Monday, May 21, 2012

An evening at Tattered Cover





For a video of my talk/reading at Tattered Cover, see here, here, here and here.(h/t Rich Rockwell and Sage Bard-Gilbert) Tattered Cover is a Denver institution, a great independent book store which I and my family have gone to for many years. Joyce Meskis who owns it has stood up against tyrannical subpoenas to demand the titles of books people read and won. Friends have worked at TC (once upon a time, at the original Cherry Creek store, a woman was visited by someone from Highlands Ranch peremptorily demanding a generic “book, a book” for a gift; fortunately, most of those who shop at TC are not like this). And many have been delighted by the look and feel of the books, the sitting in comfortable chairs, the few minutes entering a book or perhaps even longer, getting lost in it. This independent bookstore has survived in three settings, yet in somewhat reduced form, the competition of corporate emptiness for "leading titles" diminishing it {the shell that is Barnes and Noble propagates...). The competition has killed the six poetry book stores in Denver which existed two decades ago, each of which had more interesting and diverse offerings than even TC once upon a time and certainly than TC now. Yet Tattered Cover stands.

Talking about Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence at TC was special. Friends from as long as 30 years came out, students from now and strangers. Pat who works at the bookstore was very welcoming, the book itself is stunning (Chicago Press did a wonderful job with it, notably the cover, but every aspect is as good), the table with all the books invitingly arranged, and Debbie Main who introduced my talk was charming on how she had commented to me a few weeks ago that when she had met me in 2006, I was just getting started on the book, and I had to laugh – “I have 10 years in on it already.”

It ought to be natural for authors at the University of Denver to read at Tattered Cover. And yet, more simply academic books – though Black Patriots and Loyalists is also based on discoveries in many archives, opened up by the questions I had come to ask about seemingly well known material – do not figure in the list of Tattered Cover readings. So at least at the Korbel School, I am the first faculty member to have read there (Paula Boardwell, a former student, read from her book on David Petraeus - All In – a couple of months ago). But many wonderful people – novelists, chefs, political figure, travel writers and political scientists like Andrew Bacevich, with his powerful indictment of American imperial policy, written as an officer who has lived the code of honor and whose son died for it in Iraq, have read there over many years. This was, for me, a resonant event.

In the video, perhaps more sharply than elsewhere, I connect the two revolutions and the heroism and sacrifice of those who fought for equality, from Gabriel to my friend Andy Goodman. During and after independence, the revolution from below for gradual abolition won in the North; its defeat in the South has shaped American history down to the racism – is there much else? – of the Romney campaign?*

The influence of the slaveholders continues in the senate – I mean the constitutional design of Madison, see here** - and was also realized in the President being a slave-master 52 out of the first 72 years of the republic and during segregation - see, for example, Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by another Name about the prison system. Enslavement of those convicted of “crimes” in the South was written into the Thirteenth Amendment while the real criminals, those who threw away the lives of black children and poor whites, the Senators, Vice Presidents (Garner under FDR) and the like, lived in mansions:

"Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Following the sacrifices of the Civil War, Congress did a good thing in adopting the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Union soldiers marched into battle singing "John Brown's Body lies amoulderin' in the grave but his soul goes marching on."*** Those who depict the war simply as mere empty slaughter (it was horrific...), let alone as the embodiment of the "glory of the lost South,"**** apologize for, if not extol slave-owners and blot out the commitment to freedom and equality of these soldiers.

Still, in passing the amendments, Congress could not just do a good thing. For in a decent regime, to imprison someone for a crime cannot be to enslave them. Any aspect of bondage - for instance, today's prison/probation complex - undermines equal freedom, a free regime for everyone else (if prisoners csn be thrown away, those on probation and citizens outside can be more fiercely oppressed). The "except as punishment for a crime" clause is thus one of the worst passages in the constitution.

In general, nothing unambiguously good happens in politics, let alone in mainstream American politics. Put differently, the politics of the civil rights movement or the anti-war movement from below or of Arab spring or of Occupy is, broadly speaking, good but that is rarely true of establishment or corporate politics in a highly inegalitarian regime. Perhaps this is one of the things that my colleague and friend Arthur Gilbert was driving it in his first question (one I did not answer at the talk) on the complexity of revolutions (and politicians).

