Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Garden of History: "We must grow greater or we grow less"

            In these Orwellian times, when a senior adviser to the office of President offers the notion of "alternative facts" to defend an absurdity issued from the big mouth of our new fuhrer, I came across a statement by the author of 1984 and Animal Farm. George Orwell was speaking about his own country, England, but I think the point applies to this country as well:
            "Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or we grow less, we must go forward or backward...."
            Orwell's words were quoted by Robert Tombs near the end of his recent ambitious study of his country's evolution, titled "The English and Their History." Here is Tombs's own picturesque and concise description of his country:
             "England is a rambling old property with ancient foundations, a large Victorian extension, a 1960s garage, and some annoying leaks and draughts balancing its period charm."
            This fine portrayal caused me to wonder how would we might describe the United States in real estate terms. How about:
            "Big House USA is a McMansion built with low-paid immigrant labor on a vast, environmentally-degraded but world-renowned property, offering separate bedrooms for all the members of its blended soap-opera family who don't get along."
            Various historians (to go back to "The English and Their History") contend that England is the prototype of the nation-state. If this is the case, Tombs asks, why has the English nation lasted so long while retaining a sense of its own peculiar "identity"? He then quotes a kind of minority report from 18th century philosopher and historian David Hume, who stated that England's long endurance and remarkable stability is the result of "a great measure of accident with a small ingredient of wisdom and foresight."
            In the concluding chapter of his 900-page book, historian Robert Tomb returns to questions he has asked in examining his country's state of the nation through the centuries. What makes England different, enduring, itself? Tombs cites the nation's particular geographical situation -- not its island separation alone, but an island situated close by the influence of a large continent. He recalls Charles deGaulle's conclusion that England should not be part of the Common Market because it would never cling to Europe but continue to spread its greedy fingerprints all over the world.
            The island nation's watery separation from the continent did not keep it safe from outside influences: the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and the Normans all successfully invaded. In an earlier millennium, the Celts arrived there from the continent. The island was Albion (or Alba) to the Greeks and Romans before it was Briton (in a variety of spellings and languages). It wasn't until the 800s that the name "Engelond" came into use. Norman conquest and expansion, Tombs writes, wrapped Wales, Ireland and (often) Scotland into union with the more populous and dominant Anglo-Saxon nation,but fear of invasion and the constant need for homeland defense was central to the resulting nation-state's development. Tombs notes this interesting consequence: "a prominent part of being English has been paying a lot of tax."
            (Note: An incredible wealth of national statistical information underpins the conclusions of this book.)
            Both the need for security and the desire for trade kept England interested in and involved with its neighbors. An obsession and rivalry with France is a millennium-long piece of its identity. England was slower than some of its seafaring neighbors to explore the world beyond its Atlantic neighbors. The Vikings sailed further abroad, visiting some parts of the globe centuries before the English did. Tombs contends that Great Britain's empire, its acquisition of colonies in far-flung regions was a result of its rivalry with and fear of the larger, impinging continental nation (and sometimes empire) of France. Trade, defense, and international insecurity turned the English into a seafaring nation that put is faith in a navy rather than an army.
            The two-century long British Empire did some good, Tombs contends. Its global reach suppressed continental wars (Tombs calls them 'world wars,' given European rivalries in both the America and Asia in addition to Europe) from the end of Napoleonic era to World War I and achieved some social gains such as the eventual end of the African slave trade. This early era of globalization also exported the English language and some beneficial institutions such as trial by jury, parliament and "sport."
            Imperial dominance and European peace allowed the industrial revolution to get rolling. But Tombs suggests the British Empire may have contributed to the two world wars because in some respects they were wars fought against the British empire.
            He considers the complicated question of the ways in which the names England and Britain are used interchangeably and the ways they cannot be. 'England' has warmer connotations. You cannot say, "Oh to be in Britain/ Now that April's here" or "in the UK's green and pleasant land."
            He also identifies the phenomenon of  "Euroscepticism" in a book written before the Brexit vote.
            And he quotes Orwell again when considering the real, personal significance a nation's history has for its members. Orwell: "that it is your civilization , it is you... the suet puddings and red pillar boxes have entered into your soul."
            Other identifying English traits? Tombs cites "a pervasive social awkwardness alternatively displayed in politeness, rudeness and a characteristic time of humour."  And how about that extra 'u'? -- borrowed centuries ago from the French.
            Tombs' habit throughout his 900-page study is to discuss a negative critique of the country, and then measure the same negative comparatively with other countries. Here, at his book's end, he cites England's long history of domestic peace compared to the body counts in countries such as France, Russia and China. He does not even bring up the American Civil War. Over the centuries, he writes, England has been "among the richest, safest and best governed places on earth."
            In an allusion to institutions such as trial by jury and local government he cites Edmund Burke's praise for "the wisdom of unlettered men."
            The book's last argument is for the value of the study of history itself. History, like travel, "broadens the mind." 
            And in a return to the kind of architectural metaphors we began with, and a bow to his own study's heft, he calls his book "a brick for our common house."
             However well built, or ill, you find that house, this brick is worth hefting. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Garden of History: What We Can Learn From the Political Panic of 1920

