Publick Occurrences 2.0

August 14, 2009

Jim Downs: ‘The Interesting Narrative’ of President Obama’s Trip to Ghana

Filed under: Black history,Civil War Era,Colonial Period,Guest posts,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:44 am
“Does President Obama need a history lesson?,” asks Prof. Jim Downs of Connecticut College. Quite possibly, I would have to agree, especially on matters besides the Lincoln Administration. Obama has got the hiring your rivals and frustrating moderation parts down, anyway, but there is no doubt about his penchant for bland, comforting, conventional history designed not to upset the suburban voter. (Unfortunately, the president’s recent experience commenting too honestly on the Gates arrest probably is not going to push him in more daring directions anytime soon.) Downs sent in the following comment, which I am happy to publish here as a guest post:

During his recent trip to Ghana, President Obama did not discuss the brutal history of the Atlantic slave trade that began in Ghana, and only mentioned the word slavery once during his speech. Instead, the President spoke in general terms about “oppression” and “evil.” In fact, in the opening sentence that he delivered standing outside the haunting Elmina Castle, Obama likened his trip to Ghana to his visit to a concentration camp in Germany.  For decades, historians have been trying to dissuade the American public from comparing the slave trade to the Holocaust, which often leads to explosive debates on which group suffered more, and to the imminent question: would the President standing on the grounds of a former concentration camp evoke the history of slavery?

By discussing the history of the slave trade in Ghana as part of larger history of “evil” and “cruelty,” the President missed the opportunity to educate the American public (and the world for that matter) about the actual history of the slave trade: the 2 million slaves who died en route to the Americas and the millions more who suffered in the crowded, disease-ridden, dark bowels of the slave ships. He also gave up the chance to discuss the effects of the international slave trade: the destruction of African cultural traditions, languages, and religious practices by New World slaveholders; the pain felt by African families torn apart by the hands of Dutch, Spanish, and English traders and merchants; the greedy profits gained by European nations and the burgeoning colonies in the Americas; and even the transformation of West African economies; political structures; and military strategies.

Throughout his speech in front the 15th century slave castle, Obama only mentioned the word slavery once and when he did invoke it, he made enormous historical leaps. He reflected on the 19th century abolitionist movement when whites and blacks fought together to end slavery. While white and black people did eventually work together in the early to mid-nineteenth century to terminate slavery, one cannot ignore that on the ground where the President made such a comment, whites and blacks worked together during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to send Africans into chattel slavery in the New World. While Obama more than likely made this remark in order to illuminate a moment of interracial solidarity with the hope of improving race relations, he forfeited the opportunity for Americans to actually reflect on the horrors of the slave trade—a cultural memory that most black people acknowledge but one that most non-black Americans know little about. A more informed reflection on the actual history of the slave trade could do more to improve race relations than cherry picking a moment in history that happened after the international slave trade ended and did not even lead to the abolition of slavery. President Obama ought to know that it was not just abolitionists who ended slavery, but enslaved people themselves. Southern blacks dismantled the institution of slavery by fleeing from plantations across the Confederacy and joining the Union Army, contributing mightily to the North’s victory in the Civil War and the collapse of the slaveocracy.

Jim Downs is a history professor at Connecticut College, focusing on African-American history and 19th century U.S. History. His books include Taking Back the Academy and Why We Write. His articles have appeared in History Today, the Chicago Tribune, The Southern Historian, Prologue, History News Network, and Reviews in American History, among other places.

Now playing: Robyn Hitchcock And The Egyptians – The President
via FoxyTunes


August 5, 2009

Democracy means never having to say you’re sorry . . . to the government

Filed under: Government,Historians,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:23 pm

I have found that even most historians don’t want to give government credit for important developments, preferring a universe in which all people are the agents of their own destinies. And that’s fine, Americans are conditioned to think that way, and at least historians usually know enough about the social and institutional details of American life to understand the stiff challenges most people have faced in trying to take control of their lives. But imagine the chore involved in selling a government program to ordinary Americans who have the same conditioning, but know none of those details, or refuse to acknowledge them. One example would be the detail that we already have a huge government-run health care system called Medicare that senior citizens would fight to keep . . . the government out of? The president speaks ruefully about some of his mail:

[Via TPM]: The Washington Post reported a similar anecdote from a recent town hall in rural South Carolina with Rep. Robert Inglis (R-SC). Someone reportedly told Inglis, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

Bob Cesca at Huffington Post has a funny piece with those details and more, emphasizing the fact that a lot of the people disrupting these Democratic “town hall” meetings on health care are obvious Medicare recipients. I have talked to more than senior American myself who likewise touted their Medicare out of one side of their mouths and decried “socialized medicine” out of the other.

