Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Jim is observing Spring break in the less-than-tropical climes of Massachusetts (where beaches of books beckon). In recent weeks he's been listening to more new popular music than usual, in part because pop music has taken a turn in his (more melodic) direction. So he's enjoyed My Head Is an Animal, the debut album of Of Monsters and Men, an Iceland-based band. The hit song from the album, "Little Talks," captures the playful but dark quality that's at the heart of the band's appeal. He's also been listening to the Lumineers, whose self-titled debut, also released last year, falls more squarely in the folk revival of recent years, typified by Mumford & Sons. The Lumineers manage to make a big sound out of accoustic instruments and spare arrangements.

Finally, in a third debut album from 2012 -- it seems like it takes longer for new acts to break in, though it certainly takes longer for old geezers to discover them -- there's Delta Rae. This North Carolina band with Duke University connections extends their folk roots in a wider -- which is to say blacker -- direction, leavening their rock-based sound with soul ("If I Loved You") and even slave-based ("Bottom of the River") accents. They also do an interesting cover version of Billy Joel's "Piano Man." These and other videos -- the band seems to be using video heavily to promote themselves, perhaps because they have powerful backing -- on their website. Though it's still early in the game, they may well be built to last. The "delta" of their name has a rich, muddy bottom, and the other half points to the sky.

Best to all for a relaxing and tuneful break.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Little Giant, Big Giant

In Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas and Moral Conflict, a historic debate becomes a living analogy

I think of myself as an amateur Lincolnologist who tries to keep up on the latest literature in the field. But I really didn't want to read this book.  For months, it sat in a pile in my living room, its appealingly simple bright orange cover beckoning me. (It's a beautifully produced book generally, as one would expect of Harvard University Press.) But its sheer bulk -- 800 pages, a hundred in the form of a densely annotated editorial apparatus -- led me to steer around it. Only when that pile got small did I lift it for a single-session trial run: if the Preface and Introduction hooked me, I would see it through. It did, and I did. You should, too.

As a number of reviewers have noted, among them Steven Smith in the New York Times, Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism can be usefully viewed as a reply to Harry Jaffa's classic 1959 book Crisis of the House Divided in its exhaustive treatment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Like Jaffa, Burt (by training a literature scholar; he teaches in the English department at Brandeis) views the debates through a philosophic lens. Indeed, for all the exhaustive contextual detail that laces his analysis, Burt, like Jaffa, rejects a strictly historicist reading of the debates, insisting on their ongoing relevance as a case study in ethics. But he departs from Jaffa in two important respects. The first are his touchstones; where Jaffa was likely to invoke Plato or Aristotle, Burt invokes (and to some degree defends) John Rawls. The second, related -- or, as Burt is wont to say, "imbricated" -- departure from Jaffa is a partial rehabilitation of Stephen Douglas, whom Jaffa (among many others, in 1858 and ever since) viewed as a crude political opportunist. Burt views Douglas as a worthy opponent, even if he feels that the balance of history, and morality, is on Lincoln's side.

The core question the book poses can be stated relatively simply: How can a liberal (which is to say politically pluralistic) society justly engage a non-negotiable moral position (in this case, that slavery is evil)? In one sense, Burt's answer is that a liberal society can't, not because of any defect in liberalism exactly, but rather because no society comprised of human beings ever can be entirely just. The temptation for individuals to think and act otherwise is almost irresistible, whether because of a collective addiction to intoxicating self-righteousness or out of fear that a sense of doubt would enervate the will to act. Lincoln's greatness, of course, stemmed from a very unusual capacity to prosecute an extremely bloody civil war while at the same managing to maintain a sense of his own moral and epistemological fallibility, captured most durably in his Second Inaugural. This is the essence of the tragic pragmatism invoked in the title of the book.

What Burt maintains, however, is that Lincoln's eventual synthesis of conviction and modesty would have been impossible without the forceful prodding he received at the hands of Douglas seven years earlier. He believes that the Abraham Lincoln who launched his U.S. Senate campaign against Douglas in 1858 with his famous "House Divided" speech in 1858 was more philosophically rigid, and thus politically vulnerable, than commonly allowed. Conversely, Douglas, while no moral philosopher, was on firmer footing than one might think. Burt is among the many observers who have viewed Lincoln's attacks that Douglas was in cahoots with Slave Power apologists like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan as ridiculous. He is more unusual in finding merit in Douglas's "Freeport Doctrine" that states required by law to protect slavery need not be vigorous in enforcing it, drawing a distinction between allowing and facilitating certain kinds of economic activity that has clear parallels in contemporary life (consider gun ownership, for example, which we have no obligation to make easy).