          If you wanted to build a wall a hundred years ago, it would have had to be on the Atlantic.  
            I'll be speaking on my novel "Suosso's Lane" at Duxbury Library on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2 p.m., my first opportunity following the inauguration of a new administration to address the potential lessons for our own time from the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case, in which two Italian immigrants were convicted of murder in 1920 after a biased trial offering absurdly thin evidence of their guilt. Comparisons between where we are today and the state of American society and politics a hundred years ago give me a thematic subtitle for Sunday's talk: "Sacco and Vanzetti, Democratic Stress Tests, and Dangerous Times."
            I believe there are lessons for our own time from a consideration of the social, political an economic conditions that form the background for the Sacco-Vanzetti, in which (from the evidence we do have) it appears that prosecutors invented a theory for who committed a payroll robbery and killed two officials that fit nicely into contemporary hysterical fantasies about the dangers posed to the nation by -- in 1920 -- foreign anarchists. And then picked out two "perpetrators" who fit the bill and went about inventing case against them that relied on current-day prejudices to win a conviction from a jury already persuaded that foreign radicals were capable of any horrendous crime you could imagine.
            Where did these dangerous foreigners come from? The other side of the Atlantic. Largely from southern and eastern Europe. More from Italy than anywhere else.
            Comparisons between that time and our own seem especially worth examining now that we are a week into a new administration that plans to build a border wall, reduce legal immigration and otherwise turn its back on traditional American democratic and egalitarian values, much like the period in which Sacco and Vanzetti were executed because of their beliefs and their ethnicity.      
            A time of "us" and "them."
            One of those times, Sacco and Vanzetti's time, was called the "Red Scare."
            Every historical source that discusses Sacco-Vanzetti mentions the "Red Scare" as the essential piece of background to understand the famous case. In his book "Sacco and Vanzetti: the Anarchist Background," historian Paul Avrich writes, "The trial, occurring in the wake of the Red Scare took place in an atmosphere of intense hostility towards the defendants."
            My one-sentence definition is the Red Scare was period of social unrest and hard times set ablaze by anarchist bombings that led in turn to a massive, extra-legal crackdown on 'radical' immigrants and deportations in 1919-20.
            Some historians cast a wider net. Defining the Red Scare as a fear of communism, one source notes that the estimated of 150,000 anarchists or communists in USA in 1920 represents merely 0.1% of the country's overall population. Yet, this source points out, many Americans were easily spooked by fear of revolutionary ideas because of the successful communist takeover of Russia in 1917 and the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 by a homegrown anarchist, Leon Czolgosz.
            Others emphasize major economic dislocations following the end of World War I, especially high unemployment and a rash of major strikes. Leo Robert Klein of City University of New York dates the Red Scare from the Armistice in November of 1918 to the collapse of hyper-inflation in mid-1920. During this period the "social and economic stresses" on American society, arriving almost concurrently, include "a deadly flu epidemic, a strike wave of unparalleled proportions, harsh suppression in some cases of those strikes, race riots, hyper-inflation, mass round-ups and deportations of foreign born citizens, expulsion of duly-elected officials from various offices in government, an incapacitated president, espionage laws, sedition laws and, of course, the advent of Prohibition and women's suffrage."
            These sudden blows and social dislocations led an exaggerated fear of threats posed to American stability and institutions from left-wing radicals.
            A more detailed analysis of the Red Scare offered by Paul Burnett on the website of the University of Missouri at Kansas City  also discusses the Red Scare as the essential background for the Sacco-Vanzetti case.