This is American political psychology at work, the same kind of self-hypnosis that a lot of military people seem to perform on themselves, depending on government for their every need while refusing to intellectually or emotionally process that fact, the better to maintain their ultra-conservative politics in the world outside the military. Perfectly happy to be dependent on Medicare, millions of older Americans have just conveniently “forgotten” the fact it is a government program that should, according to their conservative ideology, be enslaving them, destroying their initiative, euthanizing them, etc.

I think this is why the health insurance industry really should be worried about the “public option” health insurance program being enacted. If the public option exists, people and small businesses will start relying on it, and about two weeks later, they will forget all about its being an evil socialistic intrusion and the thing will be as hard to get rid of Medicare and Social Security, which is to say nearly impossible.  Even the next Republican administration will be trying to expand it. The smarter right-wing ideologues and industry lobbyists know this very well. I hope the president and the congressional Dems are ready, because the onslaught of disinformation and disruption is not going to stop. Certain people have too much money and ideological crediblity at stake.

Now playing: Ideal Free Distribution – The American Myth
via FoxyTunes


July 9, 2009

Take that, Buffon!

Filed under: Foreign policy,science — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:36 pm
A post-worthy email from the other corner of the basement, from someone who has obviously spent too much time around me and Mr. Jefferson.
When I saw this photo on TPM, I couldn’t help but think of TJ’s defense of the vigor and diversity of American fauna as compared to its European counterparts:

There are others in the stream that are equally amusing…
Now playing: The Walkmen – The Blue Route
via FoxyTunes

June 29, 2009

Waxing Hot

Filed under: Common-Place,Foreign policy,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:51 pm

Summer is the slow time around here, mostly because summer “vacation” is when I get to work through my pile of history-writing projects that are supposed to lead to the production and consumption of paper products. You know the ones. As with most subjects, I wax hot and cold as to whether light blogging complements or interferes with other types of writing. Clearly the dial this June has been set to “interferes.” While we are on the subject of waxing hot, I can definitely report that our faltering HVAC system’s efforts to recreate the productivity of the summer of 1993, when I wrote 400 pages of dissertation in a stifling hot 4th-floor Boston apartment, did not work.

I have also found the public occurrences of recent weeks to be more of the wait-and-see Obama type than the call-forth-the-thunder Bush-era kind.  Mostly this is a good thing. The two most recent foreign political crises, in Iran and Honduras, are the sorts of situations that might or might not strongly affect the U.S. but that our government cannot really Do Something About without obvious interference that would amount to taking ownership of another country’s fate without being able to fully predict or control what that fate would be. Washington chin-waggers always suggest Something should be done — it’s easier and safer to maunder about Freedom somewhere else than take a constructive position on this country’s problems — and presidents have tended to fall into the trap of following the chinwaggers’ advice, often with the Something being “send in the military.”  Barack Obama may yet take that fall, but it has been refreshing so far to have a president whose characteristic response to a foreign crisis is to say some decent things about another people’s struggles, but otherwise stick to his job of managing the United States without trying to be World Emperor on top of it.

Now playing: T-Bone Burnett – House of Mirrors
via FoxyTunes


February 11, 2009

Post-Partisan Stress Disorders

Filed under: Congress,Democrats,GOP,Obama Administration,Political culture,Political Parties — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:08 pm

Ben sent me the link to an The American Prospect piece, “The Myth of Bipartisanship,” in which Ezra Klein becomes only the latest writer to declare Obama’s experiment with post-partisan politics dead. Klein even gives one of the more rational accounts I have seen of why it really made no sense for the Republicans to support the stimulus package (a term I do wish that someone in the No-Drama Zone had thought to replace — it sounds like hospital equipment). It’s the role of the opposition party to oppose what a congressional majority and administration of the other party want, and it is a role the GOP is better able to play than ever because of the way everything but their hard southern and western core (the Bryan coalition) has been shorn away in the last two elections.