Douglas famously asserted -- and his enemies on either side of the slavery issue endlessly repeated -- a claim that he didn't care whether slavery was voted up or down. What Douglas did say he cared about is that the citizens of a state or territory be allowed to choose for themselves, a notion that lay at the heart of the popular sovereignty premise codified in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which triggered Bloody Kansas, the Civil, War -- and, ironically, the destruction of Douglas's own presidential aspirations.

But the Kansas-Nebraska Act was more than just a failed political gambit. It posed a genuine philosophical dilemma. As Burt explains, "the issue between Lincoln and Douglas was not the difference between moral and amoral politics, but the difference between one set of prudential compromises about moral issues and another set." Neither man liked, but both men were willing to tolerate, slavery -- Lincoln was less tolerant than Douglas, because he was unwilling to allow it to enter the territories and Douglas was (though Southern suspicions of Douglas's professed indifference about slavery were justified). The real question was how far the two men were willing to go to end it. Douglas was not as willing to go as far as Lincoln because he feared that fanaticism -- not so much Lincoln's, but that of abolitionists with which was not quite implausibly associated, would wreck what Douglas considered the last best hope of The People (which of course did not mean black people, but then in no polity does "the people" include everybody).

Given the reality of what this meant in 1858, it's easy to view Douglas's position as slickly cynical at best. But in an important respect, it lands right in the middle of a straight line that runs from James Madison's Federalist #10 to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. It's the same vision of interest-group politics in which a liberal tells an antiabortion activist that if he doesn't like abortion, he shouldn't have one, a vision in which the only legitimate values are those you don't dare try to impose on somebody else. Burt, alluding to Max Weber (and, perhaps, Ron Takaki), describes it as "a world bound in the iron cage of purely instrumental rationality, in which means are calculated but ends are 'value judgments' about which reason has nothing to say. It is, in short, the modern world."

From this perspective, Lincoln becomes smug, even scary: he knows he's right, he says you know he's right, and even if he's willing to play by the (Constitutional) rules, he will stop at nothing short of that to take away what you hold most dear. Really, how far can you trust someone like that? A majority of voters in 1858 -- and a majority of voters in the presidential election of 1860 -- said: not far enough.  Douglas was right: Lincoln really was a sectional candidate. At best.

And yet Burt insists that Lincoln was right to insist on antislavery -- not abolition, but antislavery. That's because not all values are negotiable, even if no values should be absolutist. They should not be absolutist, because, as Burt pithily puts it, "in politics we are always Hawthorne's children, not Emerson's." Burt's literary background serves him well in other ways as well, notably his deployment of the Keatsian notion of negative capability, which Burt describes as an understanding that "we know our values by knowing that we can never exhaust them with our understanding, and that we never stand in a privileged position as regards them, that they remain in a position to put us, in some unanticipated way, in the wrong."

The miracle of Lincoln is that his final skepticism was skepticism about despair. One might think that it was Douglas who embodied a Rawlsian vision of fairness being defined in terms of willing to accept as fair the consequences of an unknown outcome, but Burt invokes Rawls's later work in which priorities are not understood solely in terms of economic or political self-interest. No political order can survive without a sense of sacred values, and part of what it means for values to be sacred -- to be living -- is a willingness follow where they lead, accepting the unforeseen consequences of a commitment rather than simply seeing them as expedient (Lincoln is in this sense Rawlsian, though he seems at least as much Kantian). Lincoln's God is not particularly attentive, kind, or forgiving. And yet he's still a repository of hope.

The burden of belief is not what it allows you to do to other people, but what you're willing to do to yourself in the name of your values. This leads Burt to assert that Lincoln really did not foresee emancipation and racial equality in 1858; one reason why he was able to do deal so effectively with the border states in the Civil War is that "his mind was another Maryland," which is to say he was a man of racial prejudices just as his fellow citizens were. But he was ultimately able to contemplate the "implictness" of his antislavery commitments, and to act on them when their force of their moral logic became clear --not Union versus freedom, or even Union through freedom, but Union as freedom -- and time was right. And, thanks to Douglas, to explain them unforgettably at Gettysburg and in the Second Inaugural.

