Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘History & Historians’ Category

Scholarly Disputes and the Academic Crossfire

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by David

Michael Kazin

In the latest round of “Historians Who Hate Each Other” I give you Michael Kazin and Sean Wilentz. Ok, so I don’t know if these guys actually hate each other. But it sure seems like they do. I’m talking about Georgetown US historian Michael Kazin (son of old Jewish left royalty Alfred Kazin) and Princeton US historian Sean Wilentz. The dispute goes back at least to the 2008 American presidential election. Wilentz backed Hillary Clinton, Kazin sided with Obama. They argued in The New Republic, ostensibly about Lincoln but in fact about Obama.

The latest battleground of this dispute is The New York Review of Books, where Wilentz has written a savage review of Kazin’s new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. 

Wilentz’s review, titled “The Left vs. the Liberals,” runs like this: Kazin says the radicals did X, but actually it was liberals, or at least, mostly liberals. X could be emancipation of the slaves, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, you name it. I haven’t read Kazin’s book, but Wilentz’s attacks seem pretty devastating.

Sean Wilentz

The debate here is not just about liberals vs. radicals, but about top-down political vs bottom-up social history, Wilentz preferring the former, Kazin the latter. So who’s right?

The answer, as any good grad student should know, is both. There is no question that both radicals and liberals, both elites and the disadvantaged helped bring about progressive social change.

I’m sure these two historians would agree on that. The difference is one of emphasis, but that distinction is, well, academic. In any case, I’m in no position to declare a winner here, but I would like to lament the fact that the dispute has gotten nasty and perhaps personal. Wilentz refers to Kazin’s discussion of the Civl War as a “skimpy caricature” and later writes that Kazin’s analysis of the post-Civil Rights era “begins to go haywire.” (the New Republic exchange is even nastier). I hope that whatever animosity these two historians feel towards each other does not cloud their scholarship. Still, I can’t wait for the exchange of letters in The New Review of Books that is sure to follow.

Thinking about this dispute brings me to an interesting quandary for the grad student: what do we do when we are required to interact with scholars who intensely dislike each other? Should we pick sides? Try to stay above the fray? Deceptively placate both? What if we feel a greater affinity for one scholar’s position on a given topic, but we are working closely with another professor who takes the opposing view? Basically, in scholarly disputes, do grad students get caught in the academic crossfire?

Written by David Weinfeld

July 26, 2012 at 17:29

Can Both of These Statements be True? Musings on Affirmative Action in Academia

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by David (the first in a series of three posts on affirmative action)

Can both of these statements be true?

1) People of colour, women, the disabled, and members of the LGBT community face real, overt discrimination, along with structural inequalities through many or perhaps all stages of their lives, which hampers their ability to be admitted to selective schools and to compete in the academic job market.

2) Straight, white, able-bodied men are at a distinct disadvantage on the academic job market as compared to people of colour, women, the disabled, and members of the LGBT community.

They can’t both be true if we regard affirmative action the way president Lyndon B. Johnson did in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University. There, LBJ famously stated  “you do not take a person who for years has been hobbled in chains, and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair.”

This is philosopher James Rachels‘ position. Rachels argued that affirmative action was not about advancing the under-qualified over the qualified, but simply about fairness, about leveling the playing field. When Harvard admits a poor Black student with a 1300 SAT score over a rich white kid with a 1400, it does this knowing that the white kid likely benefitted from tutoring, a safe neighbourhood, books in the house, and all sorts of advantages that the Black student may have been lacking. Thus the Black students’ 1300 is worth more than the white students’ 1400. It’s only fair.

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Written by David Weinfeld

May 25, 2012 at 08:36

William Cronon’s Shout-Out to (the original) PhD Octopus… and How That Relates to College Level Teaching

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by David

William Cronon

In this month’s issue of Perspectives on History, American Historical Association president William Cronon wrote an excellent piece on the need for professional historians to be trained for breadth along with depth, to be able to synthesize large amounts of material and ask (and maybe answer) big questions, along with the rigorous but narrow analysis that is typically embodied by dissertation research.

As an aside in this article, Cronon wrote “William James’s provocative 1903 essay, ‘The PhD Octopus,‘ should still be required reading for all scholars.”

Since that’s the name of our little blog, I tend to agree. And what exactly does “The PhD Octopus” say?

