilism, empire and slavery, and also how it was partially invented by chroniclers outside its regional boundaries. My book is likewise concerned with that intersection of regional experience and broader environmental and representational patterns.

Why is yours an important book to read in 2017?

SP: Because of the 21st-century ecocatastrophes we have already witnessed and future events caused or intensified by climate-change, we can now understand that how we communicate about environmental disaster and degradation is as important as how we communicate about war. Indeed, we can also see that when a nation doesn’t take into account all of its citizenry in its environmental management and disaster response, what may ensue is a kind of undeclared civil war. 2017 marks the 90th anniversary of the “Great Mississippi Flood,” but in many ways it anticipated—or inaugurated—our current moment. We live in an age in which human impact on the earth is indelibly intense. We live this material reality—in our bones and cells—but we often come to perceive it in a way that is so technologically mediated as to be vertiginously virtual. For the sake of history, it is important to appreciate that the Flood of 1927 represented perhaps the first major coincidence of the “Anthropocene” and what Guy Debord has termed the “Society of the Spectacle.”

Susan Scott Parrish is a 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. Her latest book is The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Boerum Hill

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. We’ve been featuring a selection of these on our blog, with several more to come in the next few weeks. Today we take a look at Boerum Hill.

Boerum Hill, a small neighborhood east of Cobble Hill, hit a decline marked by poverty that started in the 1960s and lasted well until the 1980s. Today, the neighborhood is thriving and is now considered to be an “upscale community,” not to mention, a literary inspiration:

From the 1960s to the early 1980s the area was in decline. An outstanding novel by Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude, tells the story of what it was like then and how it gradually gentrified.

Boerum Hill

Susan Gardner is an art professor and artist who turned the outside of her home into an art project

Like many of the neighborhoods that make up Brooklyn, Boerum Hill features a number of can’t-miss buildings. One is a home exquisitely decorated with mosaic tiles. The homeowner, Susan Gardner, a college professor of art, explained that she was inspired to decorate her home after 9/11, as a way to combat depression.

The home is undoubtedly striking: the entire first floor is covered with a dazzling, riotous mosaic of bright colors—red, blue, yellow, purple, black, pink, orange, and green. The interior is encrusted with tiles, beads, shells, buttons, and mirrors, mostly small, of all shapes and sizes. They cover the walls, iron bars, gate, ground, and even a pipe coming out of the ground. The tiles are all arranged in an incredibly complex series of designs featuring people and angels, some of them silhouetted in windows; animals, street scenes, flowers, tree, butterflies, the sun, and all manner of shapes, some of which cannot be readily identified.

During his walk around Boerum Hill, Helmreich came across another memorable building, this time the Brooklyn Detention Complex, which features a striking mural.

On the back of the building, on State Street, there are some beautiful murals along its white brick wall, supported by a not-for-profit group, Groundswell, which partnered with the prison to create this mural. One mural features the Brooklyn Bridge and a Manhattan skyline with some young people and an elderly man standing in front of it, all with a look of sadness or worry on their faces. This was done by teenagers possibly thinking about the prison, whose barbed-wire topping hangs over these depictions at several points. The exhortations urge passerby to exhibit ‘Responsibility,’ ‘Respect,’ to show ‘Love.’

Boerum Hill is home to a diverse group of nationalities and cultures. If you fancy a delicious French pastry or cuisine, take heart:

There’s a French presence in Boerum Hill, with several French-inspired food shops and restaurants, including a great bakery, Bien Cuit, on Smith Street, between Pacific and Dean Streets. Each year, on July 14, there’s a Bastille Day celebration on Smith, which includes a pétanque tournament. This game is similar to the Italian and British games, respectively, of bocce and bowls, all of which derive from sports popular in ancient Roman times. 

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

Jason Stanley: On the Question of the Stability of Democracy

After a divisive election, the question of democracy’s stability has again commanded public attention. What has philosophy said to this, one of our discipline’s foundational questions?

Plato and Aristotle both regarded stability as a vital metric by which to evaluate political systems, though they differed in their judgments about democracy. Plato’s Republic is about proper governance, of the City and the Soul. In Book VIII, Socrates introduces the democratic city to his interlocutor Adeimantus, as follows:

First of all, then, aren’t they free? And isn’t the city full of freedom and freedom of speech? And doesn’t everyone in it have the license to do what he wants?
That’s what they say at any rate.
And where people have this license, it’s clear that each of them will arrange his own life in whatever manner pleases him.
It is.
Then I suppose that it’s most of all under this constitution that one finds people of all varieties.
Of course. [557b]

What follows this passage is a description of “the characteristics of democracy,” such as “the city’s tolerance.” [558b] In summary, “…it would seem to be a pleasant constitution, which lacks rulers and not variety and which distributes a sort of equality to both equals and unequals alike.” [558c]

A culture whose central value is liberty will lead to sweeping social equality. In a democratic city, students in the academies challenge their teachers (there are campus protests) [563a]. A democratic culture equalizes those who are natural-born and immigrant; in such a system “[a] resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen.” [562e] Democracy is inconsistent with enslaving others [563b], and in a democracy there is equality between men and women [563b].

