Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fun with LexisNexis -- searching historians

Suburban Warriors is one of my favorite books on the history of post-1945 American conservatism. It's author, Lisa McGirr, does a fantastic job disentangling the strands of thought and lived experiences that shaped the worldview of Orange County conservatives as they rose to prominence within the national GOP. This approach, which I've tried to mirror in my own academic work on the similarly-conservative American Legion, breaks with the "paranoid style" model of McCarthy-era scholarship best championed by historian Richard Hofstadter. So Suburban Warriors would be a good jumping-off point for anyone writing about the Tea Party movement.

So I plugged "Lisa McGirr" into a LexisNexis news search. Four measly hits came back. And it's not like McGirr is hard to find for a quote -- she's on the Harvard faculty. Hofstadter returned over 300 hits from the last five years. Off the top of my head I can remember three different New York Times editorial writers who have raised his name. Which is fine and good -- his work is brilliant. But it's been out of favor for at least 15 years now among historians, and new work is much more useful to understanding what's going on in the Right today.

I don't mean to pick on McGirr, or particular journalists and columnists. The same exercise could be done for any number of historians on any number of issues with similar results (searching Mae Ngai and illegal immigration, for instance, returned a similarly paltry hit total). Certainly the laziness of some journalists has a role to play here, as does the poor job scholars generally do in getting their work exposed to wider audiences. But historians within the academe as a group are coming very close to disengaging with the general public altogether. While it is intellectually uncomfortable for almost all historians to analogize the present with the past, most people are perfectly willing to do so. There seems to be a limitless supply of historical antecedents for the Tea Party for writers to reference, without fear of correction of people who know a thing or two about the politics of the past. Historians don't need to be cops walking an intellectual beat, but they can be more aggressive about joining the conversation. Those conversations right now take place all too often among ourselves.

The extreme pressures on the academic job market are only making this disengagement problem worse. Young scholars write books not for a broadly-conceived audience but for a hiring committee, who will respond best to writing that engages the existing scholarly literature and carves out its own niche within it. This kind of enterprise was not the reason I went to grad school, and partially explains why it took me longer than it should have to finish my dissertation. Most historians create work for each other and for themselves. We can and should be more useful than that -- especially since most of us who have PhDs will find ourselves on the outside of the ivory tower looking in, just like everyone else.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I can't believe I'm writing about soccer again...

but I don't want anyone to confuse my entry today for this kind of drivel.

Is there no place left in this great nation of ours for a man who has two graduate degrees, is a progressive in politics, yet detests to his core the sport of soccer? Please, leave bad sports columns to actual sportswriters. And will someone on the left acknowledge that game 7 of the NBA Finals just happened.

Maybe it's a good thing soccer isn't big here

I didn't watch the US-Algeria game today because my dislike of soccer is Klostermanesque. But I realize if I was not American the World Cup would be a really big deal to me. Because of its global ubiquity soccer (er, football ... whatever) is the official sport of patriotism. That the sport becomes a conduit for national pride is still kind of crazy to me, but it must be nice from a rooting perspective. It'd be pretty cool to have one's country totally shut down for a few hours because of sports.

We don't really have the equivalent in the US, which is kind of sad and is what makes the World Cup remotely appealing to me (until I remember it requires watching soccer). Americans are too emotionally invested in their own, well-established and totally globalized professional sports leagues to really care about international tournaments. People sort of care about the basketball team doing well in the Olympics, but more out of the sense of mild embarrassment that comes with losing. I personally really enjoy the World Baseball Classic, but most baseball fans I know just see it as a stupid interruption of Spring Training. Americans are also more interested in and much better at sports that the rest of the world either sucks at or doesn't really play, like the hitting people kind of football.

But considering the kind of obnoxious sports fans we Americans are, it's probably a good thing that soccer's popularity here is somewhere between poker and Frisbee golf. If the vile smugness of the average Yankees or Cowboys fan, the volcanic behavior of Philly fans, and the terrifying obsessiveness of Red Sox or Steelers fans were transferred onto a national soccer team could host nations even stomach to let us into their venues come World Cup time? At least as things stand we only subject our fellow Americans to the contemptible nature of our fandom. If we projected it on the world, somebody would have nuked us by now.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Arizona-Inspired immigration laws

To make up for a busy week on the temp-job front, I was going to put together a list of proposed legislation that the Arizona SB1070 "Show Me Your Papers" law has inspired in statehouses and city halls. Being pros at this blog game, Think Progress already compiled such a list in April:

Utah Require immigrants to carry proof of status, require law enforcement officers to question anyone they believe is in the country illegally, and target employers who hire or transport undocumented immigrants. Legislation still has to be drafted, but Rep. Stephen Sandstorm (R) claims he “has the support to do it.”
Georgia Nathan Deal (R), who is running for Governor, wants to propose legislation that mirrors Arizona’s. Tentatively pending Deal’s election.
Colorado Today, Colorado gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis (R) said that if he were governor, he would seek to pass something “very similar” to what Arizona enacted. Tentatively pending McInnis’ election.
Maryland State Delegate Pat McDonough (R) “plans to start sending a survey to every candidate for the General Assembly — along with the candidates for governor — asking them whether they agree with Arizona’s approach.” McDounough’s survey will start being circulated this week as he hopes to “know who is in favor of the Arizona bill and who is not” by this summer.
Ohio Butler County Sheriff Rick Jones and Ohio Rep. Courtney Combs (R) sent a letter to Gov. Ted Strickland asking him “to employ” his “leadership role” “to assure legislation is passed that will mirror” Arizona’s. Strickland’s press person says he “hasn’t had an opportunity to review Arizona law” and is concerned it might be unconstitutional.
North Carolina Local anti-immigrant groups claim that lawmakers have told them that “the chances similar legislation will be filed here is over 95%.” The same groups also concede that such legislation wouldn’t “get far” in their state.
Texas Republican state Rep. Debbie Riddle of Tomball says she plans to push for a law similar to Arizona’s. Riddle says she will introduce the measure in the January legislative session.
Texas Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb of 30,000 people, passed an ordinance written by IRLI lawyer Kris Kobach which would prevent landlords from renting houses or apartments to undocumented immigrants. Last month, a U.S. District judge ruled the ordinance unconstitutional. IRLI is helping Farmers Branch repeal the District judge decision.
Missouri The state legislature is considering a law, likely written by Kobach, that would make it unlawful for any person to conceal, harbor, transport, or shelter “illegal aliens” and would also make it a crime for undocumented immigrants to transport themselves. The bill has been referred to the Missouri House International Trade and Immigration Committee.
Oklahoma Restrict the ability of undocumented immigrants to obtain IDs or public assistance, give police authority to check the status of anyone arrested, and make it a felony to knowingly provide shelter, transportation or employment to the undocumented. After IRLI filed an amicus brief in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in support of HB 1804, the court refused to reconsider its decision that prohibits Oklahoma from enforcing two of the main parts of HB 1804.
Nebraska Residents in Fremont Nebraska likely will vote in July on a proposed ordinance to ban the “harboring,” hiring and renting to undocumented immigrants. Last Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that there was no authority to stop an election on the ordinance following a petition filed by Kobach.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Arizona, "Anchor Babies," and Arguing Immigration Reform

It's depressing to realize how much play anti-immigration politics gets in Arizona. State Senator Russell Pearce announced this week that he will draft a bill to deny birth certificates to the children of illegal immigrants. These children, of course, are granted citizenship under the 14th Amendment. This bill will pile on top of the "Show me your papers" law Pearce also wrote. Pearce told Politico that his law would be written to avoid violating the 14th Amendment. Sure, pal. Then again, Russell is no small potatoes in the Arizona Senate -- he's it finance committee chairman.

Pearce uses the charming term "anchor babies" to describe these American citizens. They are, in his mind, part of a calculated family planning effort by illegal immigrants to access the largess of the bottom rung of American society. Or as he put it to Politico, This is an orchestrated effort by them to come here and have children to gain access to the great welfare state we’ve created.” So are the babies born to native-born white families in Arizona are a conspiracy to earn dependent tax breaks? Is there anything more personal, and perhaps less calculating in this world than people deciding to have children, especially for people who cannot file any kind of governmental document to claim said welfare benefits because of their immigration status?

So I'd like to do a more professional job on researching "anchor baby" in the near future, but my quick googling of the term yielded a disturbing number of white supremacist websites. The second website listed in the return belonged to the anti-immigration group FAIR, which had been named a white supremacist organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center. A more careful googling of Pearce himself reveals his personal affection for -- and physical embrace of -- neo-nazis. Pearce has also been kicking around this idea of ignoring parts of the Constitution he doesn't like for at least two years now. "Anchor Baby" has an older vintage -- dating back it appears to Vietnamese refugee children in the 1970s and 80s, whose economic success in the United States would enable other relatives to emigrate from Southeast Asia. Instead of being the anchor to bring others here, the term has been transformed to mean the reason that undocumented immigrants can stay.

The Associated Press, by the way, felt that FAIR was an appropriate body to call for commend on this law and quoted its spokesman with only the paltriest of context ("based in Washington." Like yours truly, I suppose). "Essentially we are talking about people who have absolutely no connection whatever with this country," spokesman Ira Mehlman told the AP. "The whole idea of citizenship means that you have some connection other than mere happenstance that you were born on U.S. soil." What that other connection is, and how one's prenatal self would acquire it remains unclear.