Again, this is a big, sprawling book. And it's not entirely persuasive. (For one dissent, see Allen Guelzo's recent review in the Wall Street Journal.) I elected to skip over some of the minutiae, like that surrounding variant bills and amendments of the Kansas-Nebraska Act; for a non-historian, Burt goes pretty deep into the weeds. I'd have to read it again to figure out how to trim it, but a to me a book this size is almost always guilty unless proven innocent.

Ironically, there are also some surprising omissions. I found myself wondering, for example, how non-violence figures into all of this. Martin Luther King, Jr. shows up twice in passing. This is no anachronistic query for clarification, not only because of the range of modern voices that pepper Burt's discourse, but also because the roots of King's philosophy can of course be found in antebellum abolitionists like Henry David Thoreau and WilGarrison -- but without the self-righteousness that has always limited their appeal. I raise the question less as a complaint than a desire to understand if and how a moral giant like King, who also managed to combine unshakeable moral conviction with a sense of sin, compares with Lincoln.

Even more surprising in a book with the word "pragmatism" in it is the absence of William James. That's especially true because Burt's use of "implicitness" has a distinctly Jamesian ring: truth inhering in action. Surely there should have been room somewhere for Lincoln of American philosophy.

All this said, I'm making space on my overstuffed shelves for Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism. This is a book I expect to be picking up and thumbing through for years to come. That's not only because I may someday really want to know what was actually in the Toombs bill of 1857 or the various provisions of the Crittenden Compromise. It's also because I may need some help figuring out What Would Lincoln Do. His judgment may not have been divine. But I'm only human.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Treacherous choices

Benedict Arnold, great traitor

The following is the second of two posts on loyalists in the American Revolution (the first, "The Price of Loyalty," is below).