Lacking access to a quality education is a severe restriction on freedom, as it limits one’s career possibilities. Lacking a safe source of fresh water is a limit on freedom, as the search for it can absorb time better spent on pursuing liberty, rather than attending to necessity. A society’s commitment to liberty is precarious if the sphere of free action accorded to some, merely by virtue of birth position, is vastly greater than the sphere of free action accorded to others. This is why we provide public goods, in the form of for example public education, and drinking water. But even if unjust inequality is eliminated, liberty will lead to inequalities of wealth due to life choices. In a society devoted to liberty, people will rise to positions of wealth and influence by such choices, and obstacles to the rise of members of traditionally oppressed groups will be dismantled.

Socrates recognizes that the flourishing of liberties, the diversity of practices and customs, and social equality may seem attractive. However, he urges us to attend to its risks. People are not naturally inclined to self-governance, “always in the habit of setting up one man as their special champion, nurturing him and making him great.” [565d] Democracy also creates a vast amount of resentment, due to the social upheaval required by prizing freedom, and the attendant costs to traditions, customs, and hierarchies. A tyrant takes advantage of the resentments created by democracy, and the hunger for authority. The tyrant “dominates a docile mob” by bringing “someone to trial on false charges.” [565a] The tyrant’s “impious tongue and lips taste kindred citizen blood,” and the tyrant “drops hints to the people about the cancellation of debts and the redistribution of land.” [566a]

About the first days of the future tyrant’s reign, Plato writes:

During the first days of his reign, and for some time after, won’t he smile in welcome at anyone he meets, saying that he’s no tyrant, making all sorts of promises both in public and in private, freeing the people from debt, redistributing the land to them and to his followers, and pretending to be gracious and gentle to all? [566d,e]

What follows [566e -569c] is a description of the descent from the first days. The tyrant will need to “stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need for a leader” [566e], those who dare “to speak freely to each other and to him, criticizing what’s happening” [567b] will be purged. Finally, the tyrant will appoint a bodyguard from among his most “loyal followers.” [567e]

Plato sees in democracy’s ideal of the freedom of speech the cause of its inevitable downfall. Ever increasing pressure for freedom and equality will lead to resentments of fellow citizens, as will the inevitable hypocritical use of these ideals (e.g. when the ideal of liberty is used to justify corruption). A tyrant will exploit these resentments to stoke fear of fellow citizens. Taking advantage of the human attraction to authority, they will present themselves as the only savior from the enemies who are the focus of their demagoguery. Once the tyrant takes over they will end democracy, replacing it with tyranny.

Aristotle was more sanguine. In Aristotle’s democratic city, all citizens participate in the formation of the laws by which they are governed, an activity that for Aristotle was the purest expression of freedom. The equal participation of all citizens in the formation of the policies that will be adopted and fairly applied lends the system its stability. Aristotle also emphasizes Democracy’s epistemic virtues, arguing that open and honest cooperative deliberation about policy between all citizens yields better results, in the form of wiser policy, further strengthening the stability of the system. Democracy requires a clean public square.

Plato’s democratic city is based upon a notion of liberty as unconstrained freedom to satisfy one’s desires, freedom from the limitations of customs and traditions. Aristotle’s conception of democracy, by contrast, allows democratic societies to have homogeneous value systems. However, this is possible only if all citizens freely and equally participate in the decision to adopt them, decisions that must be continually revisited. Participating equally in such decisions is, for Aristotle, genuine freedom.

Contemporary liberal democracies differ from these conceptions of democracy in at least two ways. First, they incorporate essential insights of Christianity, such as the concept of human rights. Secondly, they involve elected representatives to act on behalf of our best interests, tasked to deliberate with one another reflectively, openly, and truthfully, with willingness to changing their minds and compromise.

American democracy differs in a significant way from most other Western democracies, which make Plato’s concerns particularly relevant. Democracies throughout the world, in the words of Jeremy Waldron, have the “conviction that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect for its citizens.” But our Constitution provides the broadest protections for speech in the political arena. India’s first amendment bans hate speech; our first amendment protects it. In many other democracies, a public official who described Islam as “like a cancer,” a “political ideology that hides behind this notion of being a religion,” as the incoming National Security Advisor has said, would be prosecuted. In the United States, we have chosen a different path. If Plato is right, our democracy is especially in danger.