James began his essay by telling of a “brilliant” graduate student in philosophy who had been teaching English literature at another university when it was discovered that he did not have a PhD, the “three magical letters” that were a requirement for a teaching position at the university. When the department told the student about the situation, he returned to the Harvard philosophy department and wrote a thesis. Yet James, a member of that department and dissertation committee, noted that they could not pass him.

And so James noted:

Brilliancy and originality by themselves won’t save a thesis for the doctorate; it must also exhibit a heavy technical apparatus of learning; and this our candidate had neglected to bring to bear. So, telling him that he was temporarily rejected, we advised him to pad out the thesis properly, and return with it next year, at the same time informing his new President that this signified nothing as to his merits, that he was of ultra-Ph.D. quality, and one of the strongest men with whom we had ever had to deal. 

To our surprise we were given to understand in reply that the quality per se of the man signified nothing in this connection, and that the three magical letters were the thing seriously required. The College had always gloried in a list of faculty members who bore the doctor’s title, and to make a gap in the galaxy, and admit a common fox without a tail, would be a degradation impossible to be thought of. We wrote again, pointing out that a Ph.D. in philosophy would prove little anyhow as to one’s ability to teach literature; we sent separate letters in which we outdid each other in eulogy of our candidate’s powers, for indeed they were great; and at last, mirabile dictu, our eloquence prevailed. He was allowed to retain his appointment provisionally, on condition that one year later at the farthest his miserably naked name should be prolonged by the sacred appendage the lack of which had given so much trouble to all concerned.

This anecdote hits home because I’m about to embark on a college teaching job without my PhD in hand. Like many of my peers, I’ve had virtually no pedagogical training en route to my degree, except for learning by doing as a teaching assistant and as instructor in various courses along the way.

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Written by David Weinfeld

May 16, 2012 at 19:07

Birthright Versus Yiddishkeit?

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by David

Me and my dad at the desecrated Jewish cemetery in Budaniv, formerly Budzanow, where his father (my grandfather) grew up

There’s a new player in the Jewish continuity game, with a new plan for bringing American Jewish youth back to their roots. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the idea, called the Helix Project, is to bring Jewish young adults, ages 18-23, on an all-expense paid trip to eastern Europe: Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, to learn about their rich Jewish heritage and ancestry that existed before the Holocaust. The trip, sponsored by Yiddishkayt (literally “Jewishness”), an LA based Jewish cultural organization, has only six participants this summer (three students from UCLA and three more from UC-Berkeley), but its founder, Rob Adler Peckerar, envisions the program becoming an alternative to Birthright Israel.

Regular readers of this blog know my thoughts on Birthright Israel, the all-expense-paid 10-day trip to Israel. I’ll summarize briefly: Birthright Israel is about birthing Jewish babies, not Zionism. Despite all the Zionist propaganda present on the trips, the program was designed to counter rising rates of intermarriage in the United States, not to strengthen the state of Israel (or at least, any benefits to Israel were tangential, or products of the former goal). Thus Birthright serves as a sort of Jewish meat market, where young Jews hook up with Israeli soldiers or with each other, in the hopes of finding a spouse, all for the greater good of the Jewish people.

This raises the question: would the Helix Project be any different?

On the surface, it seems that the answer is yes. The content of the trip, focusing on pre-WW2 eastern Europe, is critical to the Helix Project. As the LA Times reports, “it is, in more than one way, a deeply subversive idea.” And Adler Peckerar doesn’t mince words:

You know, you do a quick survey of college classes and you see that more is being taught about the destruction of Jewish culture than about the culture…. We have a whole postwar generation that has grown up knowing far more [about] Nazis and concentration camps than knowing Jewish writers and major Jewish centers of culture in Europe. And that’s terrible. To me, that is — I don’t want to be extreme about it, but it is a continuation of the Holocaust.

Um, that sounds a little extreme, kind of like the whole “intermarrying is like finishing Hitler’s work” slogan. Still, Adler Peckerar’s idea is an interesting one. As the late Tony Judt wrote: “Many American Jews are sadly ignorant of their religion, culture, traditional languages, or history. But they do know about Auschwitz, and that suffices.” It’s true that much of American, or even global Diaspora Jewish identity, centers on the Holocaust and the State of Israel. Heck, that’s exactly what the (subsidized but not free) March of the Living trip for 16 and 17 year old high school students is all about. It takes you to pre-war Poland, shows you something of the lives that Jews led there, but then focuses on the death camps, the gas chambers, the crematoria, all the other horrors of the Holocaust. The “highlight” of the trip is the reenactment of the “March of the Dead,” a brief silent march from the concentration camp Auschwitz to the death camp Birkenau.