It was certainly sobering to have the House minority give the historic new president zero votes in his first bid to save the country, but it should not have been surprising, and not just in view of the modern GOP’s total irresponsibility regarding outmoded stuff like the national interest, the common good, and basic factuality. Ideologically the stimulus bill, the very idea of a stimulus bill on this scale, flies in the face of everything that the GOP thinks it has stood for for the last 30 years. I do not credit them for standing against government spending or deficits, since they love both of those as long as they are directed toward the military budget or tax cuts for the wealthy. However, the party of Reagan has pretty consistently set itself against the idea of government spending directed toward some common social purpose and, more fundamentally, against the idea that government can ever effect positive changes besides blowing stuff up in other countries. So the stakes are really quite high for the Republicans, and they are almost certainly going to lose this battle. The final bill may still contain too many tax cuts and not enough spending, but all the GOP has been able to do is fly their Hoover flag high in a time when that is not the public mood, to say the least.

I am a big believer in democratic party systems, and in my own work could probably be fairly accused of celebrating partisanship and partisan politicians. Yet, supporter and understander of partisanship though I may be, and glad as I am to see Obama leaving a bit of his post-partisan stance behind, his experiment did have a larger purpose and a wider audience than most of his left-blogosphere critics seem to understand. Large chunks of the electorate really do believe that partisanship is a problem. They want to see a president more oriented toward bringing people together to solve problems than scoring victories or, more to the point for left-blogosphere critics, engineering massive ideological shifts in American governance.

The thing is, even though the U.S. to some extent invented the modern political party, the institution of the political party has never been fully accepted on a cultural level, especially in the normative culture of middle-class American families. (See the writings of Ronald Forimisano, Mark Voss-Hubbard, and other contrarian political historians for chapter and verse on this.) Think about it: virtually every local club and organization in the country replicates the national political model on its own level, but only in part. Usually there is a constitution and almost always there are popularly elected officials, but how often do you see your local PTA or Elks Club further organized by parties? Almost never on an official level, even in cases (like many school boards) where party ideologies are in fact at work.  Frustrating as it is for many of us political intellectuals (if I may), Americans are comfortable with voting in popularity contests, but not with party organization and party ideology and the rest, even in their most high-minded forms. Call it false consciousness, call it self-defeating, but I think that’s where most Americans are at in terms of their ideas of appropriate political behavior.

It is to this broader political culture that Barack Obama has constantly addressed himself, and generally with much more success than practitioners of the neo-partisan approach popular in the blogosphere. Long story short: Obama played in Iowa, but Howard Dean really didn’t, in ways that predicted bigger things to come. There is a place for both approaches, but we need to respect the fact that Obama’s now has some empirical evidence to back it up (i.e., he’s president despite the Republican Noise Machine’s worst efforts). In the case of the stimulus, the president seems to have gotten in the end more or less what he wanted in the first place at the cost of letting the Republicans bloviate on cable for a few days and panicking a few of the liberal bloggers and columnists. In return, he retains the moral high ground and standing with the public at large that he will doubtless badly need for other crises yet to come, including the next stages of this one.

SIDENOTE: The point of Klein’s piece was to call for an end to the filibuster, a rant that I too have inflicted on friends and relatives several times in recent days.  While I still think that Harry Reid and his predecessors have made a mistake allowing the filibuster to become more or less automatic, it turns out that the filibuster is not the only constraint empowering those annoying Senate centrists. Read “Why will the stimulus require 60 votes to pass?” It turns out you can learn from the Internets after all. The deeper problem, of course, is equal state representation in the Senate.


January 21, 2009

Other Voices

Filed under: Obama Administration,speeches — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:45 am

I feel as though I am in the proper Obamanian mode of getting beyond the old politics, but the old politics side of me has to agree with David Sanger of the NYT, and even MoDo, that the part of the speech where Obama got in Bush’s face right in front of his face must be appreciated.

A couple of civilian (non-historian) friends also chimed in with their thoughts on Obama’s speech, through the magic of Facebook. My more positive friend C says:

One of the lines that struck me was “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” I thought that was a great way to say that he’s going to approach problems from a very different perspective than we’ve seen recently. I feel like we’ve been dealing with Reagan’s world view for 20+ years, and we finally have someone that can move us past that.