 Burnett points to major strikes taking place at the end of World War I that rattled the economic status quo and the economic elite. These strikes led to alarmist political fears spread by government officials and sensationally publicized by what we now call the media. Some facts about events that none of us learned in our high school American history classes: At the end of World War I 9 million workers in war industries and 4 million soldiers faced unemployment in a suddenly declining job market. Freed from wartime restrictions two powerful left-wing movements rocked this boat: the IWW (International Workers of the World, or Wobblies) led a general strike in Seattle that brought out 60,000 workers. And Socialist Part candidate Eugene Debs received almost 1 million votes for President. 
              Other strikes followed, including the famous Boston police strike and a national steel workers strike carried out by 365,000 workers. Negative publicity and scare tactics led to a right-wing reaction that "demonized" all strikes as crimes against society, Burnett writes. Strikers were called "reds," regardless of what their political views might be. As the fear of strikes leading to a Communist revolution spread throughout the country, hysteria took hold and "red hunting" became the national obsession. Colleges were deemed to be hotbeds of Bolshevism, and professors were labeled as radicals. If the last part sounds familiar, it's because the McCarthyism of the post-WW II era recycled the same obsessions.
            The Red Scare brought widespread attacks on civil liberties. The General Intelligence Division of Bureau of Investigation (soon to become the FBI) with J. Edgar Hoover as its head was created to uncover Bolshevik conspiracies, and to find and incarcerate or deport conspirators. The myth of internal subversion is essential to the FBI; it's the root mission. It must find some, or invent some -- ask MLK -- to stay in business. Eventually, the new anti-radical agency compiled over 200,000 cards in a card-filing system that detailed radical organizations, individuals, and case histories across the country. Does this sound familiar in the era of the NSA?
These early efforts resulted in the imprisonment or deportation of thousands of "supposed radicals and leftists," Burnett states. "These arrests were often made at the expense of civil liberties as arrests were often made without warrants and for spurious reasons."
            On January 2, 1920 alone over 4,000 alleged radicals were arrested in thirty-three cities (800 in Boston). Legislatures also reflected the national sentiment against radicals.... As the anti-Red hysteria spread, the New York State Legislature expelled five duly elected Socialist assemblymen from its ranks. According to Burnett,
the national mood returned to "normal" in 1920, as courts and other investigators detailed the Justice Department's violations of civil liberties in its treatment of supposed radicals, especially foreign nationals. But by then the Red Scare, and demonization of foreign-born critics of the American status quo had left its mark on the nation's psyche. 
            When the state of Massachusetts offered Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists, as the killers in the Braintree payroll robbery, native-born jurors were convinced they were already dealing with criminals.  
             The legacy of the Red Scare is the belief that criticizing the actions of your country, its policies, its political leaders, or its historical assumption of moral superiority is inherently disloyal, possibly dangerous, and -- in anxious times -- positively criminal. 
The enduring gifts of the Red Scare include the creation of an agency to harass people of with unpopular beliefs (the FBI), a systematic attack on first amendment freedoms. The American Legion, created back in 1919 to break strikes. The notion of "Americanism": that those criticize the nation's wars, capitalist economy or other policies should be suspected of disloyalty. 
We saw that during the Vietnam era. It muted criticism of the Iraq War.   

            And like the era that produced it, the Sacco-Vanzetti case appears to shine a light on the darker side of American society's historical treatment of immigrants of 'unfamiliar' ethnicity. Periodically -- especially in those periods when a 'new' group of foreign nationals arrives in large numbers -- the so-called 'nation of immigrants' has exhibited a desire to close doors and build walls. Forgetful of their own non-native origins, many Americans are quick to close the borders on the next group of newcomers, whose language or manners, or religion, or skin tone, or potential for economic competition, or imagined demand for public services, is said to threaten the well-being of those already comfortably settled in the United States. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, it was the turn of Italians to be the most numerous and visible of these presumed-to-be-problematic newcomers. 
            The lessons of the Sacco-Vanzetti case may still be staring us in the face, especially at a time when many countries in both the new and the old worlds are experiencing crises over the arrival of large numbers of 'others' within settled, comfortable, more ethnically homogeneous borders.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Garden of History: What the Women's March for America (Hopefully!) means.

             It's very unusual to see the entire world celebrating -- or even acknowledging -- the same important moment at the same time. The last example of this to my mind is the worldwide welcoming of the new millennium at the dawn of 2000. As the earth spun through the sky, each new longitudinal slice of humanity celebrated the new all-world, all-peoples' milestone at the stroke of the midnight -- or they cheated a little on the timing, but who cares. It was the universality that accounted.
            Here we all are! Still here! And turning a page in triumph.
            So it was a true delight to see images of the weekend's Women's March from all over the world, all seven continents (as the newspapers put it). People standing up for decency, fairness, affirmation of women's and human rights. For democratic and egalitarian values.
            The pictures I saw are from the website of the New York Times. I hope the Times keeps the link available for a long time.
            Here's the link for the images:
            Here's what these photos mean to me.

            They're a vote for the view that love triumphs. An international vote for the values of caring, compassion, protection of the weak, the embrace of all human beings regardless of what country they live in, whatever their ethnic, religious background, gender, or the color of the skin. Everybody is a human being. Everybody is born of woman. Everyone is loved by someone (or many someones) and loves someone else. Everyone deserves decent living conditions. Everybody deserves a helping hand when in need of one, and pretty much everyone will need one at one time or another.
            Let's embrace that moment, and go from there.