The historical record, however, speaks differently. The United States is the world’s oldest continuous government. Our institutions and practices seem especially safe.

Yet optimism is warranted only insofar as it reflects our country’s historical commitment to its values. Sadly our democracy has always been partial, its ideals hypocritically employed. In 1852, in a Fourth of July speech, Frederick Douglass asked:

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

Perhaps the fact that American politicians have traditionally felt the need to express their loyalty most centrally to the democratic ideal of freedom speaks to the strength of our country’s democratic character, even in the face of its history?

Aimé Césaire writes, “a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another call for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.” This was not lost on Thomas Jefferson, whose rejection of what we now call “nation building” was due to his understanding of the difficulty of insulating an imperial power’s domestic politics from the clearly anti-democratic practices required in invading and occupying other nations by force. When we waged war against the Japanese, we interned our fellow citizens of Japanese ancestry. Our recent colonial adventures in the Middle East threaten to reverberate in similar ways back to our shores.

This election campaign raises clear concerns about our democratic character. A press free to criticize those in political power is the emblem of a healthy democracy. But during his campaign rallies, the president-elect would place the media into a “pen,” and whip his audience into a frenzy of hatred against them. Campaigning by demonizing a critical media is campaigning against democracy. The explicit illiberalism of the president-elect, his hatred of the press and his open intolerance, is what attracted voters to him.

Clinton’s campaign made a devastating error by failing to recognize the appeal of illiberalism. The strategy of their ad campaign, which featured lengthy snippets of the president-elect at his most illiberal, presupposed a general commitment to liberal democratic values. It is in any case a familiar point from George Lakoff’s 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, that one should not repeat the opposition’s rhetorical frames even if it is to condemn them. Instead, one should provide an alternative positive vision, in this case of liberal democratic values. Anything else is campaign money spent on advertising for the opposition.

For Aristotle, it is the law that gives democracy its stability. If all citizens participate equally in its formation, and the law is applied fairly, the system will be stable. Taking these two criteria as metrics of stability, how should we think of our current situation?

In many states, the laws that ensured that minority groups could equally participate have been abandoned and replaced by laws that impede their ability. The president-elect has nominated Jeff Sessions to administer the laws; he is famous for harshly pursuing the prosecution of civil rights activists registering black fellow citizens for voter fraud. The president-elect has claimed that there was an immense voter fraud problem in the recent election. Bernie Sanders has pointed out that there is a “hidden message” here; it is green lighting Republican governors to pursue restrictive voter registration laws that disenfranchise minorities in large numbers.

It is also important to note how the president-elect communicates the message that even more restrictive voter registration laws are required. He does so by appealing to his power as leader to define an alternative reality. Given his alternative reality, one needs such laws. Therefore, one needs such laws. This is not normal democratic politics. It is authoritarian politics. The leader can dictate the reality that justifies the application of the laws.

There are other signs of an embrace of an authoritarian conception of the law. Recently, Sessions praised the president-elect’s 1989 comments about the Central Park Five, teenagers accused and convicted on the basis of coerced testimony of a terrible crime and later completely exonerated, as showing his commitment to “law and order.” At the time, the president-elect described them as “crazed misfits,” and called for their execution. Sessions’ use of “law and order” refers to a system of laws that has at its center an authority figure whose judgments, whether fair or not, constitute the law. This is a conception of law and order the rejection of which is the very basis upon which our country is founded. To be subject to the arbitrary whim of a ruler is not freedom.

From a perspective that regards tradition, identity, or religion as the chief sources of value, liberal democracy is an existential threat to what gives meaning to human life. If liberal democracy’s disturbances of the social order bring no obvious benefit, materially or spiritually, to those to whom the losses have been most deeply felt, we can hardly expect universal support for its values.

Carl Schmitt denounced freedom as a merely hypocritical ideal, on the grounds that liberal states regularly defend their freedoms by suspending them. A healthy liberal democratic culture resists these temptations to “protect” its democratic freedoms in such manifestly hypocritical ways. And yet our nation has a long history of this kind of hypocrisy. Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman recently described the motivation for Nixon’s “war on drugs” as follows:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

In Michigan, democratically elected mayors and city councils are disbanded in cases of supposed “financial emergency.” Even liberal democracy’s greatest critics did not think its citizens would allow the language of emergency to be so misused in peacetime.

And what if the United States fails? What if we replace our allegiance to freedom with an allegiance to some version of national identity, of a fictionalized shared heritage, or an official national religion? What if we become a one party state, with a muted and cowed press, left with the formal procedures of democracy but little else? What obstacles will face those of us who seek to make America great again?