And then, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, rises the State of Israel. The second half of the 16-day trip takes place in the Holy Land, contains a health dose of that Zionist propaganda, and basically shows you how wonderful Israel is, with the highlight being the awesome celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

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Written by David Weinfeld

April 29, 2012 at 16:35

Nazism and Fascism were Ideologies of the Right

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by David

Adolf Hitler: Not a Socialist

Three days ago it was Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a solemn occasion, one that should not be politicized. On this next day, however, I’d like to address a political pet peeve of mine, namely the view that fascism, specifically Nazism, was somehow an ideology of the Left. It was not.

People often make this mistake by lumping Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia together as two sides of the same totalitarian coin. Both regimes were responsible for monstrous crimes, yet the ideological underpinnings behind them should be distinguished and understood, rather than inaccurately melded together. Fundamentally, fascism and its Nazi manifestation were ideologies of the extreme Right, that advanced not only a racist populism but also a socially Darwinistic, hierarchical individualism that celebrated competition and allowed for for some capitalist industry to coexist alongside and in league with a powerful state.

I was spurred to write this post after listening to right-wing talk radio, where the announcer described fascism as an ideology of the left, the result of the expansion of Big Government. These scare tactics are used to form a slippery slope argument, namely that the welfare state leads to the gas chambers. Friedrich Hayek advanced a version of this argument in his famous and erroneous work, The Road to Serfdomparticularly in his chapter “The Socialist Roots of Nazism.” It is certainly true that fascism represents the worship and expansion of state power. Yet it can and did exist alongside capitalism, as was the case in Nazi Germany. Though Adolf Hitler led the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi), Hitler was not a socialist.

The reasons for this are manifold. First is the obvious: socialist and communist parties existed in Weimar Germany alongside the Nazi party and indeed were its bitter enemy (though Communists and Nazis occasionally colluded too). Second, and equally obvious, Nazism divided Germans along racial rather than class lines. Jews and other enemies of the state were enemies regardless of class, and the Aryan ideal could be achieved at any socioeconomic level.

Third, the Nazi regime did not completely take over all large businesses and industries, but rather colluded with them, most famously with chemical company I.G. Farben. This is a crucial mistake people make about fascism: businesses in fascist states like Hitler’s Germany are not necessarily government owned, and can to some degree  function within a market-oriented capitalist framework subject to the laws of supply and demand. Fascism, in this totalitarian form, functioned occasionally with brute force, like on Kristalnacht, but often through more subtle means. Fascism more frequently used coercive force like that at play in Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault’s Panopticon, a prison that exerted social control through fear of being watched rather than naked displays of state power. This, along with Hitler’s popularity, rendered capitalist business compatible with Nazism, so long as those involved with it were Aryans who obeyed the regime.

Most important, we know Nazism was an ideology of the far right because of the very logic behind it. Unlike socialism, Nazism was a hierarchical, Socially Darwinistic vision that encouraged competition, and  showed disdain for the masses, who Hitler called “mentally lazy.” Most crucially, it did not denigrate individualism, but in fact celebrated it. This is evident in Hitler’s major work, Mein Kampf. 

I’m not simply referring to Hitler’s attacks on “Jewish” Marxism and Bolshevism, which he argued was a “comrade” to the equally Jewish “greedy finance capital.” Hitler believed that “the stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker.” Hitler extrapolated from individual achievement, “true genius,” to racial achievement. Indeed, to ignore racial hierarchy led to an “underestimation of the individual. For denial of the difference between the various races with regard to their general culture-creating forces must necessarily extend this greatest of all errors to the judgment of the individual.” Hitler celebrated the “free play of forces” that enabled both individual and racial advancement in Darwinian struggle. He loved sports, especially boxing, as they served “to make the individual strong, agile and bold.”

Hitler’s individualism and elitism emerged most strongly in his chapter on “Personality and the Conception of the Folkish State.” Hitler distorted Nietzschean philosophy to elevate certain individuals, like himself, above all others. He hoped to organize society that placed  “thinking individuals above the masses, thus subordinating the latter to the former.” This would be true of economic life as well. “in all fields preparing the way for that highest measure of productive performance which grants to the individual the highest measure of participation.”

