About Me

My Photo
I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Are teaching American history and teaching patriotism the same thing?

Links to this post
The recent controversy about how American history should be taught in public schools (in Colorado and elsewhere) has me thinking a lot about patriotism, and what it would mean to teach it -- and why so many Americans seem to think that teaching a fuller version of our national history somehow diminishes it (and us). 

I assigned a thought provoking essay by George Kateb in my Just War Theory class this semester, "Is Patriotism a Mistake," and that's pushed me a bit too.  Kateb argues that patriotism, in its essence, is an attack on the Enlightenment.  One's country is an abstraction, not a principle; morally speaking, there is 'no there there.'  A moral principle is by definition universal, while patriotism decidedly is not.  Patriotism makes self-love and self-concern into an ideal - and the inevitable result, Kateb concludes, is self-preference.  And violence.

As an American history professor, I'm having difficulty figuring out how one 'teaches patriotism,' and indeed whether one should consciously seek to do so at all.  

If we assume that patriotism is defined as love of country -- as opposed to nationalism or jingoism, which includes an assertion that our country is somehow 'better' or 'superior' to others -- then I fail to see how teaching an American history drained of conflict, ambiguity, and wrongful deeds encourages students to love their country, any more than loving our spouse requires us to willfully ignore their flaws and mistakes. 

I have been teaching and writing about the history of race, inequality, war and politics for two decades now, and my patriotism remains undiminished, though it is tempered and imperfect, like all love is; how is one to value and respect the lightest parts of us -- the 'better angels of our nature' -- without understanding the dark ones too? 

More to the point, how are we supposed to understand some of the trials and tribulations of other members of our American community in the present (patriotism requires us to love them too, yes?) without opening our eyes to ALL of our history?  If America is a country worth loving, we have nothing to fear from the truth. And if America is NOT a country worth loving, surely patriotism is indeed a mistake.  It is something to be valued as long as valuing it remains consistent with justice; when these two paths diverge, the principled person must plant their seeds in deeper soil.  The task for all of us, of course, is to make our collective enterprise worthy of love. To me, that's patriotism. A relationship is a process, not a golden idol requiring genuflection.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock...

Links to this post
Something uplifting, to share with you on this lovely Mother's Day morning.

Early in 1973, the 74 year-old writer E.B. White received a letter from a man who had lost faith in humanity.

White -- the author of Charlotte's Web as well as the widely-used Elements of Style -- generously took the time to dash off a short but heartfelt note:

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society – things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

E. B. White
March 30th, 1973

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The mass incarceration state, and American barbarity

Links to this post
Yesterday, the National Research Council published a massive 464-page report that looks at the extraordinary four-decade rise of incarceration in the United States and concludes that all of its costs — for families, communities, state budgets and society — have simply not been worth the benefit in deterrence and crime reduction.  The report, which was commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute of Justice, is a devastating confirmation of the ground-breaking work of Heather Ann Thompson, Michelle Alexander, Bruce Western and others on the American mass incarceration state -- what Alexander has called 'the New Jim Crow.'  Emily Badger has a good summary of it in today's Washington Post.

1 out of every 100 American adults is now in prison or jail -- the highest in the world, and 5 to 10 times higher than other Western democracies.  Nearly 1/4 of the world's prison population is in the United States.  But this actually undercounts how many of our citizens are caught up in this system, because it doesn't include people on probation or parole:

One must keep in mind that most of those nearly 8 million people are young, black or Latino, and swept up into the criminal justice system because of small-scale drug possession crimes and racially-targeted policing.  The consequences, for these individuals and their families and communities, are devastating:  they lose access to public housing, student loans, Food Stamps, and -- in far too many states -- the right to vote and serve on a jury.  They also generally lose access to employment.  

If a nation's government budgets tell us something about what that country values, what Americans now care about is abundantly clear:  militarism abroad, and incarceration at home.  State spending on corrections has increased 400% since 1980, with state prison populations growing by 475%.  This has taken place during a time of declining crime rates -- and there is no evidence that mass incarceration has contributed in any way to that decline.  There is plenty of evidence of its devastating impact on families, communities, and public priorities.  The vast majority of these arrests have been for small-time drug violations, particularly for people of color, even though their use of illegal drugs is no greater than that of whites.  

Stunningly, in many states the criminal justice system has become the primary provider of health care, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, job training and education for low-income adults.  If you've ever wondered where all the funding for public higher education has gone, the answer is clear:  the mass incarceration state.  This is just as true in blue states like Massachusetts, as it is in red states in the South and West.  

