Esa mitología cubana viejo…

October 16, 2012

[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.

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Slaves of Capital, All

October 10, 2012

 

A few weeks ago, Alexander Saxton died, so I went and read his essay on blackface minstrelsy.  You can read the complete paper here.  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.


Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon

June 17, 2012

Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out
the heart of
Richard Nixon, find yourself another
country to be part of

Phil Ochs

 

This is the fortieth anniversary of the Watergate burglary, which eventually led to the resignation of Crook-in-Chief, Richard Nixon.  As Woodward and Bernstein’s summary of the affair points out, it was far, far worse than we knew at that time.  Years of investigation and trials have filled out the picture of the presidency, transformed into a “criminal enterprise,” a racket, not unlike those that festered around the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Pinochet, Milosevic, and other characters happily gone.  When he resigned, my mother danced a little jig for joy – They got him!  They finally got him! – but his rehabilitation was pursued relentlessly by himself, and his hangers-on right from the get-go, not without success.

Read the Woodward and Bernstein piece, or just sing along with Phil:

Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon

Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon
For underneath his borders the devil draws the line
If you drag his muddy rivers nameless bodies you will find
And the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes
And the calendar is lyin’ when it reads the present time
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of

And here’s to the schools of Richard Nixon
Where they’re teachin’ all the children they don’t have to care
All the rudiments of hatred are present everywhere
And every single classroom is a factory of despair
Oh, there’s nobody learnin’ such a foreign word as “fair”
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of

And here’s to the laws of Richard Nixon
Where the wars are fought in secret, Pearl Harbor every day
He punishes with income tax that he don’t have to pay
And he’s tapping his own brother just to hear what he would say
But corruption can be classic in the Richard Nixon way
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Richard Nixon find yourself another country to be part of

And here’s to the churches of Richard Nixon and Billy Graham
Where the cross, once made of silver, now is caked with rust
And the Sunday mornin’ sermons pander to their lust
All the fallen face of Jesus is chokin’ in the dust
And Heaven only knows in which God they can trust
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Richard Nixon find yourself another country to be part of

And here’s to the government of Richard Nixon
In the swamp of their bureaucracy they’re always boggin’ down
And criminals are posing as advisors to the crown
And they hope that no one sees the sights and no one hears the sound
And the speeches of the President are the ravings of a clown
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Richard Nixon find yourself another country to be part of

This song is a rewrite of his earlier song “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”


Romney gets it right!

February 4, 2012

Well, sort of.  I was pleased to read this recent statement by the great white hope of the Republicans, my emphasis:

“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America — the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

As Charles M. Blow of the Times notes, he went on to say that his campaign was focused on “middle-income Americans” and that “we have a very ample safety net” for the poor.

Wow!  Confirmation from the lead Republican candidate for my historical-sociological analysis of the American way of ‘middle-class!’  Maybe Romney is reading my blog!

See this post:  Who Rules America?


Life Among the Lowly

September 20, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of those tremendously important novels that I never wanted to read.  Yes, Lincoln greeted Stowe with the remark, “Here is the little lady who made this great war,” and it incited the howling protest of the south (as well as scores of ‘rebuttals’), but I expected a melodramatic and not very satisfying literary experience.  I was wrong.  The book is suspenseful, direct, and extremely powerful.  As an American, that is a person who lives with the political and social legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow all around me, it is at times, a harrowing read.

In American English, an Uncle Tom is a black man who is compliant and subservient to his masters, often in an obsequious and fawning manner – that’s the cliché.  The character of Tom in the novel, however, is not like this at all.  In the introduction to my edition, and this NYTimes piece on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the book, the writers account for this contradiction by pointing out that the novel, which was incredibly popular, was immediately copied, parodied, adapted to the stage, and eventually found its way into, of all things, Minstrel Shows.  Along the way, a novelistic broadside against racism and slavery became a comedic entertainment perpetuating racist stereotypes.  Such is the wending path of culture.