I could go on. My point here is not to politicize, but to de-politicize. Hitler was of course not a pure capitalist, and Nazi Germany not a purely capitalist state. Nazi Germany’s economy relied on considerable amount of state control and even some Keynesian economics. Many socialists showed similar disdain for the masses. But, and this is crucial, Hitler was not really interested in economics, nor was economic policy central to the Third Reich. Expansion of government and state power was less important to the regime than socially Darwinistic racial competition.

To conclude, I’ll simply say this: socialism and the welfare state should not be advanced by criticizing Nazi Germany and invoking the spectre of the Holocaust, but they should not be attacked that way either.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 22, 2012 at 11:01

Patsy’s: Neighbourhood History through Pizza

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by David

Mmm... pizza...

Just ate at Patsy’s Pizzeria in Spanish Harlem with my wife and my parents. Founded in 1933, Patsy’s is one of only two coal-oven pizzerias in Manhattan (they’re no longer allowed, but the restaurants were grandfathered in). Several other locations have sprung up, but they don’t have the coal-ovens, and they aren’t as good.

The pizza at the original Patsy’s was delicious, as usual. Which is why it might seems surprising that the restaurant, if certainly not empty, was not overflowing with customers the way comparably excellent pizza joints like Lombardi’s or Grimaldi’s or John’s might be on a Sunday afternoon.

The original Patsy's interior

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Patsy’s is not in the most convenient location. On First Avenue by East 118th Street, there are no subway stops nearby. Second is that the neighbourhood has undergone a demographic shift. Patsy’s was once at the heart of Italian Harlem, but the Italians have moved away, and Puerto Ricans have moved in. Now the neighbourhood is Spanish Harlem.

The customers at Patsy’s, for the most part, did not appear to be tourists, but they did not appear to be locals to the neighbourhood either. Everyone loves pizza, but in this location, the restaurant seems to be surviving rather than thriving.

I suspect this was not always the case. The story of the old neighbourhood is told brilliantly in Robert Orsi’s book The Madonna of 115 Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem.  

The book describes the massive yearly festival of the Madonna that took place on the streets of Italian Harlem, how this religious ritual reflected an ethnic community’s attempt to maintain tradition while also adapt to their new American surroundings. I’m sure Patsy’s was always packed then.


After WW2 especially, though, Italians moved away from the neighbourhood, and Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, moved in. Though also Catholic, these newcomers did not really embrace the tradition. Instead, other Catholic immigrants, like Haitians who lived further away, continue to participate in the  the formerly Italian ethnic Catholic festival, as do Italians who return to their parents and grandparents’ neighbourhood.

That festival, however, only happens once per year. But Patsy’s Pizzeria remains, a delicious – and hopefully permanent – relic of days gone by.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 15, 2012 at 17:21

History in the Neighbourhood: Jumel Terrace of Washington Heights

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by David

Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765, the oldest house in Manhattan

I live in Columbia med school housing up in Washington Heights. It’s convenient for my wife, Julie, who goes to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Our apartment is great. But I live in a med school bubble, and I’m not a medical student. Also, the neighbourhood is a bit of a bar and restaurant wasteland. I don’t speak Spanish, and it’s 85% Dominican, so it’s difficult to feel like a part of the community. And I’m not religious enough for the bochers further north around Yeshiva University.

Further south, however, I just discovered a marvelous piece of history. At Jumel Terrace, just east of 160th and St. Nicholas, sits the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Built in 1765, it’s the oldest house in Manhattan. George Washington lived there during the Revolutionary War, and hosted a dinner in 1790 including John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr lived there in the early 19th century. The mansion is now a museum; I got to see the dining room where that dinner took place, and Washington’s bedroom, servants’ quarters, the women’s rooms, the parlour, and more. In Washington’s bedroom, a small, amusing exhibit was set-up called “Washington’s Facebook.” A cartoon cardboard cutout of Washington sat with his laptop, on his Facebook page, his cell phone on the table. The implication is that similar to the recent Arab Spring, if Washington had had access to Facebook and Twitter, he would have used them to foment his own revolution.

Far more interesting to me than this colonial history, however, is the more recent history that surrounds the place. The bookstore, Word, or Jumel Terrace Books, open only by appointment, sits across from the Mansion at 426 W. 160th. It has a remarkable collection of African American and Africana literature. It also has a lot of left-wing, Marxist, and revolutionary books, noting that “books are weapons.” It even has revolutionary board games.