Even the Emancipation Proclamation, very important, did not free, let alone make citizens of all slaves in the United States, just those in states that seceded, and only as "freedmen" and initially 20,000.*****

The marvelous holiday of Juneteenth, celebrating emancipation in Texas in 1865 (Texas was omitted in the Proclamation), is the important American holiday about abolition. See here. It is currently mainly celebrated by black people with some whites (Martin Luther King day is more encompassing). While he was mayor of Denver, Wellington Webb would have the celebration in Five Points dispersed at its conclusion with fire hoses (he here incarnated the black middle class; no mayor would disperse a mainly white crowd in Cherry Creek or on the 16th street mall with fire hoses). Arthur, who combines teaching my book, Blackmon's and Michelle Alexander's to provide insights into the central thread of racism in American history, sadly but unsurprisingly, did not include Juneteenth in his comment...

And the Bill of Rights is stated harmlessly to embrace state's rights (Amendment 10), but these long included slavery and segregation...

One might wish that Obama were more like the original campaigner and less a politician (and push him from below in the direction of decency – Occupy has actually restored him to himself and he needs to be pushed much further). This, too, is unsurprising. For there is nothing simply good in American documents (or politicians) even the Declaration of Independence indicts King George for supposedly stirring domestic insurrections (slave revolts) against the colonists - blacks initiated the revolts; those who purport to seek freedom do not enslave others - and unleashing on them native americans whose supposed "known rule of warfare" is to kill every woman and child. The latter is a genocidal projection on Jefferson's part and a knowing lie.

As I say in response to questions, it must have been the white folks murdered at Sand Creek by indigenous people. In American propaganda, the actual perpetrators of genocide, General Chivington whose statue still stands at the State House and Governor Evans for whom Mt. Evans, Evans Blvd, Evans Chapel at the University of Denver and Evans professors at DU and Northwestern are named, cannot be…white.

To become a leader of this regime is to be at best deeply flawed – so one had best limit one’s expectations of imperial Presidents, see and protest the obscene policies of each. Nonetheless, an authoritarian imperial police state is even more what America will become if Obama is not reelected (and we will have to protest and push a lot from below to prevent the intensification of such a police state and maintain a rule of law even with Obama). Note the important movment in Colorado against war with Iran – the conference of some 80 on May 12th here.

The questions – the last 20 minutes – are very good. Arthur Gilbert, who has read my book, led off with some interesting thoughts about how much revolutions actually accomplish. Now even revolution is enormously ambivalent, marked by class conflict, vengefulness and unknowing about what to do in complex circumstances on the part of those who make it – life is far more interesting and surprising than any preceding thought, as Marx says in celebrating the real movement of the workers, i.e the Paris Commune.

Nonetheless, in the French Revolution, the serfs – subjected to a thousand burdens including the right of the first night for the lord with the wife after a peasant wedding – burned down the chateaux and became men. They made themselves citizens of a republic, no longer the beasts of burden of aristocrats and monarchs. The French Revolutionaries did not yet recognize women. Still it would be hard to have influenced humanity more in the direction of mutual recognition and human rights internationally than the French Revolution did. To the extent that feudalism has been put of business and new feudalisms challenged, action for "liberte, egalite, fraternite" is its initiating point, its watchword.

Upon Hitler’s victory in early 1933, Joseph Goebbels proclaimed: “The Year 1789 is hereby extinguished form history.” If one wants to understand Heidegger and, sadly, even Nietzsche as, in this respect, enemies of humanity and decency, this contrast with the French Revolution – the uprising which insists we are all human as distinct from the rule of one – a Fuehrer or Duce or in embryo commander in chief power - who ravages humanity is stark.

And then, there is the greatest revolution of the 18th century in Saint Domingue, the one successful slave uprising in all of history, where blacks, defeating the French, Spanish and English monarchies and Napoleon, made Haiti in 1804. There is a statue in Port-au-prince of a slave standing up, his hands pulling apart, breaking the chains. So resonant is this revolution that its history - one has but to hear of it to admire it - has been buried and shunned in American culture and academia, even in the accounts of my teacher Barrington Moore (Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy) and Theda Skocpol (The Structure of Social Revolutions).