Perhaps no one shows how difficult it was to choose sides in the American Revolution, and the price to be paid for picking the wrong one, than Benedict Arnold. For the entire history of the United States, Arnold’s very name has been a byword for treason. But for most of the Revolution Arnold had been regarded as a hero—in some eyes second only to George Washington in his military accomplishments and the contribution they had made to the Patriot cause. In fact, before he tried to give away the base at West Point in 1780, you could make a pretty good case that Arnold had actually achieved more than Washington had in making material contributions to the cause of American independence.
Like Thomas Hutchinson, George Washington, and other Founding Fathers, Arnold had a blue-blooded colonial background. His great-grandfather, for whom he was named, was an early governor of Rhode Island. His grandfather and father, also named Benedict, were prominent in New England business and politics. But Arnold’s father was also an alcoholic, and family fortunes suffered during his childhood. Though he attended elite private schools, Arnold never went to Yale as expected, and an apprenticeship as a apothecary (pharmacist) with his uncles was interrupted by his decision to run away to the state militia, to which he later returned and served briefly in the French and Indian War. In the years that followed, Arnold built a successful business in eastern Connecticut, much of it based, like that of Massachusetts merchant John Hancock, on smuggling foreign goods illegally and avoiding imperial taxes.
The coming of the Revolution was good for Arnold. He was at the forefront of colonial resistance all through the increasingly escalating fights over tax and economic policy in the 1760s and ’70s, and was elected captain in the Connecticut militia in 1775. He marched his newly formed company to Massachusetts, whereupon he proposed an expedition up the Connecticut River to seize the weakly defended Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York, whose artillery could be a valuable asset in the coming struggle. Though he squabbled with Ethan Allen, leader of the famed Green Mountain Boys—one of many disputes that marked Arnold’s military career—the expedition was successful. The artillery at the fort was later moved to Boston, and played an important role in the British army’s decision to withdraw from the city in the aftermath of the Battle of Bunker Hill, a narrow British victory that nevertheless convinced the victorious General Thomas Gage that his besieged position in the city was no longer defensible.
In the early years of the Revolution, even Arnold’s defeats were impressive. When an initial plan to lead an attack on Quebec was rejected and the campaign given to someone else, he formulated an alternative route and was put in charge of it as a second prong of the operation. Though the effort to take the Canadian city in late 1775 ultimately failed—a smallpox outbreak, among other mishaps, hobbled the effort—most observers then and since credit Arnold for his ingenuity and persistence in keeping the operation going. (He was promoted to general for his efforts.) Arnold has also been credited as a founding father of the United States navy. His smuggling experience came in handy when orchestrating American operations on Lake Champlain in 1776. While he fought to a draw at best, his maneuvers were a factor in the British command’s fateful decision to delay further offensive operations until the following year.
Which brings us to Arnold’s finest hour. British grand strategy for 1777 involved a pincer movement whereby one British army would move up the Hudson River from New York, while another moved down from Montreal, cutting New England off from the rest of the colonies. But a lack of coordination among British commanders resulted in the New York contingent heading to Philadelphia instead. Meanwhile the northern British army, its supply lines spread dangerously thin, moved down the Hudson, where it was met by Americans converging from three sides. At the decisive moment of what became known as the Battle of Saratoga, Arnold led an American attack on a fiercely defended British position that turned the tide.
Saratoga is widely considered the turning point of the American Revolution. Not only did the battle take a big British piece off the chessboard, it also convinced a previously skeptical French government that aiding the Americans could be a worthwhile investment in taking their hated enemy, the British, down a peg. French financial and naval support would ultimately be decisive in the outcome of the struggle.
So Arnold had a lot to feel good about. And yet every step of the way he encountered resistance and indifference: promotions that never came; subordinates who were promoted over him; a Congress that failed to recognize his achievements. And, always, there were personal conflicts: Arnold seemed to be perpetually arguing with his fellow officers. At the time of Saratoga he was on such bitter terms with his commanding officer, General Horatio Gates, that he was actually relieved of command before the battle. Arnold’s leading the decisive attack was actually an act of insubordination, and an furious Gates unsuccessfully sent an aide after him to keep his rogue junior officer from reaching the front.
And while Arnold earned himself some glory at Saratoga, it came at a price: he took a bullet in the leg at the battle, and the horse he was riding fell on top of the same leg and broke it, an injury from which he never fully recovered. Nor did he get all the glory he deserved: Gates pointedly omitted mention of Arnold’s achievements in his official account of the battle. (Though his reputation never took the hit Arnold’s did, Gates’s career was persistently marked by a whiff of scandal; he was apparently involved in a plot to replace General Washington early in the war, and may have played a role in the shadowy near-mutiny that took place in Newburgh, New York at the end of it.)
 Arnold was no perfect victim. Stories of his arrogance and shady dealings dogged him his entire life, and while it’s safe to say such stories were more likely to be embellished and repeated in the decades after the war, the record is clear that he was a controversial figure even when he was considered one of the military stars of the Revolution. There were persistent rumors that he personally profited from his management of army resources, and was officially reprimanded by General Washington in December of 1779 over his lax approach toward handing out passes and his use of public wagons to save private property. Aggravated by what he regarded as petty haranguing, Arnold considered retiring from the army.