Much of the barbarity of American life in recent decades has been revealed in the past 10 days, in all of its ugliness -- the mass incarceration state, the death penalty, and the willful racial ignorance of those who interpret our laws. My country tortures (its own people, as well as others), condemns millions of children to lives of poverty and ill-health, and maintains a racial caste system with the taser, the gavel, the syringe, and the morally abhorrent myth of its own color-blindness. It also auctions off its political system to the highest bidder.  As I get older, I'm finding it harder and harder to even understand, let alone feel, patriotism.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Obama's 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative, and the limits of racial uplift

Links to this post
This past Thursday, President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a partnership between the public and private sectors aimed at bettering outcomes for some of the nation’s most at-risk young men.  I of course appreciate what New York Times columnist Charles Blow (and Obama) are emphasizing here, but the materialist part of me gets frustrated with this approach to things. 

The struggles of young black men ultimately don't come down to the lack of hugs from their fathers, though obviously we all need that. Material conditions can facilitate nurturing relationships, and they can undermine them. When one looks to the material conditions under which so many young African-American men live, one finds things that are attributable largely to poverty, and are thus shared by many poor Latino and white kids too. But one also finds conditions that have been uniquely imposed upon blacks in this country, and one must address those too.

If Obama wants to truly address the underlying issues, he would create universal preschool, change the welfare system to directly attack child poverty, desegregate suburban housing and schools along lines of race and class, pump massive resources into inner-city schools, and radically transform our predatory criminal justice system, which does more to destroy the lives of young black boys and their families than any uplift efforts can possibly counter. 

Of course, I know that if Obama had a pliant Congress he actually would do many of these things, so I don't blame him entirely. But there is a danger to having our first black president approach these issues in this way, by essentially containing the problem to the behaviors of black adults, and the institutions in black communities, thereby absolving from responsibility and reparation those public and private institutions that sustain racial inequality and white privilege. On the subject of racial inequality, when something is proposed with which everyone nods in agreement (as appears to be the case here), that probably means it isn't worth much. Bit cynical of me, I suppose.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Links to this post
I'm sure I'll get back to my usual politics-music-sports snarky blah blah shortly. I'm generally not accustomed to reflecting on my emotions in this setting, but writing seems to help a bit. So please forgive the self-obsessed intrusion.

Our beautiful dog Bogey is gone -- so fast, just a week after his 14th birthday. 

The kids are heartbroken, and Shana and I are just devastated. Those of you who have been through this before know how awful it feels. We know it will get better, but right now we just feel empty and desperately sad.  As I watch the snow cover up the last of Bogey's footprints in the backyard, I'm trying to make sense of all of this.

Grief is a strange, strange thing. When you are middle-aged, it has its own particular strangeness. Yesterday, for the first time in 22 years (my entire adult life, really -- I'm 46), I woke up in my house without a dog to greet me. This of course made me desperately sad. But it also frightened me a bit, and that one I'm still trying to figure out. Obviously some of it is the reminder of my own mortality, and how easily life is extinguished -- like blowing out a candle. But I also think it's this: it reminded me, as an emotional gut-punch, how many little things we -- I -- tend to take for granted each day.

Obviously losing souls that you love is hard, no matter how old you are, and no matter your current circumstance. 

But one of the things that seems to characterize middle age, or at least my experience of it, is the combination of two things: evanescence, and white noise.

Evanescence: many of the people you love in your 40s change quickly, and sometimes even disappear completely.

White noise: daily life sweeps you up in a surround of force that tends to make you overlook or take for granted how so much of what you have is ephemeral, contingent -- the result of fortune, timing, circumstance, and past choices you've unwittingly gotten right.

Right now, at 46, there are so many things in my life that are true, and that may not be in just a few years time. Shana is healthy, brings a hard-won wisdom to all of this that I clearly lack, and seems to think I'm a bit of alright;). My son Micah would rather play with me than with anyone else in the world. My daughter Maya cares about what I think, usually wants my help, and thinks I'm funny. I can call, text or visit both of my parents, and my mother-in-law too. Most of the time, I can trust both my body and my mind to help me rather than hinder me. How many of these things will greet me when I wake in my home 5 years from now? I don't know.

I'm not really seeing all of this through the lens of regret or remorse, at least not primarily. I don't live in the world that way, and I never have. You know those silly erection pill ads, where they say 'this is the age of knowing what you're doing, knowing how to get things done,' etc? That's true, but its also the age where we start to lose people -- and lose track of people. Its a lousy combination. And alas, we have no control over the former. We do have some control over the latter.

So, do I have any wisdom to impart on this? No not really. But when you wake up tomorrow morning, and your dog looks at you -- look back.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vic Chesnutt hedges his mortal bets, in "It Is What It Is"

Links to this post
December always make me think about the brilliant Vic Chesnutt, who took his life on Christmas Day 4 years ago.