As Robin Blackburn righty argues in The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, the Revolution in France in 1789 triggered the revolution in Saint Domingue in 1791 (in fact, as C.L.R. James, the brilliant West Indian Marxist indicates, Saint Domingue was the economic jewel of the French empire; there was uncanny oppression but no "crisis of the productive forces" there, as an economic determinist Marxism might expect; in fact, the cracks and tensions in the French elite, leading to the explosion of the revolution in Europe, helped trigger internationally the uprising of those even more oppressed in Saint Domingue. These revolutions reinforced each other; the high point of Jacobinism in 1794 was the freeing of all the slaves throughout the French colonies. This was the second revolution, the one for emancipation, sweeping into France and Europe.

In this perspective, James's title is a weak point. The Haitians were not "Black Jacobins"; on the contrary, Robespierre, Saint-Just and Hebert would have been larger historical figures if they had become, as to some extent they did, the "white Toussaintians." For some related thoughts on the international complexities of revolution, see "Abolition, intrnationalism and the constitution," here.

On the revolutionary approach to bondage, the anti-slavery satires of Montesquieu in book 15 of De l'esprit des lois (Spirit of the Laws) and the pre-colonized images in Rousseau and especially Diderot (see the Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage) prepared the ground for Abbe Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes (History of the two Indias) which conjures a black liberator for Saint Domingue. The book found its way into the library of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s white owner, where Toussaint read it. So the interplay internationally of revolutionary ideas and revolutions plays a startling role (a little like the mutually inspiring Arab spring, Greek and Spanish indignados, Madison and Occupy). See here.

In response to Arthur, despite its complexities, revolution makes a big difference in the emergence of modern decency and the struggle for human rights.

But a comment - raising a question - of Arthur’s that I did speak to is the thought that the American revolution and regime is white in the sense of serving most whites and backed by most whites. Arthur nicely contrasts his working class childhood as a Jew in Providence with mine – a more middle class one - in New York, Westport and Cambridge. One aspect of it is that Arthur was harassed and beaten by some Catholic bullies.

I know separately of an Easter menu passed around by some teenagers in Providence – perhaps somewhat later - that included scrambled eggs, toast and “Burnt orange jews.” (I emphasize, in contrast, the holiness of many Catholics, but there has been a lot that is unspeakable in that religion and in Protestantism; criticizing the state of Israel and the horrific orthodox community among the settlers, I would hardly exempt Jews. Organizations for holiness are often unholy.). I, too, experienced some anti-semitism, but no one beat me up as a kid. See the peome about my debate with McGeorge Bundy in 3:AM magazine here:

"and Dick Blau
sat
behind his knitting
aunt and mother

'which one’s the young
communist?'
'the wooly haired
one'”

And the one about my mother See "From a distant spo t" here (my father had taught at Harvard for more than a decade , not being able to get tenure before World War II because he was a Jew, and then – the first Keynsian economist in the United States - advised FDR, but in the early 1950s, couldn’t get a house, working in New York, in Greenwich or Darien, Connecticut and finally was admitted to Westport):


"while you ran for School Committee
in our town – 'But after all, Jews
can’t live in Greenwich' –
by the Connecticut sound

you who taught your children how to read
but told no childhood tales
for all the world was Westport

blown from a distant spot."

But the murderous character of anti-semitism I never took in personally as a child whereas Arthur had to, and perhaps inferred, mistakenly, that all the comparatively privileged were bullies or at least supported them. No, John Laurens and the sailors who were abolitionists subjected to press gangs by England) and John Brown and Andy Goodman are all whites, and the idea of multiracial unity is enshrined in the black and white hand shake, the symbol of the once radical CIO - Congress of Industrial organizations . Poor whites from Tennessee and Kentucky fought on the Northern side in the Civil War against the plantation owners and the great Southern Tenants Alliance and early Populist movement (see Michael Schwartz, Radical Protest and Social Structure), as well as the Sharecroppers Union of the 1930s, led by the CIO and the Communist Party, and the civil rights movement were all, strikingly multiracial (see Democratic Individuality, ch. 10 for the evidence of such movements in deciding against Weber’s theory of status where blacks and whites or Poles and Germans are supposedly inimical like "cats and dogs").