My snarkier friend B emphasizes a line I should have:

Hey Jeff – you know, I look forward to 8 years of being disappointed in a president I thought could be better versus 8 years of being outraged at a president I didn’t think could be any worse. Obama as the great orator is almost as much a myth manufactured by his political adversaries as the notion that he is a radical liberal or socialist – he’ll never live up to the McCain hype. Yet I shed more than one or two tears when Aretha was singing – something real was going on today. You know, with Bush and the president (Cheney) sitting there on the same stage, I was reminded of Colbert’s roast from a few years ago more than once today as Obama spoke. One of those moments for me was the section that started:

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

Hey Hey Goodbye


January 20, 2009

Grow Up, America: Choose Our Better History

Filed under: Obama Administration,Presidency,speeches — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:16 pm

I have long thought that now-President Obama’s reputation as an orator was little inflated, more by a media and public starved for a leader who could speak in complete sentences and cogent thoughts than by the man himself. That is an observation, not a criticism. My short speech-writing period left me with a very lively sense of how hard and ill-advised it is for a real modern human being to write or speak like a JFK film clip. Lots of Democratic politicians have hurt themselves rhetorically by trying to channel JFK. When they try MLK, it is generally even worse.

Today’s inaugural address was much like Obama’s convention acceptance speech in wisely avoiding Sorensenian flights of inspirational rhetoric and preacherly flourishes, but instead presenting liberal values and a post-imperial world view in forms that Americans raised on decades of Reaganism might be able to accept. Here is a passage that struck me:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

Nothing special there rhetorically — even the nice “better history” line turns out to be recycled from Obama’s late campaign stump speech. Yet what he was saying what rather noteworthy, coming from a U.S. president. Here and in other parts of the speech, the infantile exceptionalism that has become nearly our national creed was quietly but firmly rejected. Our freedom, wealth, and power relative to other nations do not exempt us from the exigencies of history or the rules of morality, Obama declared. Quite the contrary.  We are not authorized to “do as we please” just because we are America; our activities have an impact on other peoples that must be taken into account, and that accounting must modify our behavior. Poverty, injustice, fear, evil, and incompetence all exist in modern America and as part of our tradition. We can and must choose our “better history,” and also choose not to dwell on the worst, but the worst is still there, some it of sitting on the inaugural dais, in a wheelchair.

As in the convention speech, there was also a distinctly liberal economic message in Obama’s inaugural address, but delivered in so mild and sensible a fashion as to be almost impossible for all but the most hardened ideologues to disagree with. The free market is a powerful tool for generating wealth, but it cannot work properly without the “watchful eye” of government. Otherwise the market will “spin out of control.” The last line quoted above, about “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things” was one that many listeners (including Fox’s Brit Hume) probably heard as a shout-out to capitalist entrepreneurs. What it really was, or perhaps simultaneously acted as, was a little restatement of the labor theory of value that can be linked back to the producerism that has been the heart of so many past radical movements in American history. True wealth was not created by amassing “riches,” Obama argued, but instead by making things through our labors.

I make no claim that there is anything radical about Obama, or even Populist, and I worry about the Wall Street/Ivy League establishmentarians he has guiding his economic policy here at the outset. Yet he does represent and express the better part of our historical political tradition. I am happy that we chose it and look forward to the day when it does not take a national crisis to bring some of those better angels out.


January 18, 2009

Power and Responsibility: What Barack Obama Learned from Peter Parker

Filed under: Obama Administration,Political culture,Popular culture,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:48 pm

We’re all aware that this is a huge moment in the social history of the presidency — first African-American president, first president born after 1960, etc. — but it’s also an interesting moment in the cultural history of the presidency. Doubtless most readers have seen the publicity about Barack Obama’s appearance in the current issue of Amazing Spider-Man, which Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada described as a “shout-out back” to a president-elect who was outed as a former comic collector some time ago. [Read some of the key panels here.] What we didn’t know was that the idiom of the comics our generation (“X ” or Jones or whatever) grew up with had become part of his political language. Actually, I suspected as much, but today we have proof.

My wife noticed the following in what was billed as Obama’s inauguration letter to his daughters, published in this morning’s Sunday newspaper supplement, Parade Magazine.