By this point he had been posted to Philadelphia. Arnold had been widowed early in the war; it was there that he met Margaret (“Peggy”) Shippen, who became his second wife. Shippen came from a prominent mercantile family with strong Loyalist ties. She was also was friendly with John Andre, a British officer she introduced to Arnold. Needless to say, the details of what followed are at least partly shrouded in mystery. But Andre and Arnold worked out a plan whereby Arnold, who was to be given command of American operations at West Point in early 1780, would sabotage operations at the base as a prelude to turning it over to British control. As it turned out, Andre was intercepted with incriminating evidence while he was on his way to meet Arnold, and he was eventually executed as a spy. Arnold, tipped off to Andre’s arrest just before he was to meet with Washington, managed to get away, aided by Peggy, who stalled a move against her husband by professing ignorance, shock and outrage when Washington interrogated her at West Point. Washington let her go, and she ultimately joined her husband in London. The couple raised five children and spent much of their subsequent life in Canada.
Why did Arnold betray the American cause? Did he do it for love? Money? A character defect? Probably all three were involved, among other reasons. Actually, Arnold himself offered a bunch himself: “Neglected by Congress below, distressed with the small-pox; want of Generals and discipline in our Army, which may be rather called a great rabble, our credit and reputation lost, and great part of the country; and a powerful foreign enemy advancing upon us, are so many difficulties we cannot surmount them,” he explained of his decision.
Go ahead and call that rationalizing on Arnold’s part. It surely was. But while you can credibly call him slimy or cowardly, one thing you can’t really say about him is that he was stupid. Actually, George Washington could have said exactly the same things Arnold did in 1780, when a major British offensive in the southern colonies showed every sign of succeeding, at least at first. In fact, Washington did say many of the same things in his steady stream of letters cajoling, complaining and lamenting the lack of support the American effort was getting. Like the men who had signed the Declaration of Independence, Washington had pledged his life and honor on the American cause. Noble or not, these people knew they were as good as dead if that cause failed. Arnold knew it too, but he made a different calculation, one that had a certain plausibility to it whether or not he happened to be a nice man, or whether or not you happened to agree with him. Washington made his bet on the outcome of the Revolution and won, thanks to the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, where, as at Saratoga, the Americans bagged an entire British army, convincing the government in London that the war simply wasn’t worth it anymore.
Arnold, by contrast, made his bet and lost. Actually, the outcome Revolution wasn’t a total disaster for him. Unlike Andre, Arnold escaped with his life, and while he never got the big payday he was hoping for in turning over West Point—since he didn’t actually do it, he didn’t get the money—the British government did compensate him for at least some of his pains. He assumed a command in the British army, and fought in Virginia late in the war, capturing Richmond in December of 1780. After the war, he was received by King George the III and resumed his business. He was embroiled in any number of personal disputes, but that had always been the case with him. Still, Arnold who died in 1801, spent the last twenty years of his life with his name as a byword for treachery, and he wasn’t much more liked in Britain than he was in the United States. He clearly regretted his choice, and once said it would have been better had he been shot in the chest rather than the leg at Saratoga. In that scenario, he would have died a hero.
Let’s be clear: the goal here is not to rehabilitate Benedict Arnold. George Washington was more than a lucky gambler—among other things, he was a man who was notably good at working with and mentoring people, like Alexander Hamilton, an arrogant genius who served as Washington personal aide and who Washington as president would shrewdly delegate the job of inventing a modern capitalist economy. (Another man who worked under Washington was Aaron Burr, who would later kill Hamilton.) Washington was exceptionally careful in managing his personal affairs as well as in running an army for which he refused to accept a salary. Of course, he could afford to. Could, and did. 
But being a good or nice man is beside the point. Which is this: that major social upheavals like revolutions are not simply difficult experiences because of the death and destruction they rain down on those on those who choose to participate in them.  Or that they rain down death and destruction on those who do not choose to participate in them, but nevertheless get caught in the crossfire. It’s also that they create situations where people perceive that they might actually have a choice in the matter, and that their choice may have consequences far beyond their ability to calculate. As Americans we cherish our freedom. But this is a kind of freedom most of us would cheerfully forgo.
As a military event, at least, the American Revolution ended 230 years ago. If you’re like most Americans, you regard yourself as a happy beneficiary of that outcome, which you commemorate with a barbeque, fireworks display, or some other form of celebration every July 4. If pressed, you’d probably concede that the Patriot cause was not entirely noble, and that as with most disputes, there are at least two sides to every story. You might even feel like American victory wasn’t all that deserving, like a team that wins a game on a disputed call or technicality. But you’re still glad your side won.
You should be even more glad that you didn’t have to pick the winning side. Maybe it’s that more than anything that makes being an American so precious: the freedom to not choose. Americans weren’t always that fortunate (life wasn’t much fun in this regard when the Civil War broke out in 1861, or at the height of the Vietnam War). And they won’t be forever. But overall, our history has been one of stability. It may well be that the very definition of a successful society is one that spares its citizens the most painful polarities of politics.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The price of loyalty