We have grown accustomed to hyper-incarceration as a solution to our social problems. This is dangerous in a country that has only ever known what W.E.B. Du Bois called our “two systems of justice,” one for our white citizens, and the other for our black citizens. When the president-elect randomly tweets, apropos nothing, that burning the flag should lead to loss of citizenship, or a term in prison, he is signaling that it is the second system of justice that awaits those who dissent.

Both previous administrations have defended an all-powerful security apparatus and severe punishment for its whistleblowers. In the face of legal protest, our police don the garments of our military. Too many members of the political class in the UK and USA have profited mightily from power. While it has not been to the extent of the world’s most notable authoritarians, it has been notable enough to ward off future alarm bells that should be headed. Charges of dynastic succession will ring hollow when it is recalled that in this election, the “smart money” pit the son and brother of two former presidents against the wife of another.

Suspicion of the press has mutated into the loss of truth; we lack a common reality. But when truth is gone, the press can no longer defend itself against charges of bias. Our deliberative bodies have long since collapsed, our representatives locked in combat, not cooperation. Politicians have placed fealty to Christian values explicitly over democratic ones, and have been rewarded for it at the ballot box. With this background, it is understandable that many Americans are sympathetic to the view that all politics is struggle between groups, with the façade of cooperation or honesty being only propaganda used to mask that reality. Convincing American citizens that the values of liberal democracy are not mere masks for political struggle between groups is the largest challenge we face.

Illiberal nationalist parties have swept to power, or its doorstep, in healthy and prosperous European liberal democracies. Judging by Hungary and Poland, such parties have no incentive to be fair to their critics. Nor we should not expect them to be. Fairness is a liberal value. Illiberal nationalists view politics through the prism of war, and the legal system as a weapon.

Plato predicted that democracy would end by the hand of a demagogue who stoked the fuel of the resentments caused by freedom’s disturbances of the ground of tradition. Faced with an enemy for whom political disagreement is war, the struggle to retain our liberal freedoms will be hard. We must resist the temptation to adopt their ethic; it is no way to defend our own. But the window of liberal democracy is closing, and the time for its vigorous defense is now.

StanleyJason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of How Propaganda Works.

March to the Sea Monday

Next up in March to the Sea Monday, Wayne Hsieh, coauthor of A Savage War, continues to share correspondence between Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman as it happened approximately 150 years ago. The first post can be found here and the second, here. Follow along for an insider’s view of Sherman’s March to the Sea:

Historians now mostly agree that Sherman’s March to the Sea did not match the brutal and indiscriminate devastation propagated by Lost Cause ideologues, but it was hardly decorous. The following selections from wartime orders showed that despite official orders regarding the protection of civilians and the tight control of foraging, their recurrent reissue showed the degree to which Union commanders struggled to regulate foraging and the destruction of civilian property.

The first letter lays down Sherman’s official guidelines for foraging and destruction of civilian property:

Special Field Orders, No. 120, Headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, Kingston, GA, November 9, 1864

IV. The will forage liberally on the country during the march. TO this end, each brigade commander will organize a good and sufficient foraging party, under the command of one or more discreet officers, who will gather, near the route traveled, corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn=meal, or whatever is needed by the command . . . Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of the inhabitants, or commit any trespass . . .
V. To army corps commanders alone is intrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c., and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measures of such hostility.
VI. As for horses, mules, wagons, &c., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate freely and without limit, discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor or industrious, usually neutral or friendly. . . . In all foraging, of whatever kind, the parties engaged will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, given written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.

OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 39, Pt. 3, 713-14.

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The following orders reiterating Sherman’s larger instructions showed the degree to which Union command struggled to control foraging—if the original orders had been followed, after all, there would have been no need to reiterate the same instructions:

General Orders No.25, Fourth Division, 17th Army Corps, November 17, 1864

IV. It is hoped and believed that both officers and men of this command will keep constantly in mind that we are not warring upon women and children. Foraging parties will take such articles as are needed for the health or subsistence of the men, but no houses will be entered by them, and all officers, guards, or soldiers are ordered shoot on the spot any person caught firing a building, or any other property, without orders.

OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 44, 482.

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The following orders from O. O. Howard, commander of the Army of the Tennessee, the parent organization of the 17th Corps above, showed his dis-satisfaction with a lack of compliance to the orders above:

Special Field Orders No. 172, Headquarters Department and Army of the Tennessee, Hillsborough, GA, November 19, 1864

II. Corps commanders will prohibit their soldiers from entering houses, and enforce the order by severe penalties. More care must be taken in the selection of foragers. Many have been drunk and disorderly. Foraging for the different headquarters must be regulated. Division and brigade commanders will be required to be with their commands during the march.

OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 44, 493

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In the following excerpt, one now sees another Army Corps in Howard’s command, the 15th, reiterating demands for compliance with orders on disciplined foraging—a clear indication that such dictates were being regularly violated:

Special Field Orders No. 177, Headquarters Fifteenth Army Corps, Clinton, GA, November 20, 1864

In publishing paragraph II, Special Field Orders, No. 172, from department headquarters, the attention of all officers commanding foraging parties is once again called to the importance of enforcing the very strictest discipline while on such duties. These parties must absolutely be conducted in obedience and in conformity to existing orders; when found guilty of violating the restrictions laid down in that order must be punished by the commanding officer. The fine imposed should not be less than the deduction of one month’s pay. Officers in charge of foraging parties who permit their men to straggle or commit unwarrantable acts must be reported to these headquarters, and their names will be sent forward for summary dismissal from service for incompetence, or failing to enforce discipline, and for disobedience of orders.

OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 44, 498.

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SavageWayne Wei-siang Hsieh is associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. He is the author ofWest Pointers and the Civil War and coauthor with Williamson Murray of A Savage War.

March to the Sea Monday

Next up in March to the Sea Monday, Wayne Hsieh, coauthor of A Savage War, continues to share correspondence between Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman as it happened approximately 150 years ago. The first post can be found here. Follow along for an insider’s view of Sherman’s March to the Sea:

Sherman wrote to Sheridan congratulating the latter on his victory at Cedar Creek, while commenting on the relationship between age and command:

November 6, 1864, Kingston, GA
To: Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan

I have been wanting to write to you for some days, but have been troubled by an acute pain in my shoulder resulting from recent exposure. . . . I notice particularly the prominent fact that you in person turned the tide in the recent battle of Cedar Creek. You have youth and vigor, and this single event has given you a hold upon an army that gives you a future better than older men can hope for. I am satisfied, and have been all the time, that the problem of this war consists in the awful fact that the present class of men who rule the South must be killed outright rather than in the conquest of territory, so that hard, bull-dog fighting, and a great deal of it, yet remains to be done, and it matters little whether it be done close to the borders, where you are, or farther in the interior, where I happen to be; therefore, I shall expect you on any and all occasions to make bloody results.

OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 43, Pt. 2, 552-53

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Shortly after writing these last instructions to Thomas, Sherman virtually vanished from official Federal view as his army embarked on the March to the Sea:

November 11, 1864, 12 Midnight, Kingston, GA
To: Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas

I can hardly believe that Beauregard would attempt to work against Nashville from Corinth as a base at this stage of the war, but all information seems to point that way. If he does you will whip him out of his boots . . . The probabilities are that the wires will be broken to-morrow and that all communication will cease between us, but I have directed the main wire to be left, and will use it if possible, and wish you to do the same. You may act, however, on the certainty that I sally from Atlanta on the 16th instant with about 60,000, well provisioned, but expecting to live chiefly on the country.

OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 39, Pt. 3, 746-47

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SavageWayne Wei-siang Hsieh is associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. He is the author of West Pointers and the Civil War and coauthor with Williamson Murray of A Savage War.

March to the Sea Monday

Introducing a new blog series: For the next several Mondays, Wayne Hsieh, coauthor of A Savage War, will be sharing correspondence between Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman as it happened approximately 150 years ago. Follow along for an insider’s view of Sherman’s March to the Sea:

The following correspondence was exchanged between Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman as the latter prepared to embark on what became known as the March to the Sea. Sherman had initially found Grant skeptical of Sherman’s plan to wreak havoc in Georgia, but eventually persuaded him of the wisdom of the move. Shortly before the campaign’s start, Grant raised concerns about the potential activities of Hood’s army in response to Sherman’s—concerns that Sherman recognized and acknowledged.

Rome, GA, November 1, 1864, 9 am
To: Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant

As you foresaw, and as Jeff Davis threatened, the enemy is now in the full tide of execution of his grand plan to destroy my communications and defeat this army. His infantry, about 30,000, with Wheeler’s and Roddey’s cavalry, from 7,000 to 10,000, are now in the neighborhood of Tuscumbia and Florence, and the water being low is able to cross at will. Forrest seems to be scattered from Eastport to Jackson, Paris, and the lower Tennessee, and General Thomas reports the capture by him of a gun-boat and five transports. . . . If I were to let go Atlanta and North Georgia and make for Hood, he would, as he did here, retreat to the southwest, leaving his militia, now assembling at Macon and Griffin, to occupy our conquests, and the work of last summer would be lost. I have retained about 50,000 good troops, and have sent back full 25,000, and having instructed General Thomas to hold defensively Nashville, Chattanooga, and Decatur, all strongly fortified and provisioned for a long siege, I will destroy all the railroads of Georgia and do as much substantial damage as is possible, reach the sea-coast near one of the points hitherto indicated, trusting that General Thomas, with his present troops and the influx of new troops promised, will be able in a few days to assume the offensive.

OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 39, Pt. 3, 576-77

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Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant to Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman
City Point, VA, Nov. 1, 1864, 6 pm

Do you not think it advisable now that Hood has gone so far north, to entirely settle him before starting on your proposed campaign? . . . If you can see the chance for destroying Hood’s Army, attend to that first and make your other move secondary.

OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 39, Pt. 3, 576

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Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant to Maj. Gen. W. T. Sherman,
City Point, VA, November 2, 1864, 11:30 am

Your dispatch of 9 a.m. yesterday is just received. I dispatched you the same date, advising that Hood’s army, now that it had worked so far north, be looked upon more as the objective. With the forces, however, you have left with Thomas, he must be able to take care of Hood and destroy him. I do not really see that you can withdraw from where you are to follow Hood, without giving up all we have gained in territory. I say, then, go as you propose.

OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 39, Pt. 3, 594

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In the end, the long-standing trust between Grant and Sherman held firm, and the former sustained his subordinates bold plans for a march through Georgia.

A few days later, Sherman wrote again to Grant, and outlined at length the political objectives of his coming campaign:

On the supposition always that Thomas can hold the line of the Tennessee . . . I propose to act in such a manner against the material resources of the South as utterly to negative [Confederate President Jefferson] Davis’ boasted threat and promises of protection. If we can march a well-appointed army right through his territory, it is a demonstration to the world, foreign and domestic, that we have a power which Davis cannot resist. This may not be war, but rather statesmanship, nevertheless it is overwhelming to my mind that are thousands of people abroad and in the South who will reason thus: If the North can march an army right through the South, it is proof positive that the North can prevail in this contest, leaving only open the question of its willingness to use that power.

OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 39, Pt. 3, 660

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WarWayne Wei-siang Hsieh is associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. He is the author of West Pointers and the Civil War and coauthor with Williamson Murray of A Savage War.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Cobble Hill

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Cobble Hill.

With its tree-lined streets and beautiful brownstones, Cobble Hill is a desirable, picturesque neighborhood, and a favorite strolling destination for visitors. The neighborhood also offers affordable (and historic) housing options for residents. Along Hicks Street are distinctive condos that have been a part of the neighborhood for many years. Now renovated, these residences capture the spirit of the past at a reasonable price:

In the 1870s, a sturdy, well-designed group of buildings were constructed for lower-income residents on Hicks Street between Warren and Baltic Streets. About 140 years later, we see that they have withstood the test of time. In their renovated state, with beautiful brick exteriors and inner walkways, they are for sale, with an as outside the building proclaiming, “Landmark Condos for Sale.” Known as the Columbia-Hicks Buildings, they are an excellent example of how well-built housing can be renovated and improved to provide mixed income housing, containing both open market and affordable housing.

Cobble Hill also happens to be a popular destination for filmmakers looking for townhouses that capture the “quintessential New York City” backdrop. Helmreich chatted with one resident who provided his home:

New York City is a major venue for filmmakers, and those looking for elegant townhouses to use as settings in their films can usually find them with the help of location scouts. Cobble Hill is a place where those townhouses can be found, as I learn from a conversation with Raphael Linder, a Brooklyn College graduate and software engineer. He made his home at 53 Cheever Place available for a film: ‘They used my home for a 2015 film starring Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, and Renee Russo called The Intern...’

Another way in which areas acquire cachet is when famous people are associated with them. A good case in point is 426 Henry Street, a four-story brick Greek Revival structure, nice but not especially distinctive. Its claim to fame is that it was formerly home to Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother… Churchill visited the Henry Street homein 1953, at age seventy-four, amid some fanfare by appreciative locals.

Brooklyn’s oldest functioning Jewish house of worship, the Kane Street Synagogue, can be found in Cobble Hill:

Founded in 1856, it has undergone various incarnations, from traditional, to Reform, to Conservative-Egalitarian, serving congregants from all over north Brooklyn. Music history buffs might be interested to know this is where Aaron Copland was bar-mitzvahed.

If you’re looking for a great place for a bite to eat, Sam’s is an Italian restaurant known for its delicious cuisine along with its history and atmosphere:

For those who like their dining experience to include a touch of history, Sam’s on Court Street, near Baltic Street, serves mostly inexpensive Italian food. The setting features red and white checked tablecloths and matching red leather booths; it takes you back to the post-World War II period. The place has been around for more than ninety years, and I found it fun to hang out with the old-time Italians who eat there regularly.

And, if kids are coming along for the trip, they won’t be disappointed:

Cobble Hill has six toy stores (as of 2015), quite a few for an area this small. One of these establishments is Mini Max Toys and Cuts, at 152 Atlantic Avenue, owned by four mothers. It’s a rather unique place that offers haircuts for kids and also toys.