The book is sentimental at times, particularly in two areas:  the description of the slaves; and the treatment of religion.  Stowe portrays the slaves almost always a fine souls, at the worst, a little ridiculous:  not genuine people who will be good, bad, or indifferent.  They are filled with noble sentiments, and their faults are only the product of their degraded state in life.  They are described often as having the positive attributes of childhood:  sincerity, directness, empathy.  Whether this was Stowe’s actual view or a means to make her characters more attractive to her readers I do not know. As the editor remarks in the introduction, this sentimentality has a radical element in that directing such feelings toward African slaves involved contradicting their status as chattel, often regarded as members of a non-human or sub-human species. 

The treatment of religion, especially in the depiction of the death of the little angel, Eva, is a fine example of Victorian religious sentimentality, and might bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip about Dickens:  One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.   But it is sincere nevertheless:  Stowe was serious in her belief that adherence to Christian teaching would make the institution of slavery impossible.

Abolitionists, of which Stowe was one, sometimes criticized Uncle Tom for being too light in its criticism of slavery.  This may have to do with the fact that the slaves are, for the most part, house servants and higher level members of the plantation staff, and have relatively good masters.  Perhaps Stowe felt she could not write convincingly of the thoughts and feelings of workers spending their days toiling in sugar cane and the like, and in this, she followed an important writers’ guideline:  write what you know.  By focusing on the hardships of slaves under benign masters, who nevertheless face servitude and the potential breakup of their families, she opens, but leaves unanswered the question, how much worse would it be for those with hard masters?  The slaves live in fear of “being sold down the river,” (I never knew the origin of that phrase!)  i.e. shipped off to plantations further south where the hard labor kills them off quickly.  Then she brings that about for Tom, who is sold to the vile Simon Legree.

Stowe is not the least sentimental when she skewers the hypocrisy, intellectual, theological, and political, that surrounds the peculiar institution.  A lengthy section in which Tom is owned by Augustine, a jaded and refined member of the plantation élite, provides a stage to walk on and dismantle all sorts of notions that were argued about slavery in the pre-Civil War days.  Augustine knows all the arguments, and dismisses them all as humbug.  He knows it’s wrong, and that slavery is based on nothing but might and self-interest, but he does nothing about it – does not free his slaves – because he claims to be lazy and indifferent, but he is kind and thoughtful to his human property.  His cynicism masks the corruption and despair of a soul polluted by the institution that makes his leisured affluence possible.  His wife, a clear ancestor of Tennessee Williams’ neurotic belle, Blanche Dubois, spends her days in bed with headaches and complaints, and has nothing but contempt for her servants.  Augustine is also an atheist, which Stowe sees as the cause of his moral inertia, but with the death of his daughter, he is shaken loose of his torpor, but too late.

Augustine, a typical Victorian ideal figure – he has a Grecian profile, alabaster skin, golden curls, and a noble temperament – may represent the class of people Stowe was trying to influence.  Certainly the grim and vulgar Simon Legree is a species of the white trash, in the North and South, with whom she would not bother.  Ophelia, Augustine’s Yankee cousin who comes to stay with him, represents a properly religious northerner.  Although she is abolitionist to the core, she is stung when Augustine truthfully points out to her that she is disgusted by the Africans in her midst.  As always, the southerners claim that you northerners don’t know how to treat our negroes.  Ophelia, in touch with her Christian faith, changes however, and repents of her moral error.

Very often, Stowe points out with brutal clarity how what would be considered immoral and intolerable among whites is considered perfectly normal for whites to inflict on the slaves:  breaking up families and selling them off like horses at auction, for example.  In one stunning passage, she explicitly compares an escaped slave, George, who holds off his pursuers with a rifle, to Hungarian freedom fighters opposing Austrian oppression, a cause supported by many Americans.  What is the difference, she asks, other than color?  So much for sentimentality.