That some ordinary people (and everyone else) make depraved decisions (the mob that murdered Andy Goodman, James Cheney and Michael Schwerner led by the sheriff, a minister named Edgar Ray Killens – see here and here - and a big farmer, who owned the property on which they were buried in an earthen dam probably included some poor whites) does not mean that many others do not see through racism or at least sometimes act for humanity (the same goes for members of the elite). And that is even true when most whites are vicious (again, one should be careful: many white women drove blacks around in support of the Montgomery bus boycott and, in effect, challenged segregation). Even fascism can only extinguish humanity for a time.

As Thoreau says in "Civil Disobedience," one can always say: no. If everyone else wanted to lynch someone in "vengeance" for 9/11, that doesn’t mean that any of us has to participate or need not act, with whatever force we have, to stop it.

Haider Ali Khan, my friend and colleague, asked about the radical democracy in Sierra Leone, designed by Granville Sharp, as a predecessor of the Paris Commune. Very good historians have, nonetheless, bought into the silly idea that this democratic movement was simply a predecessor of black nationalism. On the contrary, even such nationalism, in Nkrumah in the Gold Coast and Mandela in South Africa, is a striving for nonviolent democracy from which the world can learn.

In late 18th century Sierra Leone, many black Baptists supported the white colonial leadership; other blacks, notably Methodists, fought for democracy, taking up the ideas of Granville Sharp (a white). The struggle opposed the autocracy of a white abolitionist company (profit-seeking at the expense of and demeaning blacks) to a democracy organized to serve ordinary people and a shorter working week than in England and the United States (48 as opposed to 72 hours).

Signing in some detail the great pile of books, especially for many people I knew, was also a thrill.

*What does Mr. 1/10 of 1%, one might ask, offer to any of us ordinary people? One might nominate Romneycare, i.e. Obamacare, but he now denounces it...

**The good aspect of the Senate is that it enforces deliberation on new laws. They are not to be enacted hastily, or in Rousseau's idiom as a transient will of all. Even so, it is quite limited at stopping acts of tyranny, consider the Patriot Act of 2001 and its reaffirmation or the Authorization of Military Force. The Congress, one might say, has worked overtime since 9/11 to abolish the rule of law.

In addition, its routine bad side is to constrict sharply common good-seeking democratic measures. For instance, the House led by Nancy Pelosi passed some 140 bills, fostering growth, education and attempting to deal with climate change, that were overturned by "filibuster" in the Senate (even Madison did not envision the "requirement" of a 60 vote "majority" to pass a bill). To the extent that the constitution and the basic laws are sound, then this limitation is a good thing. But when the constitution preserves slave-owning and oligarchy, when the politicians are mostly paid for and made "respectable," by an oligarchy, the way the Senate works - as in the case of slavery, segregation and the prison-probation complex - is odious.

***The Battle Hymn of the Republic is written over these words, which are too anti-racist for elite America - long home of segregation. But the original words capture what is best - and has long been fought for from below - in this regime.

****The melody of "wish I was in Dixie..." sung for children - I liked it once upon a time - gives an early dose of racism before they can know what it means.

*****The Emancipation Proclamation proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the ten states then in rebellion, thus applying to 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves in the U.S. at that time. The Proclamation immediately freed 50,000 slaves, with nearly all the rest (of the 3.1 million) freed as Union armies advanced. The Proclamation did not compensate the owners, did not itself outlaw slavery, and did not make the ex-slaves (called freedmen) citizens

1 comment:

LFC said...

As a slave uprising and an anti-colonial revolution, Haiti does not fit easily into Skocpol's framework in 'States and Social Revolutions' (where one of her main concerns is the breakdown of old-regime states), nor into Moore's for that matter. I doubt they "shunned" it, which implies a conscious decision to ignore and/or belittle; rather, they were asking questions which Haiti didn't esp. help to answer. I suppose one could fault the questions but that's not quite the same as "shunning," it seems to me.

P.s. Congrats on the publication of your book.

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