Class Struggle, the board game

Class Struggle, the board game, serves “to prepare for life in capitalist America.” Funny, I thought Monopoly did that. Class Struggle is “for kids from 8 to 80.” Fun for all ages! It also comes with “directions for possible classroom use.” And it’s educational too!

Then there’s this one:

The X Game, "a cooperative game ages 10 to adult"

The X Game, with a large quote from Malcolm X on the front, asks us to “Stop the System By Any Means Necessary.” It is a “cooperative game,” noting “it’s a race to achieve unity–the key to Black liberation” and “winning requires working together to beat the ‘System’ … no one can do it alone!” Sounds perfect for those non-competitive parents, but I don’t think Amy Chua would approve.

Alicia Keys

Paul Robeson

Even more interesting, however, are those African American elites who came to live in the still beautiful section of the neighbourhood, once called Harlem Heights or Sugar Hill. W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and Paul Robeson all made their homes in this neighbourhood. Robeson first lived at 16 Jumel Terrace, but then, like several of the others, moved into 555 Edgecombe Avenue (also known as Paul Robeson Boulevard). Today, Alicia Keys lives in Robeson’s apartment, continuing the tradition. Maybe the history helps her retain her New York State of Mind

Written by David Weinfeld

April 2, 2012 at 10:36

Communicating between the Academic and Non-Academic Worlds

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by Danny

Yesterday, I finished a first draft of my dissertation. This is not to brag or invite people to congratulate me (although, to be honest, I did briefly consider posting something about my finishing on Facebook, primarily to receive congratulations). What I want to discuss here is the deep ambivalence I felt/feel upon finishing. If six (!) years ago, you had told me that my dissertation’s first stage would end with a whimper, not a bang, I would’ve been surprised if not shocked. No matter what, I would certainly not have expected to feel, frankly, so ambivalent.


Now that I’m done, what do I have? A 600-page tome that needs to be cut down by at least one-third, if not one-half; a sneaking suspicion that few people will ever read this thing; and nagging questions about whether it was worth the time and investment, given the abysmal academic job market. This is not to say that I don’t love what I do, or that I regret spending my 20s studying a relatively arcane subject. It’s just to say that, surprisingly, I do not feel the sense of accomplishment I expected to upon starting this endeavor.


My Dissertation

Perhaps this is just the nature of completing a project that you’ve worked on for so long that it becomes a part of you. (Though one would expect feelings of sadness, rather than ambivalence, if this were the case.) I mean, I’m impressed with what I’ve done, certainly, and think that I did produce some relatively worthwhile new knowledge. But I think the major cause of my ambivalence is the deep difficulty that I have/will have communicating my dissertation’s argument to non-academics. And this leads me to a question that has been talked and blogged about a lot in the past decade: the relationship between academia and the non-academic world.

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Written by Danny Bessner

March 30, 2012 at 12:12

Black History Month Spotlight: Howard University

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by David

Founders Library at Howard University

This past week, I went to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at the Founders Library at Howard University. I was doing research on my dissertation on Horace Kallen and Alain Locke. Howard University, founder in 1867, is the most famous of American Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Locke was a professor there for many years. My research, however, was focused on Locke’s time at Harvard University, where Locke was an undergraduate from 1904-1907.

There’s considerable irony to Locke’s attitudes and career. At Harvard, Locke had to skillfully navigate between the various groups of people there: the wealthiest WASPs who wanted nothing to do with him (like Teddy Roosevelt Jr., the president’s son), middle class gentiles and Jews who befriended him despite the racist sentiments they may have held, as well as the small but not insignificant number of other Black students. Interestingly, with a handful of exceptions, Locke wanted nothing to do with his fellow African Americans at Harvard, thinking them crass and beneath him, unwilling to take advantage of the social opportunities Harvard provided and opting instead for self-isolation and segregation. This included pseudo-celebrities like the grandson of Frederick Douglass. On one more than one occasions, Locke referred to his African American peers at Harvard derisively as “niggers” in letters home to his mother.

Just how accurate Locke’s assessment of his fellow Black students was remains to be seen. But it’s ironic that after graduating from Harvard and attending Oxford as the first Black Rhodes Scholar, Locke took a job at Howard University. None other than Booker T. Washington helped him secure that job. The Washington stressed industrial education, Locke imbibed his “self-help” attitude, transferring it to the cultural sphere. This was the spirit behind the Black Arts movement of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance, for which Locke served as intellectual godfather.

