Since I love The Blues, and have always wanted to make a visit to the American South, and since I also find rivers and floods fascinating, it was time to finally make a trip to The Delta of Mississippi. That’s not the Mississippi River delta, which is south of New Orleans, where the mighty river debouches into the Gulf of Mexico, but the oval-shaped region just south of Memphis, TN, alongside of Arkansas, with the Mississippi River separating them.
The region is pancake-flat, and is bordered on the east by hills, on the west by the river. The Mississippi has changed course over and inundated the region for millennia, and it is intensely fertile. After the American Revolution, it became the site of some scandalous criminal land speculations, e.g. the Yazoo Strip Affair, and after the Civil War, clearing the hardwood forests and converting it to cotton farming proceeded at a rapid clip, with the support of Uncle Sam in the form of massive flood control works to protect the farming operations. So much for Southern states’ resentment of federal intervention: as long as the pork rolled in and nobody interfered with their “peculiar” institutions, e.g. slavery, and then Jim Crow, Washington D.C. was fine in their books. You can read more about the how the river and the people interacted with the land in this interesting treatment.
Furthermore, I don’t just love The Blues: I am very partial to the old fashioned, traditional, Delta Blues, the acoustic music that travelled north in the Great Migration, with people such as Muddy Waters, where it landed in Chicago and got electrified, eventually winning a huge audience in the UK, whose rock and roll invaders brought it back to us making it wildly popular among white audiences here too, at least for a while. When The Beatles were interviewed at an airport upon their first arrival in the USA, a reporter asked who were their favorite American musicians, and among those volunteered by Lennon was Muddy Waters, unknown to the reporters. “You don’t know who your famous people are,” quipped Lennon.
The two pictures below are from Stovall’s Farm, a plantation where McKinley Morganfield lived, worked, and played, before he got the confidence to up and leave for the North, as so many other black people had done. His cabin stood on this site, but has been moved to a local museum: ZZ Top (I don’t know their music, but they know their Blues!) made an electric guitar out of one of its planks, and used it to raise funds for the restoration of the cabin. The state of Mississippi eventually got on board the Blues Train, and set up a Blues Trail, with historical markers up and down the region, especially along Highway 61, which Dylan “revisited” in his smash hit record. (Highway 61 figures in quite a number of Blues songs, as it runs the length of the Delta, and beyond.)
This cabin below is just next to the Muddy Waters site: it wasn’t his cabin, but it looks as if it could have been! As my wife remarked, it looks like “it’s right out of central casting!”
We based our visit to the Delta in Clarksdale, where there are lots of places to eat and hear music, great music, and in a relaxed, laid back environment that is wonderful. We stayed in the very nice Delta Bohemian Guest House, where our comfortable room had a tub, plumbing fixtures, and tiled floor, that thrilled me. (I understand that not everyone shares my enthusiasms.)
Needless to say, it is Mississippi after all, the area is rather economically depressed. These shots in Shaw, MS, where I stumbled on the Blues Trail marker for Honeyboy Edwards, a favorite of mine, capture the atmosphere nicely.
Further south is the not particularly interesting town of Greenville, MS, which was the center of a lot of literary activity as well as a devastated area during the momentous flood of 1927, the relief effort for which, incidentally, catapulted Herbert Hoover to the presidency. The museum about the flood, the greatest natural disaster in US history, I believe, was closed, but I did manage a brief rain soaked stroll along the top of the levee.
An exemplary character, Lee Lorch, died this week:
In the spring of 1946, Mr. Lorch, a graduate of Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, Cornell University and the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a doctorate in mathematics, returned from wartime service in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps to teach math at City College. Like millions of veterans, he could not find a place to live. After a two-year search, having lived much of the time in a Quonset hut overlooking Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, he, along with his wife, Grace, and young daughter, moved into Stuyvesant Town. So did 25,000 other people.
As he later put it, he had all the credentials: “A steady job, college teacher and all that. And, not black.”
In 1943, Frederick H. Ecker, the president of Metropolitan Life at the time, told The New York Post: “Negroes and whites don’t mix.” If black residents were allowed in the development, he added, “it would be to the detriment of the city, too, because it would depress all surrounding property.”