In many passages of the novel, Stowe references the sexual degradation that awaits pretty girls sold to less than humane masters, something which brought to my mind the statue The Greek Slave Girl by Hiram Powers, one of the most popular pieces of art in the 19th century.  Copies were made and widely distributed, and crowds lined up to see it.  The press did not often make the connection between Greeks sold into slavery by Turks and American enslavement of Africans, but some people did.  Moreover, literary accounts of ‘white’ girls, i.e. women who were legally black although of very light skin and hair, and were sold as slaves, were sometimes a sensation:  perhaps a truly white girl could, by mistake, find herself enslaved?  The knot of social/sexual issues surrounding all this is so huge, how can one hope to cut through it?  It is just this sort of mental/moral frisson, if not outrage, that Stowe calculated on producing in her readers.  Her armory was large:  if expositions of intellectual hypocrisy don’t convince try religion; If appeals to religious truth and values doesn’t work, try sex and violence; If that doesn’t work, try the sentimental.  They all lead to the same place – abolitionism.

I’m nearly through with the book, and I still don’t know why it’s called Uncle Tom’s Cabin…


Our Civil War

April 13, 2011

This week is the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War.  Also known as:  The War Between the States; The War of Succession; War of Southern/Northern Agression; and The War for Southern Independence, among others things.   I prefer The War of Southern Rebellion or The Slave Society Rebellion Against the Union.  No matter how you spin it, and the spins are mighty, the cause of the war was slavery.

The South was a society built on slavery, and it could not coexist with the industrializing North.  The southerners rebelled to preserve their way of life, a plantation economy ruled by an elite of large slave owners, and a rabble of whites (antecedents of the storied “white trash“)  who at least weren’t black slaves.  After the war smashed the South, the former slaves enjoyed a brief period of freedom during Reconstruction, but the North made a deal that allowed it to reap the benefits of the South’s resources of agriculture and cheap labor, and left the African-Americans to fend for themselves in the neo-slavery of Jim Crow.  Slavery was done, and that was enough for most in the North.

Not everyone felt this way.  Thaddeus Stevens and his fellows understood that the South had rebelled, and left the Union.  He wanted the leaders of the Confederacy rounded up and shot, or at least imprisoned.  He wanted the plantations confiscated and parceled out to the former slaves, and used to compensate Union veterans.  He wanted the rebel states to be denied congressional representation until they could demonstrate that they deserved it yet again.  His view did not prevail, and the torrent of self-serving, sentimentalizing, dishonest, distorted and reactionary narratives began to pour forth from the North and South.  Today, the Confederate flag flies proudly in many locales – it’s just a cultural thing.  Yep, and I’m sure there are some old Germans who would like to display the swastika and SS skulls, just to preserve that culture…

You cannot understand American culture and politics today if you don’t contemplate the Civil War and its aftermath.


Triangle Shirtwaist

March 24, 2011

 

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire.  In that blaze, more than 140 female workers in the ‘needle trades’ lost their lives, many forced to jump from burning windows to their deaths on the hard pavement below.  The workers were mostly young women, many were just teenage girls, of Jewish immigrant families.  The stories and newspaper images of the women’s horrible deaths deeply shocked the entire city, and brought about serious changes in fire safety regulation, as well as spurring important activism by garment workers’ unions.  

The building was sturdy and withstood the blaze, while everything inside was incinerated.  There were no fire escapes, and many internal doors were locked shut to prevent the workers from taking breaks away from their stations.  Such was sweatshop life in those days. 

This was my grandmother’s generation.  My father’s mother was one of five sisters.  The eldest supported the younger ones by working in such places.  One story I recently heard was that one of my favorite (great) aunts refused to go into the trades when her time came – she stayed in school and then high tailed it for California.  Her older sister resented her action for the next sixty  years.  Such choices they faced!

Today the building sits smack dab in the middle of the student scene around Washington Square Park and NYU.