Locke had an ambiguous relationship to his own Black identity. He was proud of his family lineage, and of the achievements of great Black artists and intellectuals. He taught at a Black university. He led a Black arts movement. He eventually came to see himself as a race leader. Yet he was never entirely comfortable with large swaths of the Black community.

Alain Locke (1885-1954)

And I guess this is sort of the point. When I visit Howard, I find it utterly fascinating. I grew up in a thoroughly middle-class/upper-middle-class Jewish environment in Montreal, Canada. Both my parents have doctorates, my father is a professor. I’ve always been totally at home in academic environments.

Without engaging in too much stereotyping, I imagine that for many Howard students, that is not the case. Here is an environment where when I walk around, I’m one of a handful of non-Black people around, and yet nearly all the Black people around me are thoroughly educated undergraduate or graduate or law or medical students or faculty.

One of my first thoughts when visiting Howard was that if I was African American, particularly if I was African American from a poor background, I would find it very empowering. I think it would be more empowering than for a Jew to attend Brandeis, for example (which now has many, I’ve heard of possibly even 40% non-Jewish students). Certainly more empowering than Yeshiva University, which has only Orthodox Jewish men (and boys).

I remember telling this to some of my (white) friends, and they wondered whether they might find Howard stifling, rather than empowering. Too much homogeneity and that sort of thing.

But I really don’t think I would feel that way.

At Howard, there is actually tremendous diversity: Black people of a variety of origins, those whose families came to America as slaves, those from a multitude of countries for Africa or the Caribbean, people of mixed race (with any number of races), people speaking many languages, practicing different religions (or no religion), people gay and straight and bisexual and transgender, with a variety of political leanings and academic interests and socio-economic backgrounds, people of different sizes and shades and hues and features and clothing and hairstyles.

This is of course obvious, perhaps banal to state. But Alain Locke found the 1904-1907 Black community at Harvard rather stifling. I wonder what he would think of Howard today? Or of Black students at Harvard today? I don’t have the answers, and as a historian, I never will. But it’s fascinating to speculate.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 27, 2012 at 16:43

Historicizing “Violence”: Thoughts on the Hedges/Graeber Debate

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By Peter

There has been a running debate, started by Chris Hedges, over the proper tactics of street protests and the role of violence in the Occupy Movement. Hedges, who was one of the first writers with an audience to support Occupy Wall Street, attacked Black Bloc, which he mistakenly seems to have identified as a cohesive movement, rather than a tactic. Black Bloc occurs when protesters dress the same (normally in black hoodies), move in a pack, and, often, provoke confrontation with the cops by smashing windows, overturning garbage cans, etc… By dressing the same, they make it far more difficult for police to single out individuals. Coming on the heels of the Oakland protests, Hedges called the Black Bloc, a “cancer” on the movement, who provoke unnecessary repression by the state, distract from the message, and practice a sort of negative politics of aggression, in which confrontation and the symbolism of militancy takes the place of organizing and coalition building.

In reply, David Graeber, one of the grandfathers of OWS, defended the Black Bloc. He corrected some of Hedges’ factual inaccuracies, but resorted to a fairly hysterical response to Hedges’ (admittedly unnecessarily provocative) language, accusing Hedges of using a rhetoric that “historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another,” and arguing that Hedges would be read as a call to violence against Black Bloc. (I, at least, sure didn’t read Hedges’ article as a call for genocide). More reasonably he pointed out that the police almost always resort to violence and that the media almost always blame this violence on protesters, whether or not the Black Bloc is involved. State repression will happen no matter what that kid in the black hoodie does. Finally he argued that the mythologies that have developed around supposedly non-violent movements have obscured how often they involved violent activities, most often of a far more deadly sort.

Masked Political Protesters Violently Destroying Property

As a historian of the abolitionist movement I was struck by how timeless this debates is. Few issues tore the anti-slavery movement apart as much as the question of violence: should fugitives use violence to defend themselves? should abolitionist victims of mob attacks (like Elijah Lovejoy) violently defend themselves? Should insurrection be encouraged? Some, like William Lloyd Garrison (a pacifist and Christian anarchist), maintained that non-violence was both moral and practical in the long run (by getting the conscience of the North on their side). Others, Frederick Douglass being the most notable, but also Theodore Parker, Charles Lenox Remond, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, argued that it was “right and wise” to kill someone trying to capture a slave. Like today, activists debated both the morality and the pragmatism of violent activism (different issues that are too often conflated).