A lawsuit against Metropolitan brought in 1947 by three black veterans, and co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had failed in the state courts, and no local laws prohibited such discrimination; the city had not only supplied the land, and tax breaks, to the insurance company, but had let it select tenants as it saw fit.
With 100,000 people vying for the 8,759 apartments on the 72-acre tract, no boycott could possibly work. Any successful protest had to come from inside: Polls showed that two-thirds of those admitted favored integration. Mr. Lorch’s wartime experiences, like seeing black soldiers forced to do the dirty work on his troop transport overseas, had intensified his resolve.
Mr. Lorch became vice chairman of a group of 12 tenants calling themselves the Town and Village Tenants Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town.
“When you got into Stuyvesant Town, there was a serious moral dilemma,” he recalled in a 2010 interview with William Kelly of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Video Project. “In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, people had seen the end results of racism.”
Some 1,800 tenants eventually joined the group. “Stuyvesant Town is a grand old town; but you can’t get in if your skin is brown,” went one of its chants, wrote Charles V. Bagli of The New York Times in a book about Stuyvesant Town’s history. A group of 3,500 residents petitioned Mayor William O’Dwyer to help eliminate the “no Negroes allowed” policy, and supported anti-discrimination legislation before the City Council.
But Metropolitan Life held firm. And in early 1949, Mr. Lorch paid the price. Despite the backing of a majority of colleagues in his department, the appointments committee at City College blocked his promotion, effectively forcing him to leave.
Mr. Lorch was “unquestionably a fine scholar and a promising teacher,” an alumni committee later concluded, but some colleagues “regarded him, rightly or wrongly, as an irritant and a potential troublemaker.” Mr. Lorch himself charged that the college “protects bigots and fires those who fight bigotry.”
The New York branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and other groups protested the decision to the Board of Higher Education, to no avail. In September 1949, Mr. Lorch found a teaching job at Pennsylvania State University, but his reputation preceded him; upon arriving at the campus, he was taken directly to the university’s acting president.
“He wanted me to explain this stuff about Stuyvesant Town — that they’d been getting phone calls from wealthy alumni essentially wanting to know why I had been hired and how quickly I could be fired,” he recalled in the 2010 interview.
Mr. Lorch’s wife and daughter had remained in the Stuyvesant Town apartment, at 651 East 14th St., and he and his wife soon invited a black family, Hardine and Raphael Hendrix and their young son, to live there for the entire academic year.
Metropolitan Life refused to accept the Lorches’ $76 rent check, and began devising ways to get them out. At Penn State, Mr. Lorch was denied reappointment. Accommodating the Hendrixes, a college official told him, was “extreme, illegal and immoral, and damaging to the public relations of the college.”
The decision brought protests from Penn State students, Albert Einstein, the American Association of University Professors and the American Mathematical Society, as well as from The New York Times and The Daily Worker, the paper of the Communist Party U.S.A.
The Worker argued that Mr. Lorch, who was often linked to the Communist Party, was “an all-too-rare sort of bird among academic circles these days. He actually believes in the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the Negro people equality! And he not only believes in it, but stands up and fights for what he believes. Amazing!”
In June 1950, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the insurance company’s exclusionary policy. Succumbing to political and economic pressure, Metropolitan Life admitted three black families that year.
But it also moved to evict Mr. Lorch and 34 other protesting tenants. They dug in.
“We had decided — and this was the general feeling on the committee — we weren’t going to go quietly, that we would resist, they’d have to throw us out by force,” Mr. Lorch recalled.
In the meantime, in September 1950, he accepted a new academic post, becoming one of two white professors at Fisk University, the historically black institution in Nashville, Tenn. His wife, a longtime activist herself — she had led the Boston School Committee in its effort to stop women from being fired as teachers the moment they married, as she had been — returned to Stuyvesant Town, where the Teamsters union supplied protection for protesting tenants.
In January 1952, as tenants barricaded themselves in their apartments and picketed outside City Hall and Metropolitan Life’s headquarters, the company compromised: Mr. Lorch and two other organizers would move out, but the Hendrixes got to stay.
Seven years later, only 47 blacks lived in Stuyvesant Town. But the frustration the campaign helped unleash culminated in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing.
At Fisk, Mr. Lorch taught three of the first blacks ever to receive doctorates in mathematics. But there, too, his activism, like his attempt to enroll his daughter in an all-black school and refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his Communist ties, got him in trouble. In 1955, he was again let go. Only tiny Philander Smith College, an all-black institution in Little Rock, Ark., would hire him, and then only when it could find no one else.