The founding of the United States was an ordeal for those unsure of which side to choose

The following is the first of two posts on loyalists in the American Revolution

So: You happy about the way the American Revolution turned out?
This probably strikes you as an odd question. You’re here, aren’t you? Sure, it’s possible that if Great Britain prevailed in its struggle with its unruly colonies, you might be living a better life, whether in continental North America or wherever in the world your people originated. Possible, but not especially likely. Even if you happen to be the heir of slaves, you now enjoy a better standard of living than they ever did. That’s because of a series of possibilities—pursuits of happiness—set in motion by a Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was marked by any number of loopholes, to be sure, some of which remain open. But lots of those loopholes of got closed, and part of what it means to be an American is to live with the hope that others will be.
Of course, where you stood on the American Revolution was a very different story in the 1770s and 1780s, when the fate of a would-be nation hung in the balance and some people were forced to choose sides precisely because there was no outcome to take for granted. We sometimes forget that the American Revolution was really our first Civil War, in which relatively large minorities of people—the estimates run from fifteen to thirty percent, depending on where you were living—were known as Loyalists who sided with England. Then there were places like New York City, which spent most of the war under British occupation. Nearby Westchester County was like modern-day Afghanistan, a kind of no-man’s land fought over guerilla-style by warring families and factions.
At the level of individual lives, choosing sides could be excruciating. In the 1770s Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson had family roots in the colony going back a century and a half. His great-great grandmother, Anne Hutchinson, arrived with the first generation of settlers in 1634. She was a rebel, a woman who believed that since the fate of any individual soul was unknown to all except for God, any form of earthly authority should be treated skeptically—a point of view that the Massachusetts government understandably viewed with some alarm. Whether or not they overreacted in expelling her from the colony in 1637 has been debated ever since. But a branch of her family survived and prospered in Massachusetts, and one of her heirs achieved the notable distinction of governing it himself (under royal supervision, that is).
Unlike Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Hutchinson was not a rebel. In fact, he secretly advised the British government that it should crack down on those who were, like the troublemakers who executed the outrageous “Tea Party” of December 1773 that resulted in large-scale destruction of government property. When Benjamin Franklin, who was based in London at the time, managed to acquire documentation of that advice, he leaked it to a Boston newspaper, which created a firestorm of controversy. Franklin was dragged before Parliament for his role in the dispute and subjected to a barrage of humiliation that turned a mild-mannered 68-year old grandfather into a radical for the rest of his life. But Thomas Hutchinson had it worse. His personal and political situation became unbearable, and he and his family had to abandon the only home he had ever known and went into exile in England, where he completed his three-volume history of the colony before his death in 1780, with the Revolution still raging.
So Thomas Hutchinson was not happy with the way the American Revolution turned out for him. But he knew what he believed, and there’s little indication he ever doubted what he should do. There were plenty of people who did doubt, however. For some, like Franklin’s friend Joseph Galloway, who served in the First Continental Congress, this was a matter of competing loyalties, of being genuinely torn about where he belonged. Though he started out as a Patriot protesting British policy, Galloway ultimately chose to be a Loyalist, and like Hutchinson lived the remainder of his life in England, advising the imperial government on how to put down the rebellion.
In other cases, though, the uncertainty was less a matter of divided loyalty than simply trying to guess about how to avoid trouble. High-minded claims of liberty aside, a clear-eyed observer could see that the rebels were hardly saints in pushing for their independence. In famous words of British essayist Samuel Johnson, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” Those negroes, of course, were not likely to be impressed by an assertion that “all men were created equal” made by a man who owned close to 200 slaves. The royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, recognizing the vulnerability of the rebels on this point, issued a famous proclamation in 1775 promising freedom to all slaves who abandoned their masters and joined royal forces seeking to put down what had become an armed insurrection. (For many rebel Virginians, this was the lowest blow, the last straw, in bringing them around to the cause of independence.)
For a lot of slaves, Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation had to be a mighty tempting offer. And yet there were all kinds of reasons to hesitate before accepting it: loved ones who couldn’t, or wouldn’t leave their homes; dangerous logistical obstacles in reaching British lines; and so forth. But high on that list would likely be a question of trust: would the British be true to their word? If so, what would that really mean?
In fact, the British were true to their word. They created a small regiment of African American soldiers—this almost a century before the famed Massachusetts 54th of Glory fame in the American Civil War—that fought against the Patriots. On the whole, however, Lord Dunmore’s Declaration proved to be a disappointing deal. Many of those who took it perished from disease in war camps or on British vessels. Of the estimated 100,000 slaves who attempt to cross over, only about 3,000 were eventually resettled in Nova Scotia. For those who made it, such an outcome had to be bittersweet at best. It would hardly be the first or last time that racism forced difficult calculations on people who typically had to make the best of bad situations to the best of their finite abilities.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On bitching

The following remarks were delivered at an assembly at my school last week which dealt with the word "bitch" and what place it has, if any, in common discourse.