Toys and haircuts under one roof? This could catch on.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

Albert J. Raboteau: What does it mean to be an American prophet?

In American Prophets, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, and many other individuals who conveyed their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing. In this interview for the PUP blog, Raboteau discusses his new book, social justice, and the good religion can do in politics.


What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to write this book by an undergraduate seminar course, “Religious Radicals” that I have taught at Princeton several times over the years. The students’ active engagement with the figures discussed in the course was refreshing and inspiring to me as a veteran of 1960s activism, inspired in part by meeting Dorothy Day when I was a freshman in college.

Your book is called American Prophets. How do you define prophets in your book?

I use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s definition of the prophet as “one who feels the divine pathos for humanity like a fire in the bones and has to share it.”

These days when we think of the intersection of religion and politics, we think of the influence of the conservative right. But this hasn’t always been the case. How has religion’s intersection with American politics changed over time?

Our attention has been attenuated to focus on the “religious right,” but within the memory of many the civil rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, and the anti-war movement is still vivid. Moreover, large scale movements for radical social change are, in the nature of the case, rare.

What good can religion do in politics?

Two booksellers at our local bookstore asked me that question one morning several years ago. My immediate answer was “Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.” They responded “yes, but they were exceptions.” I responded “true, they were exceptional but they also were exemplary.” My book is an attempt to turn the exceptional into the exemplary.

Your book tells the stories of characters from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to A. J. Muste, to Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer—all inspired individuals. Did you have a favorite story?

Yes. When Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman met Gandhi on a visit to India, he asked them to sing him an American Negro Spiritual. They obliged by singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” As they sang, Gandhi and his assistants prayed and afterwards he said, “that song gets at the universal human feeling under the wings of suffering.” He went on to speculate that perhaps it would be the black American struggle that would finally succeed in breaking the hold of racism over white society.

How is prophetic thought and action at work in today’s world?

One prominent place is in the Industrial Area Foundation movement founded by Saul Alinsky, which my colleague, Jeffrey Stout has describes so well in his book Blessed Are the Organized. Another is the Catholic Worker movement, which has houses of hospitality for the poor around the U.S. and in Europe as well. The prophetic struggle goes on in local communities across the nation. Hopeful examples exist in the activism of the Industrial Areas Foundation chapters and similar networks of organizing for social change that continue to crop up in local struggles. Typically based in existing congregations, churches, synagogues, and mosques, the foundation encourages local people to meet and identify issues of common concern. Citizens are encouraged to speak of their own experiences, tell their own stories to encourage empathy, and raise the possibility of imagining change in their lives. Home meetings serve to identify and recruit leaders from the community. Mass meetings are structured to hold public officials accountable for problems of concern. The IAF has fifty-nine affiliates active across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany. Jeffrey Stout has told their story in his book. By 2015 the Catholic Worker movement organized by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s had grown to 207 communities across the U.S. and 25 abroad, committed to nonviolence and hospitality for the poor and homeless. Circulation of the Catholic Worker newspaper had reached approximately ninety thousand. And several local Worker houses had established their own newspapers in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

RaboteauAlbert J. Raboteau is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, and Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author of American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice.

Natural disaster, experienced virtually

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishAs North Carolina towns like Goldsboro, Kinston, and Lumberton experience intense flooding long after Hurricane Matthew veered away from the coast, we are reminded again how disasters can take their own sluggish time. In the current case, it has taken days for intense rain water to move from inland streams to larger rivers, raising them to record heights.  “This is going to be a prolonged event,” announced North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, after having signed an expedited Major Disaster Declaration for his beleaguered state.

My book, which is just about to be released with Princeton University Press, considers a different “prolonged event,” a “superflood” which took not three or four days to arrive, but rather months. The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History is about the year-long disaster known colloquially as “The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.” In a magnified version of the 2016 disaster, intense rains and snow fell for months throughout the upper branches of the river system, creating upstream flooding. Then these swollen tributaries all disgorged into the Lower Mississippi River simultaneously, evincing what one commentator at the time called a “sinister rhythm.”

If you have been following Hurricane Matthew and its path through Haiti, Florida and North Carolina, you understand that in the modern era, we experience most disasters virtually. I started thinking about this issue of virtual disaster consumption in the days surrounding, and months following, the New Orleans levee disaster of 2005 (“Katrina”). I began to wonder: how and why do disasters become publicly meaningful? Why do certain environmental catastrophes receive scant attention while others seem to place our national character on public trial? Is attention an unqualified good? How should we communicate with ourselves about disasters, especially now, in a time when human activity largely determines their makeup?

After much research, I came to realize that the first U.S. disaster to occur in a media landscape as well as in an industrialized, stress-bearing environment much like our own was the Mississippi Flood of 1927. The ways in which this flood went public, and then lost unified public meaning and indeed national attention, represent a fascinating case in modern disaster communication and consumption.