“Because he believed in the principles of decency and justice, and the equality of men under God, Lee Lorch and his family have been hounded through four states from the North to the South like refugees in displaced camps,” one of the nation’s most important black journalists, Ethel Payne of The Chicago Defender, wrote in May 1956. “And in the process of punishing Lee Lorch for his views, three proud institutions of learning have been made to grovel in the dust and bow the knee to bigotry.”
It was Grace Lorch who made the headlines the next year, for comforting Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine after Ms. Eckford’s walk through a group of angry hecklers outside Little Rock Central High School, a moment which was captured in a famous photograph. Mr. Lorch, who had become an official with the Arkansas chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., was working behind the scenes, accompanying the black students to school, then tutoring them as they awaited admission to the high school.
Once more, whites abused the Lorches for their activities, evicting them from their apartment, harassing their young daughter, burning a cross on their lawn and placing dynamite in their garage. And black leaders, mindful of Mr. Lorch’s Communist associations, kept their distance.
“Thurgood Marshall has been busy poisoning as many people as he can against us,” Mr. Lorch complained in October 1957, referring to the lawyer who was leading the N.A.A.C.P.’s desegregation campaign in the courts, and who would later become a justice of the United States Supreme Court. The group’s field secretary, Clarence Laws, wrote to Mr. Lorch: “The best contribution you could make to the cause of full citizenship for Negroes in Arkansas at this time would be to terminate, in writing, your affiliation with the Little Rock Branch, N.A.A.C.P.”
When, at the end of the school year, Philander Smith declined to renew Mr. Lorch’s appointment, it was official: No American college would have him. So in 1959, he moved his family to Canada — first to the University of Alberta and then, in 1968, to York University, until he retired in 1985.
Lee Lorch was born on Sept. 20, 1915, at a home on West 149th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, to Adolph Lorch and Florence Mayer Lorch. His wife, the former Grace Lonergan, died in 1974. Mr. Lorch is survived by his daughter, Ms. Bartels; two granddaughters; and a sister, Judith Brooks.
Mr. Lorch was often honored by his fellow mathematicians. In 1990, he received an honorary degree from the City University of New York.
In his 2010 interview with Mr. Kelly, Mr. Lorch insisted that it was his wife and daughter, not he, who had paid the greatest price for his principles. Asked if he would do anything differently, he paused. “More and better of the same,” he replied.
I finally got down to New Orleans for a visit, city of levees, necropolises, music, food, and mixed races. I understand now why people get so emotional about it – it’s quite a place, unlike any other I know in the USA, mostly in a good way. It’s also a city that is so deeply formed by the geography and hydrology of the region that for a civil engineer cum geographer, it’s a no-brainer for a great vacation.
Outside our B&B there was a WWI memorial arch (first in the USA they say) that lists the men killed in action. Separate plaques for White Men and Colored. I think it was placed there because that neighborhood, Bywater, was the point of embarkation for the troop ships.
One thing that did surprise me about New Orleans was the racial segregation, or shall I say, lack of integration, visible everywhere. Living around and working in NYC, which is one of the most residentially segregated urban areas in the USA, I still experience a dizzying mix of people while commuting, during my workday downtown, and in many entertainment venues I frequent, but in NOLA, not at all. I wasn’t surprised that neighborhoods weren’t integrated (this is the USA), but I didn’t expect that when I went to a jazz club, everyone in the audience would be white, but it was almost that way. At times, I felt as if I were in a fancy college town. I’m not sure why it is that way, but I didn’t expect it.
As everyone says, there is music everywhere, inside and out. And these aren’t just any old street pick-up bands. The level of the musicianship is amazing! At the end of this post there is a brief video of this band doing their work for the crowd.
New Orleans has a unique American history of racial mixing: the French, then the Spanish, then the Anglos ran the place. The Creole culture of francophone colonials was not quite the same as the Anglo slave-owning society; there was a bit more nuance in the racial caste system as opposed to the “one drop” rule. Sometimes I see statements from people from Brazil and other creole-influenced cultures about how they have no racism in their culture – they’re creole – but it’s usually just an excuse. Nevertheless, there were historical differences, and the Anglo rule was more harsh.