Though I’ve been known to use such terms for pedagogical purposes – usually to try and capture another person’s point of view – I can’t recall ever calling anyone a bitch. (I call my two dogs bitches all the time, but I don’t think they mind.) It’s an ugly word, almost always used for ugly purposes. But I instinctively resist explicit attempts to limit such terms, in part because trying to silence them sometimes only adds to their totemic power. This is why I dislike the euphemism “n-word,” for example.
I also resist attempts to limit profane language because in some cases, the call comes from people in positions of relative privilege who may not understand its visceral appeal for those who experience themselves as disempowered. Lacking other resources, language – more specifically, the language to offend people who set, if not dictate, standards of appropriate behavior – is one of the ways working-class communities define themselves and establish their own boundaries. I believe anyone familiar with the history of hip-hop knows what I mean.
That doesn’t mean you or I should celebrate those boundaries or observe them in our own lives. But it might mean we should have a sense of humility about how much dignity we demand, and an understanding that outrage, while sometimes a necessity on behalf of others, can also be a luxury for ourselves. I realize that as a middle-aged white man, this is a little too easy for me to say. And I wouldn’t be saying it all if I didn’t believe that a robust critique of the word “bitch” was underway in this assembly. But if I’m more than simply a collection of demographic categories, perhaps there’s merit in the notion that we can tolerate some bitchiness here at Fieldston. Sticks and stones may break our bones; names really can hurt us. But maybe sometimes we’re strong enough to neither give, nor take, offense.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Constituting truth

In Constitutional Myths: What Wet Get Wrong and How to Get It Right, Ray Raphael hollows hallowed Conservative doctrine

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.  

Once upon a time, the Constitution was seen by historians as the property of the right. That's because Charles Beard told us so -- exactly one century ago. In his influential 1913 book An Economic Theory of the Constitution of the United States, Beard explained the document was the work of a wealthy elite seeking to restrain the egalitarian tendencies of the American Revolution. But Beard provoked a reaction; by midcentury a new generation of scholars like Clinton Rossiter of the Consensus School argued for a less ideological approach to understanding the framing and approval of the Constitution. The rise of neoconservatism in the last half of the twentieth century, typified by organizations like the Federalist Society, effectively lionized precisely what Beard complained about. Diffused versions of such thought drifted into the Tea Party, where the Tenth Amendment, which emphasizes the limits of what the national government can do, has become sacred scripture.

Now here comes Ray Raphael to take the Constitution back for the left. Actually, Raphael has been contesting conservative interpretations of American history for some time. His 2001 book A People's History of the American Revolution, part of a series under the editorship of the late Howard Zinn, renders a bottom-up version of the story in the now-classic Zinn traditon. Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past (2004), is a collection of counter-narratives that challenge heroic tales that disempower ordinary Americans by emphasizing the gap between the Founding Fathers and themselves. Such concerns are rooted in Raphael's own personal history; he was a participant in the Civil Rights movement a half-century ago as a community organizer and voting rights activist.

Loosely speaking, Constitutional Myths is a sequel to Founding Myths, in that its locus is about a decade later and is similarly devoted to contesting prevailing conservative notions. But while the former focused on people and anecdotes that had become literally legendary (e.g. Paul Revere's ride, Molly Pitcher's battlefield prowess, etc.), his concerns this time are more purely ideological. A series of eight chapters systematically dismantles notions that the framers of the Constitution were anti-government, anti-taxes, or even anti-politics. In each case, he begins by conceding the "kernel of truth" to such views, before a "but" section outlining the alternate view and a longer "full story" that suggests the complexities and ambiguities involved. Still, Raphael's own views are clear. Of course the framers believed in a strong central government; "if all they cared about was restraining power they would have stuck with the Articles of Confederation." James Madison was not the father of the Constitution; if he was the government would have actually been a good deal more centralized than it was (that's because conservatives tend to focus on the Madison of the 1790s who hated Alexander Hamilton rather than the Madison who worked alongside him in the 1780s). Instead of an emphatic assertion of limited government, the Bill of Rights was actually a piece of political legerdemain designed to forestall a second Constitutional Convention that might have fatally weakened federal power.

Raphael writes with a deft touch and a lifetime of learning that he wears lightly. His immersion in the primary sources is as evident as it is for less pointed peers like Pauline Maier and Jack Rakove (who provide blurbs for the book). One feels to compelled to challenge his assertion that one can tell anything resembling "the full story" from any perspective in chapters that average about 20 pages. And as Raphael himself would probably concede, it would be possible to construct an alternative version that turns his assertions inside out with chapters that concede federal power but emphasize its limits, a Madison who may not have authored the Constitution but provided plenty of its DNA, and so forth. But this is very much a history and for its moment -- originalists be damned.