From Chesnutt's song "It Is What It Is," a kind of atheists psalm:

I’m not a pagan
I don’t worship anything
Not gods that don’t exist
Nor the sun which is oblivious

I love my ancestors
But not ritually
I don’t blame them or praise them
For anything that they passed along to me

I don't need stone altars to help me hedge my bet
Against the looming blackness
It is what it is
The performance below took place just weeks before he launched himself into that 'looming darkness.'

Thursday, December 05, 2013

To Nelson Mandela, my favorite college professor

Links to this post

This article was published in Huffington Post on December 5th, 2013 -- the day Mandela died.
A political prisoner changed my life.

That man, now free -- always free, really -- wore number 466 at Robben Island prison in South Africa.  Today, he died.  I know Nelson Mandela won't have the opportunity to read this.  But I do need to write it.

He was, in the end, my favorite college professor.

The photograph of me above was taken in spring 1987, when I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  Like thousands of college students in the United States and around the world, I saw myself in the struggles of South Africa's anti-apartheid movements.  And like many Americans, I saw the original sin of my own nation echoed in that country's system of racial oppression, and was appalled by the unwillingness of so many of my elders  -- from the Chancellor and Trustees of my university, to the President of the United States -- to use their power to lean in for justice.

On the morning that picture was taken in front of Kirkland Hall, Nelson Mandela awoke to his 23rd year in prison.  And the apartheid regime, though under assault from within and without, still stood -- with no apparent end in sight.  Desmond Tutu and other activists had made it clear to the good people of the world that the best way for us to weaken apartheid was to impose economic sanctions.  At the very least, we needed to cease profiting from it.

All across the United States, towns, churches, unions, and universities boycotted South Africa, and divested themselves of shares in corporations that did business with the apartheid regime.  Students built shanties on their campuses, to draw attention to the horrid living conditions in Soweto and other townships, and to appeal to the conscience of university administrators, faculty, alumni, and their fellow students.

They built them in the places you might expect -- Berkeley, Madison, Cambridge.  And they built them at universities unaccustomed (and even hostile) to acts of protest and civil disobedience.

We built them at Vanderbilt, in the spring of 1987.  My somewhat disheveled look above was a direct result of spending a sleepless night in our cold shanty, worried about whether the death threats on my answering machine were merely idle -- and whether I had compromised my moral integrity by letting the campus police know about them.

I left the tony New York suburb of Greenwich CT for Vanderbilt in September 1985.  My hometown was a conservative place, and I had been a conservative activist.  I was a volunteer for William Buckley's Young Americans for Freedom at the 1984 GOP convention, for example.  And while my political journey leftward had already begun before I headed South, I selected Vanderbilt in large part because I thought it might get me where I thought I wanted to go -- law school, and then a career in politics.

By the end of my freshman year, May 1986, I thought I had made a mistake.  Vanderbilt probably thought so, too.  While I read constantly, as I always had, I felt thoroughly disconnected from the place.  And from myself, really.  I loved the classes I loved -- philosophy, mostly.  And the classes I didn't love, I didn't bother with.  Throw in the usual heterosexual freshman male pursuits, and its no small wonder I finished up the second semester barely holding on.  I aced some summer school philosophy classes -- and a hugely influential history course on the civil rights movement -- which enabled me to return in September 1986.

And then, in the fall, I took a walk past the Divinity School on my way to the library.  Directly across from the Div courtyard, I saw a small group of men and women sitting next to a kind of lean-to.  One of them, a junior named Richard Jung, called me over, and asked me if I knew anything about something called 'apartheid.'  I didn't really.  My abrupt Yankee instincts pushed me to say 'thanks but no thanks.'  But there was something about Richard's earnest and kind expression (and, I think, the physical appearance of one of the women in the group) that drew me in.

And I really never left.  Something clicked, and it changed my life.

Vanderbilt was not friendly ground for the anti-apartheid movement.  Neither was Nashville.  Vanderbilt, you see, had a history.  It had expelled the Rev. James Lawson from its brand-new Divinity School in the spring of 1960.  Why?  For running workshops in non-violent civil disobedience, to train young Nashville activists to do sit-ins in downtown department stores and lunch counters.  Lawson was the intellectual and moral godfather of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

The photograph above was taken in front of those very same Kirkland Hall stairs -- in the spring of 1960.