The 1927 flood was a humanly caused event. Deforestation, wetlands drainage, and monoculture farming throughout the Mississippi watershed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century seriously reduced the storage capacity of its soil.  Moreover, designers of the flood protection system elected not to mimic an alluvial basin’s own mechanisms for holding and dispersing water in times of overflow. Engineers decided instead to impound the river within a towering levee system. Months of very intense rain and snowfall turned this precarious situation into catastrophe in the Lower Mississippi Valley as levees, and more levees, burst—one was even intentionally detonated to save the wealthy banking center and port of New Orleans. Over 600,000 people—mostly African American—were made homeless, land in seven states was inundated, thirteen major crevasses occurred, as many as 1,000 people died, and a year’s worth of cotton and sugar crops were ruined. The Red Cross was established, and the National Guard patrolled 154 “concentration camps” to house the evacuees but also to keep the Delta’s labor force in place.

Media technologies which produced this flood for a virtual audience were distinctly modern.  Wired telegraphy, aerial photography, recorded music, documentary film, a rapid and extensive AP service, and a brand new nationwide radio system were all put into use to transport this flood into homes in the US and around the world.  In the wake of World War I, moreover, governmental organizations knew how to use narrative and representational techniques to weld its citizenry into a unified mass. As communications theorist Harold Laswell put it in 1926, speaking of machine-age propaganda, “more can be won by illusion than by coercion.”

The flood of 1927 did seem to configure, at the flip of an all-powerful speaker switch, a coherent public audience.  FEMA did not yet exist and Congress refused to appropriate special funds, so the Red Cross had to commandeer the communications infrastructure of the nation to involve the public in the work and cost of relief. Newspapers, movie houses, vaudeville stages, and radio stations became vital pathways in a top-down, diffusive program of national coherence. It was not just any story though which made the “huge relief machine” hum, but a particular story about historical redemption. Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. When Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretary in charge of rescue and relief operations, first spoke to a national radio audience, he thus summoned memories of the Civil War. He imagined a new battle being waged between an invading “water enemy” and the people of “our South,” a “great army of unfortunate people.” Northern whites cast themselves this time around, in the words of The New York Times, as “an army of rescuers.” The Red Cross and its news outlets positioned this flood as a redemptive reenactment of the War between the States. This “illusion,” to use Laswell’s word, summoned national investment for about one month, and then public feeling split along regional and racial lines.

Sociologists at this time believed that disasters acted like helpful galvanic events to reset and repair a given society’s structural problems. The North’s disaster narrative, while it did symbolically bring accord, did nothing to actually address southern, and particularly, black southern, economic and political grievances.  White southerners came to express with great trenchancy their dissenting view that this calamity was neither natural nor redemptive, but was due to mainly northern environmental practices and the Federal government’s misguided levees-only policy. When they looked at the water destroying their crops, they saw Yankee water.

Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood.  As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie, and that northern institutions were abetting its reestablishment. W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White and others publicly decried this situation in The Crisis, The Chicago Defender, and The Nation.

Whites outside the South began to lose enthusiasm too for Hoover’s “reconstruction machine.” Valiant scenarios of rescuing southern brethren gave way to a regretful feeling that the South was forever an intractable “problem.” H.L. Mencken acerbically wondered why anyone would care about such a backward place of “tinpot revivals” and anti-intellectualism. And others just felt the story had grown dull. An editorial in The Nation averred that “people can stand only so much calamity. After a while it begins to pall, and finally it has no meaning whatever.” Another complained that the flood, lacking the dramatic unities of place and time, was aesthetically unsatisfying. And another observed that it is very hard to care for “a mud-besmattered mass of human beings” because only individual peril really moves an audience.

Once the flood slipped from the national headlines, it continued for some time to resonate in the black press and in the southern press. Eventually the event took up lodging in the imaginations, and the work of two of our major authors, who both happen to hail from Mississippi. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were young men living in or near the flood zone in 1927; each read Memphis’ paper, The Commercial Appeal, and its refutation of the dominant northern flood narrative. Wright was an avid reader of the black press coverage as well. For the next thirteen years, floods would seep into their fiction. While we tend to associate the Great War with modern narrative experimentation, for these two American authors, it was the 1927 flood which brought home the realization that the world was run on chance and risk, and, even more, that humans had made their physical and social worlds still more violently unpredictable.

In the 1920s, the Gulf South represented a leading edge of environmental peril. The region made manifest early what has since become more globally shared. Wright, Faulkner, and other attentive southern authors and performers of that day help us even now think about which stories, and which ways of bending language, comport most searchingly with the world of diffuse, chronic environmental risk in which we now live.

Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. Her book, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History, will be published this January.