“I want every child to understand that the blessings these brave Americans fight for are not free-that with the great privilege of being a citizen of this nation comes great responsibility.”

This is a paraphrase of Spider-Man’s motto — “With great power comes great responsbility” first presented in Spidey’s origin story from Amazing Fantasy #15 [see below] and repeated frequently thereafter. It was the guiding philosophy not only for Peter, who gave up his career to stay home and help, er, organize his community, but for the whole Marvel superhero line.  Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the X-Men and the rest regularly fought right-wing demagogues, racists, neo-Nazis, war profiteers, and colonialists along with the Green Goblin and Doctor Doom, who come to think of it were good enemies for a liberal hero, too, an irresponsible businessman and an unreconstructed monarchist, respectively.

Sure that “responsibility” line was in the movie, too, but I feel quite certain that Obama first read it in the original. And he also may not be the only member of his generation to pick up some of his liberal ideas from the House of Ideas [one of Stan Lee's many nick-names for his company]. One idea in particular was that a decent person or nation had a duty to do something with whatever gifts it had been given — freedom, a sharp mind, spider-powers, a nuclear arsenal, or whatever — besides showing off.  I do believe today was the first time Parade Magazine ever choked me up.


December 14, 2008

A Culture Threatening to Dog

Filed under: Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:11 am

Straining to keep the Rod Blagojevich story bubbling until such time as something else actually happens, and to imbue it with presidential significance (the only sort of significance the national political media seems to recognize), the New York Times yesterday resorted to a trope I call the “disappearing subject.” This is where the media’s desperate efforts to flog a story get elided by personifying (or in this case, animalizing) the story so that it can appear to be harassing the target all on its own: classically, questions the media obsessively raise are said to “dog” the candidate or official. This was the strategy the Times and many other outlets used to keep non-events like Whitewater and Travelgate going as scandals during the Clinton years. So here we are again, with Kate Zernike introducing her little piece on Illinois’s history of corruption with a truly stellar bit of chin-stroking non-analysis of a vague strictly mental and perceptual event that has not yet occurred, even on that meta level :

In Illinois, a Virtual Expectation of Corruption –
. . . Now the culture of his adopted home state threatens to dog President-elect Barack Obama, whose vacated seat in the Senate Mr. Blagojevich is accused of putting up for auction, much as swampy Arkansas politics dogged the last young Democratic politician elected on a platform of change, Bill Clinton.

Prosecutors say Mr. Obama is not a subject of the investigation. And he has been a champion of ethics reform in the Illinois Legislature and in the Senate. But some Republicans have seized the opportunity to try to tie him to the worst side of Illinois politics.

Get that? The dogging, though only threatened, has been perpetrated not even by the story, but the thin pretext for writing it in a way that might touch president-elect Barack Obama (“the culture of his adopted home state”). I hate it when adopted home state cultures do that. Oh yes, and the very fact that the media used the same rhetorical tactics against Clinton, actually links Obama to the Clinton scandals, in the sense that NYT can bring up the two in the same sentence.

Who can take “ideas” like these seriously without being professionally invested in keeping American politics stupid?


December 10, 2008

Blago-ed out and speechless

Filed under: Obama Administration,scandals — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:21 am

I spent much of yesterday afternoon trying to think of some glib historical gloss on this particular day’s stunning news: a sitting governor of the same party trying to sell off the President-elect’s old Senate seat, days after one of most historic elections of our lifetime, in a period of gravest national crisis. It’s still not coming to me.

I will say that the whole tale impresses me with Barack Obama even more. The NYT has a story that seems to want to enmesh Obama in the sordidness of Chicago politics (in the vaguest possibly way), but more clearly presents a man who had the character and the political acumen to navigate that world while rising far above it.

Beyond the irony of its outcome, Mr. Obama’s unusual decision to inject himself into a statewide issue during the height of his presidential campaign was a reminder that despite his historic ascendancy to the White House, he has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics. It is a world he has long navigated, to the consternation of his critics, by engaging in a kind of realpolitik, Chicago-style, which allowed him to draw strength from his relationships with important players without becoming compromised by their many weaknesses.

I am not sure how much more we could ask for in a politician from a place like that. The names Truman and Lincoln come to mind. FDR, too.

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