Perhaps we were naive to feel a little frightened, when we built the shanties.  But we did.  Or at least, I did.  I think I feared the possible consequences -- suspension, expulsion, injury, death.  Mockery.  And failure.  But there was another kind of unnerving feeling too.  Hard to describe, though I think 'awe' captures most of it.  In our own way, and in only partial knowledge of our limitations, we were trying to bend the moral arc of the universe.

Most of the people in our group, Vanderbilt Against Apartheid (VAA), were philosophy majors.  And night after night -- at Country Mack's diner, in the McGill philosophy and fine arts dorm, and in the shanties -- we tried to connect Kant, Rawls, and especially Sartre and Camus to the anti-apartheid struggle.  We discovered James Lawson, and SNCC, and the American civil rights struggle.  We read Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  We thought about what it meant, to live out your principles like Nelson Mandela.  Using the tools at hand -- the challenges posed by our professors, the moral complexities of the world we found ourselves inheriting, and one another -- we slowly, tentatively, pursued a humanities education in the truest, best sense.

We learned that ideas matter. 

We learned, with Camus, that even in the depths of winter, within each of us lies an invincible summer.

We learned about human interdependence, and that for each to rise, we must in some fashion converge.

And we discovered one another.  And ourselves.

We knew that we were part of a national movement.  Indeed, a global one.  And that helped.  We also knew that we were swimming in the broader stream of a history that buoyed us.  That helped, too.  So did the personal bonds we had developed in VAA.  We loved one another, in a way that only people who take risks together can.

I was in heaven, if only for a minute.

Oh, and another thing helped:  we knew we were right.


I'm still sitting in front of the shanties, in my own way, more than 25 years later.  I'm trying to do what Richard did for me then -- to gently prod folks to look, listen, think, and maybe act.

I've worked as a labor organizer.  I've gone to grad school, and become a college professor.  I served for a while as the co-chair of a Human Rights Commission.  I've never gone to prison, though I certainly know people who have.  And I'm not in electoral politics either, though I'd still try it if the opportunity arose.  I'm 46 now -- the same age Mandela was, when the iron gate at Robbens Island slammed shut behind him.  I'm a father and a husband.  I have many roles to play, and I try to bring whatever integrity I can muster to all of them.  But when I teach -- at my university, in the Clemente Course in the Humanities -- I still lean in, and try to make gentle the life of this world, as Robert Kennedy once put it.  I try to do it when I write, too, because I still firmly believe that ideas matter.

I became convinced during that heady time a quarter-century ago that America will never become the place it can be -- "the land that never has been yet" -- until the problem of the color line is resolved.  And more pointedly, I became convinced that white American men must confront that problem (it is a white one, after all).  They must answer it, as best they can.  They must face it squarely.  To do otherwise is to misunderstand ourselves and our fellow Americans, as well as our history.  Privilege is always the flip side of deprivation, each tied to the other like we are to one another. 

My teaching and my scholarship, as well as most of my adult life since that fall day in 1986, have been dedicated to that pursuit.  I can't claim any great victories.  I doubt I ever will.  Most great victories are collective ones, anyway.

I learned all this from my favorite Vanderbilt professor, Nelson Mandela.


Vanderbilt, to its eternal shame, never divested from its investments in companies profiting from apartheid.  I addressed the Board of Trustees on two occasions.  Restraining my increasingly radical instincts, I sought to persuade them that they could do good, garner positive P.R., and make more money by shifting the university's endowment into some sort of social investment index.   I showed them how other comparable private universities had actually grown their endowments after divesting.  I told them it would help Vanderbilt to attract and keep students and faculty of color.

They were dismissive -- not just of my arguments, but of the entire idea that we might have some kind of wisdom from which the institution could benefit.  They thought that VAA was just some sort of modern day panty raid, thinly obfuscated by a veneer of intellectualism.

A number of us engaged in a week-long hunger strike in 1988.  It drew national attention, and nearly pushed me toward a physical and emotional breakdown.  I neglected my schoolwork, and got in trouble for it.  I probably neglected my girlfriend of the time, too.

But the university would not be moved.

In February 1990, as I packed up to leave Nashville (and the country) to grab my piece of the suddenly fragile Berlin Wall, F.W. deKlerk announced the repeal of apartheid -- and Mandela walked out of prison.

Just over a year before Mandela had been sentenced, Martin Luther King languished in a Birmingham jail, reflecting upon our responsibility to one another.  "We will have to repent in this generation," King wrote, "not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.  Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."

Vanderbilt was given that opportunity.  Sadly, it chose not to take it.  In a broader sense, our country continues to do the same.  

All of us human beings are flawed.  Each, in our own way; and together, in the very same fundamental ways.  For Nelson Mandela, the time was always ripe to do right.

Rest in peace, professor.  Oh, and Amandla Ngawethu!