Today, other cultures have been added to the mix, including a recent influx of Hispanic people, many from Mexico. I like this food truck’s moniker, a mash-up of Mexican, Palestinian, politics, and commercialism.
Levee is French for raised up. That’s the bank of the Mississippi, here reinforced with concrete on the river-facing side. The entire lower Mississippi is controlled and channeled, and this levee is upriver of the city, next to a plantation we visited, the Laura Plantation. The place was kept in creole hands for its entire working history as a family business, and the mansion is a functional and spare work of architecture. The excellent tour of the place emphasized its nature as a business, a family corporation to extract wealth from the land through the labor of slaves. None of that Gone with the Wind tripe.
New Orleans shows an admirable directness in labeling its manholes, and sometimes a fine aesthetic sense. Sometimes, they let the drainage just all hang out.
The southern latitude sometimes gives the lower density neighborhoods a lush, jungle atmosphere. We stayed in Bywater, downriver from the French Quarter, an area that was spared flooding because it is near the river. (More on that later.) The area boasts a type of architecture that is reminiscent of the Caribbean islands, and that also reminded me of Kerala, South India.
In the old city, the French Quarter, in Pirates Alley, there is this house where Faulkner wrote his first novel, and which is now a small and excellent literary bookstore. The picture on the right shows a house reputedly built to house an exiled Napoleon (he never arrived) and gives a view of a typical street in that area.
In the Warehouse District, where we spent our last afternoon, largely at the excellent Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the sidewalks often look like brick, but to my surprise, turned out to be blocks of wood, probably swamp cedar.
This book, by local scholar Richard Campanella, is an excellent treatment of the history of New Orleans that focuses on geography and demographics. The entire text and all the illustrations are available as individual PDF files online. He is at pains to emphasize that the city of New Orleans was founded, and remained for some time, completely above sea level. These days, one often hears expressions of wonder that anyone would be so stupid as to build a city below sea level. Well, it wasn’t, but large parts of it, most notoriously, the Lower 9th Ward, became lower than the sea after they were surrounded by levees and pumped out for development. The removal of water from the soil causes saturated ground to settle and compress, sometimes by as much as nine or ten feet.
This effect is seen in many places around the world: In Bangladesh, they refer to polder areas, after the Dutch name, where they have diked agricultural fields and de-watered them. As a result, the fields subside, and they grow less productive because they no longer are periodically flooded with life-giving nutrients from flood waters. When there is a very big flood, the dikes sometimes break, the fields become bathtubs, and there is no way to pump them out again because equipment is lacking. In Holland, where the practice of polder reclamation originated, they plan for this, but it costs a lot of money and requires constant engineering work. But in Holland, they have nowhere else to go!
Oh, and a word about those cemeteries. Historians tell us that the custom of above-ground burial was adopted when the Spanish took control of the city, not in response to soggy, water logged ground unsuitable for burial. Remember, the city was all several feet above sea level! Another reason for above-ground tombs is that is is an admirably efficient use of space – each tomb can hold many generations of a single family.
The image on the left below shows a typical river landscape in most of the world: the terrain drops as you approach the river, a standard river valley. In New Orleans, we are in a delta landscape, the end of the line for a huge drainage system (Drainage is Destiny!) and the landscape is reversed, which initially puzzled the French settlers. The river is constrained by natural levees that form when the channel periodically, and inevitably, overflows. The heavier sediment is deposited close to the original channel, forming, over many years, an elevated bank on either side. New Orleans was founded on one of these naturally elevated regions, and the riverside neighborhoods fared best during the disaster of Katrina.
There is endless prating about our dysfunctional government, our divided, dysfunctional congress, and so on. The idea seems to be that our federal government is somehow “broken,” not working as it is supposed to. Well, I beg to differ. Here is an alternative view: blame the Negroes!
In this view, the government is working just as the Founders wanted it to work. It is divided, and the majority is unable to force its will on the fanatical and united majority. And who were those fanatical folks present at the creation? The slaveholders, of course.