Again, what keeps it grounded is Raphael's evident authority. Constitutional Myths is buttressed with a substantial collection of primary source documents that form a counterpoint to the standard issue sources students typically encounter. Indeed, the book makes for an ideal text for a high school or college civics course, one that revitalizes an old-fashioned but necessary subject.  Raphael's youthful vitality makes him a welcome traveling companion for beginner and seasoned veteran alike. Long may he wave.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Not for Christ's sake

In The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin gives us a disconcertingly modern Madonna

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.  

This book is billed as the testament of Mary, not the gospel of Mary. "Gospel" means "good news," but protagonist of this novella (adapted into a play that will come to Broadway this month) has little to offer in the way of glad tidings. For thousands of years, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth has come down to us as a woman who unquestionably accepted God's instruction that she be the instrument of a virgin birth, lived to see her son executed, and then vanished from the pages of history. But in Irishman Colm Toibin's version of her life, we see an anguished old Mary who finds more comfort from the solitude of a pagan temple than she does communing her son's associates, who are blithely constructing a myth in her midst.

The book opens with Mary in exile in the coastal Roman city of Ephesus, supported by followers of Jesus who somehow attend to her and query her, without ever really paying attention to her. She has never recovered from her son's crucifixion, which she describes as a curse "that pumped darkness through me at the same rate as it pumped blood." She lives listlessly, awaiting death, alternating happier memories of her intact family -- she angrily demands that her son's followers not sit in the chair of her forgotten husband Joseph -- with the unsettling period of Jesus's ministry and his eventual arrest and execution.

Mary's recollections correspond unevenly with the the accounts we have come to know as the synoptic gospels. The story of Lazarus precedes the wedding at Cana, which is typically considered the start of the Jesus's ministry. Unlike the Gospel of John, Mary does not ask Jesus to turn water into wine; here she's too anxious about the spies and informants that endanger her and her son. According to that same gospel, the dying Jesus addressed Mary by saying, "Behold your son" (and the apostles by saying, "behold your mother"). But in this version of the story, Mary and the apostles keep a safe distance, and, in a decision for which she can never forgive herself, Mary flees to save her own life rather than remain with the body of Jesus.

These scriptural discrepancies go to the heart of what Toibin is trying to do here, which is to demythologize Christianity -- here it may be no accident that his allusions rest on the Gospel of John, that most mystical scripture -- by showing its origins as a set of accounts that are not simply of questionable accuracy, but explicitly scorned by one who was there at the creation. "They want to make what happened live forever, they told me," she reports. "What is being written down, they say, will change the world." When Mary tells these evangelists she doesn't understand what they mean, they reply, "He was indeed the Son of God."

But for this Mary, Jesus was not the Christ. And the presumed future salvation of others brings her no comfort. "I was there," she replies. "I fled before it was all over, but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say it was not worth it. It was not worth it." But these apostles don't care. One is reminded here of the Jesus of Nikos Kazantzakis's 1953 novel The Last Temptation of Christ, who meets a St. Paul who regards what Jesus himself thinks or knows as less important than an emerging world of believers for whom faith is more important than truth.

By this point, insistence -- the need? -- for the modern imagination to place God in a mortal frame has almost become a cliche that stretches across an ideological spectrum from Martin Scorsese (who made a film version of The Last Temptation of the Christ with Brooklynesque patois in 1988) to Mel Gibson (who directed the painfully graphic, and anti-Semitic, Passion of the Christ in 2004). This modern form of Arianism is meant to make Jesus more realistic, and thus believable. But it also makes him a little safe, sidestepping the question of divinity by making him more acceptable to a secular imagination. I understand that impulse. But I'm growing a little suspicious of it.

What Toibin is doing here, however, is a little different. He's not rounding the spiritual edges of Jesus with flesh and blood; instead, he's constructing a heretical Mary who challenges rather than accommodates. I gasped out loud (actually, what I said was "Jesus," taking the Lord's name in vain) when I got to the penultimate paragraph of this book. In a weird way, though, I find myself wondering if Toibin is, in his oblique way, more faithful than most in the way he portrays religious experience with an unsentimental toughness that eschews easy answers. (Actually, there's something supernaturally creepy in the way Mary experiences the resurrected Lazarus and the disconcerting glow of her son at the wedding.) The life and death of Jesus is a mysterious business. It's probably best to understand it as something you can never really understand.