One interesting difference, though, was the definition of violence, where the line between violence and nonviolence got drawn. As Graeber suggested at the end of his letter, the violence that Black Bloc protesters have been accused of–breaking windows, spray painting, occasionally throwing rocks– is small beans compared to the violent tactics that have been debated in most political movements. For abolitionists, the question was about the morality of taking up arms against the state, something they did over and over again, killing a number of slaveholders and US Marshals. One group I study, called the Boston Anti-Man Hunting League, planned on kidnapping Southerners who were trying to capture slaves. Kidnapping the kidnapper, if you will. And when these actors set the terms, non-lethal force was rarely considered “violent.” In 1851, When a mob of black Bostonians pushed their way into a court room, grabbed a slave, “kicked, cuffed and knocked about,” some guards, and ran off, Garrison applauded the act. If he thought pushing their way into a court room and shoving down police officers crossed the line, he didn’t mention it. The point was, when abolitionists discussed what tactics were violent, they meant things far more radical and dangerous than anything that the Black Bloc thinks about.

Obviously the stakes were much higher in the fight against slavery than they are today in the Occupy movement. But violence of some form has dotted American social movements. Let’s not run away from this: the Left has often used violent tactics, as one, among many strategies. Unions waged pitched battles against state militias and violently kept scabs away from workplaces, black homeowners defended their right to integrate neighborhoods with the force of arms, and even the Stonewall Riot was, well, a riot, complete with firebombs, thrown bottles, and bloodied cops. What’s remarkable, in fact, is how little violence, all in all, the OWS movement has engendered. No talk of running to the barricades, no calls for “the deliberate increase in the chances of death,” or the “conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder,” no naming of “defense ministers” for the movement, or sloganeering about the “birth-pangs” of the new society.

The best defense of Graeber’s point, then, is that by defining “violence,” in such a narrow way (one that, without questioning it, includes property destruction as well as self-defense in the same category as aggressive violence against human beings), Hedges sets up an unrealistic standard, that few if any social movements could meet. If you get 100,000 angry people in the street, its hard to imagine that some won’t throw a rock or fight back when cops try to kick the shit out of them. This is especially true as cities impose greater and greater restrictions on the ability of protesters to meet, and as police resort to greater and greater acts of repression and violence. So hewing too closely to some mythologized vision of nonviolence, and working to exclude those violate the terms, means accepting a paralyzing and self-limiting definition of what are acceptable tactics.

The whole debate illustrates well the elasticity of the term violence, and the historically specific ways that it gets defined. At an earlier time, you were one of the “good” ones, if you eschewed armed struggle, and just limited yourself to the occasional excess in the street protest. Today, according to the administration of Berkeley, linking arms to resist police invasion is an act of violence. The Left should, rather than accept the state’s definition of what is nonviolent (and therefore what is “good” activism) fight back at an ideological level against definitions that only restrict our behavior.

At the same time, its hard to take Graeber’s wounded outrage totally seriously. Does he really not understand why nonviolent protesters are angry when a tiny minority hijacks their events? Does he really not see how a small group trying to provoke the cops endangers everyone? I’m not super offended by Black Bloc tactics, but if I were the type to engage in them, I sure wouldn’t be shocked when other people disapproved. I also have no patience for the ultra-leftists who openly detest unions, community groups, and the Democratic Party as a bunch of pathetic bureaucratic sell-outs, but then clutch their pearls in shock when anyone dares to attack their preferred group or tactic.

As Bhaska Srunkara points out, tactics like the Black Bloc are unlikely to lead to the type of democratic dialogue that will inspire more people to join a movement. Its hard to see how a smashed window will convince anyone to join your movement, but its easy to see how it will keep them out. “Masks, after all, aren’t good for talking to people.” And rarely do you see the “fuck-shit-up” crowd coming to the boring planning meetings or going out flyering with you.

In my mind, the proper response is for all sides to dial down the outrage. This question is old and probably never ending. I have absolutely no interest in throwing a brick or whatnot, but I think history teaches us that at a low level, at least, such things are likely to be part of any significant social movement. As long as serious acts of violence against people (as opposed to against property) don’t erupt, I’m willing to live and let live, while remembering that the real action should be in dialogue, organizing, and recruitment, not whatever happens to the Starbucks’ window.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 13, 2012 at 00:42


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