Yes, I know, the idea of multi-chamber government was presented by the likes of Montesquieu, and there were many reasons that the Founders feared a despotic executive, but the most consistent motivation was the desire of the South to protect itself, and its “States Rights” from the anti-slavery North. That was the reason for the great compromise that elevated/degraded the slaves to 3/5 of personhood. (The South wanted slaves to count one-for-one in the census, to bulk up the slave states’ representation in Congress. The anti-slavery contingent didn’t understand why people who were slaves, and certainly could not vote, should be counted at all just to enhance the power of their owners.)
Well, here we are 150 years after the Civil War, and most of Tea Party zealots are from the South and border states. And they are still screaming, and still using divided government to their advantage. Just according to plan…
I was surprised to see that D. W. Griffith’s cinematic masterpiece, Birth of a Nation (1914) begins with a peek at Thaddeus Stevens, one ofmy American heroes. He is called “Stoneman” in the film, and is something of a villain, until he is redeemed at the end by revealing his deep hypocrisy about race, to wit, when it comes down to it, he would never allow his daughter (played by Lillian Gish) marry a mulatto.
It’s interesting to note the difference that 100 years makes: in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Stevens is a hero, a foresighted champion of racial equality and justice. Was Speilberg purposely making his Stevens look similar to Griffith’s Stoneman? And yes, it is true, Stevens wore an outrageous wig, having lost all of his hair during an illness when he was young.
I knew that Birth of a Nation was racist propaganda for the Southern view of Reconstruction, but still, I was not prepared for just how vicious it is. As one reviewer said, watching the film is “a torment,” similar to watching Nazi propaganda films, including the justly famous Triumph of the Will. The southerners are gallant Christians, defending their women like chivalric knights of old, and everyone, north and south, despises the negroes. The film is, despite itself, amazingly realistic at times, using African-Americans for bit roles and background extras, while white actors in blackface take the major “negro roles”: realistic in its depiction of the culture of slavery and Jim Crow, and I don’t mean in a favorable way. As Roger Ebert points out in his excellent review, this is only so because Griffith was so totally convinced of the rightness of his views – the gentle South, happy slaves, etc. – that it would never have occurred to him that his imagery implied their contradiction.
The print that I watched on Netflix includes a brief interview between Walter Huston and Griffith, both decked out in formal evening wear, in which Huston lobs softball questions to Griffith:
“Was the Klan necessary at that time?”
“Yes, Walter, it was necessary, at that time.”
There you have it. The freeing of the slaves, untutored and unready for civilization, unleashed upon the traumatized South a tyranny, egged on by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers who manipulated the negroes to their ends. The Klan had to step in to restore civilization. Thus, Reconstruction ended, and Jim Crow began. In Griffith’s mythology, even Stevens sees the wisdom of it, returning to a policy that Griffith is convinced Lincoln would have favored.
There is a lot of high-toned stuff in this film too: several anti-war pleas, including an image of Christ at the end, and a denunciation of artistic censorship. Yes, if only the war had been averted. Perhaps the South would still be carrying on with its slaves! And yes, censorship is bad, The film was instantly immensely controversial, and the NAACP in some cities did call for censorship of the most racially offensive scenes. I say, let it all hang out. The NAACP has had the last laugh on D.W.
Did I say that the film is fantastic? It is. It is gripping, a wonder of cinema so great, I found it hard to believe it was from 1914 it seems so contemporary in many respects. The battle scenes are stunning; the acting, though melodramatic, is nevertheless powerful. Gish gushes beautifully. It is one of the most innovative and influential films ever made, and the reasons why are obvious if you watch any other film from 1914. Some scenes:
The very first sequence. With the introduction of black slavery, the seeds of disunion were sown. Only the Civil War produced a truly united nation. True enough, but somehow it seems here that it is the fault of the Africans! As Melville put it in Benito Cereno:
“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained;
“You are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”
“The Negro.” There was silence, while the moody man sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.
It’s all the curse of the negro…
The first part of the film is about the run-up to the Civil War and the actual conflict. The real story is Part II, Reconstruction. Stoneman/Stevens has a mulatto mistress, his housekeeper, an historical fact. She manipulates him (lust seems to be a big motivation) to take a hard and brutal policy position towards the defeated South, hoping to revenge her people. Stoneman’s right-hand man, another mulatto, is going to be made puppet governor of South Carolina in order to better implement the destruction of the Old South.
A black Union soldier chases a white woman who, fearing for her honor, leaps to her death from a precipice. The Klan organizes to capture the man, otherwise protected by Stoneman’s puppet. They give him a “trial.”
The scene of the KKK dumping his body at the governor’s office is, I think, supposed to be taken as a brilliant example of justice delivered, but in one of those inadvertent truth-telling images, it is a brutal image of the Klan’s racial tyranny.
To finish off the local white gentry, the savage negroes are let loose to pillage and rapine in the town. The Klan rides in, just like the cavalry, to save the day. Of course, the actual events were more like the reverse, i.e., sustained campaigns of racial cleansing by organized whites to rid entire regions of black farmers who owned land.
The blacks are vicious and terrifying, without regard to sex, of the victim or the perpetrator. Here is Lillian Gish being threatened by a former servant.
One of the local gentry kills a black man in an altercation while he was being arrested for harboring Klan members. He manages to escape with the assistance of his loyal former house-slaves, and flees with his daughter and some friends to a remote cabin where he wants to wait for things to call down. The cabin is inhabited by two white former Union soldiers. Racial solidarity prevails. It would take a few more years for the word “Aryan” to fall into disrepute.
In a climactic scene, the father grabs the hair of his daughter, preparing to shoot her, rather than have her be captured alive and be despoiled by the black troops attacking his cabin hideout.
All’s well that ends well. Hero and heroine reunited at last.
Order is restored, and the next time there is an election, the Klan is on hand to make sure that the Negroes vote properly. Yet another image that surely was not intended to seem as it now does to us.
Always happy to see historical mythology debunked. An Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes todaydescribes Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, as a creepy, brutal hypocrite. A fine addition to the line of research brought to the general public in 1996 by Connor Cruise O’Brien in this article. Racist under his elevated egalitarian rhetoric, futile tinkerer and failed farmer under the veneer of a scientific gentleman of leisure, and not even willing to free his slaves upon his death, as did many other conflicted critics of the institution among the Founding Fathers, such corrective pieces are still much in need.
I caught a few seconds of a favorable recap of George McGovern’s life on the TV in my office lobby (Whaaa? Favorable?) and checked in, only to find out that he is near the end of his life. McGovern is generally dismissed these days as an out of touch super-liberal who was buried in a Nixon landslide.
Well, let’s see:
He wanted to end poverty in America, and guarantee all working people an income sufficient to live with dignity.
He wanted to end the stupid and murderous war in Vietnam.
He wanted to enact a health care system that would ensure that everyone got high quality care.
He wanted to ensure that American citizens enjoyed their civil rights.
He actually spoke the truth in his work as a politician, as in this bit recounted at Wikipedia:
“It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.”
The Senate reacted in startled, stunned silence, and some faces showed anger and fury; when one member told McGovern he had been personally offended by the speech, McGovern said, “That’s what I meant to do”.
So, we got Richard Nixon instead:
He was actually a lot more ‘liberal’ on issues of poverty and government support than today’s Republicans!
He said he wanted to end the Vietnam War, but he had alread spent four years, conducted several massive expansions and bombing campaigns , ended thousands of lives (hundreds of thousands of Asian lives) on a purported ‘end the war’ policy.
He wasn’t interested in civil rights for Americans, especially those who didn’t like him. So he went and burglarized McGovern’s offices, broke into medical files, bugged people’s lines, made enemies lists, etc…
He spoke the truth occasionally, but it may have been by accident.
Oh yes, have we forgotten? He resigned rather than face certain conviction in an impeachment trial brought up on just some of his sordid mis-deeds.
[NOTE – 10/22: On the news today, I heard a statement that Kennedy “quietly removed several obsolete missiles from Turkey” in exchange for the USSR turning backs its ships with nukes for Cuba. More jingoistic spin. If they were obsolete, why where they placed there (and in Italy) just the year before?
By calling them obsolete, the idea is conveyed that JFK gave up nothing significant, only making a gesture to help Kruschev save face.]
An Op-Ed piece in the times today (The Price of a 50-Year Myth) examines those old myths of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and their destructive effect on subsequent American policy. I’m not so sure about his teasing out of the policy implications, but the notes on the distortions of what actually happened during the crisis are illuminating.
JFK, for all his ideological bluster and image mongering, was a practical, some would say cynical, guy. Maybe he was one of the ruling elite who did not believe his own propaganda. He was willing to cut a deal to avoid a nuclear conflagration, and he did so. After all, he provoked the crisis by placing nukes in Turkey, right up against the USSR border, something they regarded as threatening – wonder why? – so he took the option of removing the missiles in exchange for Krushchev turning back his ships headed with nukes to Cuba. The article points out that the boats were thirty hours sailing time away from the US blockade when they turned back – not quite the eyeball to eyeball macho facedown of legend. The writer thinks that the power-elite believed their own spin, and used it to justify future exercises in destructive brinksmanship.
Well, brinksmanship was brought to the public eye by John Foster Dulles, and was a well established posture for dealing with the USSR, so the Cuban Missile Crisis was not its source. And JFK, as William Manchester said, was almost as good at crisis management as crisis creation. I give him credit for not caving to the militarist lunacy of advisors like General Curtis LeMay (a.ka. Colonel Jack Ripper.) But the image of an American president who negotiates with a powerful adversary to avoid a crisis, and even backs down from a provocation, is not part of the American self-image of global swagger, so it has been covered over with political pabulum and secrecy.
A few weeks ago, Alexander Saxton died, so I went and read his essay on blackface minstrelsy. You can read the complete paperhere. I had heard of it, but never actually read it, and it was interesting.
So then I decided to read one of his books, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic. It contains a chapter that is basically the same content as the minstrelsy essay, and covers the political history of the 19th century USA with a focus on the importance of race, but each chapter can almost be read as a separate piece. It is not a history of racist ideas, but a political history of the USA, but the depressing fact is that racist ideas are integral to that history.
The book isn’t even exclusively about racism regarding Africans, despite the seismic disturbances caused by slavery in the early Union. No, the other race, the one that had to be exterminated, the Native Americans, is treated at length, and it is instructive to see how various parties sometimes took divergent views on the two. The Jacksonian Democrats wanted to liquidate the Indians to get their land, and restrict slavery, and blacks, to the South because they hated the planter aristocrats, and feared black labor competition. The Whigs, the upper-crust opposition to the Jacksonians, wanted to protect the Indians, all the while hoping they would gradually die off or assimilate, in order to have an excuse to limit slavery to the South. They were happy to have free blacks in the territories as they had no love for a labor monpoly by the Jacksonian producers. Besides, they were looking forward to industrialization, and they just wanted free labor, free to accept their wages.
Along the way, a lot of unsavory racial ideology is unearthed and associated with people you might not otherwise think of in the history of imperialism and racism, such as Walt Whitman:
Who believes that Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Or who wishes it to happen? Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not American for the Whites? And is it not better so?
Editorial in The Eagle, 1858
Yes, the whole thing is quite sordid. After the Civil War, the northern Republicans went to town on their industrial program, and racism continued to serve handily, and was often employed by workingmen against one another. Meanwhile, heroes such as Teddy Roosevelt, took up the pseudo-science of race to justify imperialism abroad and oppression at home, although the negroes did do a fair job at San Juan Hill. And those Indians..? Now that they were almost all dead, it was time to wax sentimental about them to assuage one’s guilt at having helped along with their massacre. Thus, Teddy’s statue in front of the Museum of Natural History in NYC shows him mounted like a Roman emperor, aided by his noble and faithful servant, a red chieftain.
And through it all, the driving force of capital remaking our nation, then the world. Monuments such as the one of Teddy, dedicated in 1940, seem quaint now. There is no longer any desire, perhaps no need, to cement the image of heroic, white overlords. In the midst of our multi-cultural society, with its wide tolerance for racial and ethnic difference, the moving power of great wealth does not need to show its face, to justify itself at all! Abstract corporate art serves nicely. Human figures just arouse controversy.
Saxton refers to the 1890s as a hegemonic crisis, during which the ruling elite actually feared for, perhaps rightly so, their privileges. They had carried on so brutally as to foment a political counter attack. Now we have a political system that stages ‘debates’ that seem like grade-school reenactments of democracy. No public interaction – the audience is just for show. But the debate is the real show, displaying the importance and control of the corporate media.
Just by coincidence, as I was reading the book, I saw the obituary of another scholar of the slave societies, Eugene Genovese. The author of Roll , Jordan, Roll: The Lives the Slaves Made, repudiated his radicalism, and died a repentant and fully-fledged Catholic conservative.