It's not going out on a limb to call Pearce racist and the term anchor baby racist. Calling Pearce a racist in the context of a policy debate, however, is practically useless since it invites a defensive reaction that moves the conversation toward what is and isn't racism, or who can and cannot say what. Calling Rush Limbaugh a racist never got him off the air -- ok, it did off ESPN. Anyway, perhaps it's time to shift away from the 60s-vintage protest politics and 70s-styled ethnic empowerment reaction to clowns like Pearce and just argue the practicalities of his profoundly disruptive laws.

For starters, if children of immigrants have no birth certificates, and yet remain in the United States, how do they enroll in school? Do they simply never go? Daring to imagine a scenario in which their parents make a purely economic decision to stay in the US (perhaps Pearce's own welfare-grabbing one), is it preferable to have countless children remain completely uneducated and roaming around the finer dusty sidewalks of Arizona cities and towns? Pearce's solution illegal immigration is essentially to make his state unlivable, not only for Latinos but for everyone -- his own legislative version of we had to destroy the village to save it. Arizona is already facing the complete implosion of its judiciary because of Pearce's first anti-immigration law. This fact alone -- setting aside the loss of tourism dollars, business interest, and general good will -- should outweigh any social good to come of Pearce's illegal alien hunt. So, perhaps it's time to frame the immigration conversation as a series of consequences, as one can the abortion debate. In the abstract, abortion is not particularly popular. But ask if it should be outlawed despite any and every potential complicating scenario and tough call, and most people are pro-choice. Arizona's new immigration regime, as legally tenuous as it may prove to be, is generically popular, as we've discussed here before. But will it remain so when people have to consider the human cost of the separation of families, the criminalization of public education for some residents? Will those denied birth certificates have any kind of Constitutional rights at all? Could they be deported to a country at any moment in their lives in which they have never lived, or perhaps have never set foot? What about their children? What about those with birth certificates? Would they continue to live a life of silent terror, like the free African Americans of the 1850s who feared abduction and enslavement into a life of plantation labor they never knew at the hands of unscrupulous bounty hunters and a system of due process stacked against them? Would they have to prove they were born before some arbitrary date set by their government for the rest of their lives to avoid deportation on account of nothing more than their family heritage?

The racist doesn't have to think of such contingencies. He doesn't have to ponder the long-term social and personal cost of his racism since the preservation of the racial status quo trumps all. But the rest of us are capable of thinking about such things. And we should be asked to do so over and over again by responsible people who actually want to govern appropriately.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Religious Tolerance: a New and Fickle American Tradition

This great lede pretty much says it all:
 A church may be a church, and a temple a temple, but through the prism of emotion that still grips many New Yorkers almost a decade after 9/11, a mosque can apparently represent a lot of things. 
Paul Vitello's story in the New York Times about a Staten Island civic association meeting to discuss the proposed conversion of an abandoned convent into a mosque captured a heated and ugly scene. Non-Muslim community members -- from the borough of New York that gave us much of the cast of Jersey Shore, it should be noted -- received the opportunity to interrogate representatives of Islam, who of course were not offered the chance to turn the tables on their Christian and Jewish neighbors. It is up to the ascendant minority religion, after all, to prove its loyalty to the American nation, as it has been since the No-Nothings.

I am personally interested in the ethnic background of the interrogator who asked “Wouldn’t you agree that every terrorist, past and present, has come out of a mosque," given that the largest mass-casualty terrorist act to occur in New York before September 11th was perpetrated by a cell of Italian anarchists. That question aside, can you imagine a fundamentalist Christian or an orthodox Jew being asked whether they could point to any places in their holy books that may be in error in a public meeting about building permits? Or, more accurately, can you imagine hysterical reaction such a question would create among American conservatives? That last one doesn't seem so difficult.

The idea that the United States is a "Judeo-Christian" nation is a concept purchased dearly by the experience of World War II and the Holocaust. Before that, most Americans preferred to think of it simply as a Protestant one. The nation's so-called tradition of "tolerance" shifted slowly from that of merely not locking people were were not members of the Church of England up in the colonial period to accepting the loyalty and moral rectitude of Catholics and Jews much more recently. I wonder if any nativist eyes peered over the gates of this Staten Island convent in the early 20th century and wondered what kinds of rumored sexual depravities were going on inside between the priests and nuns. I guess it's going to take a lot of years of things not blowing up for muslims to enjoy the same proportion of normalcy.

The saddest thing is that the crowd that profiled last night probably didn't think of itself as intolerant. I would have liked Vitello to have stuck around a bit longer and ask what participants though of themselves. The probably just thought they were being careful. But the end of the article demonstrates the limits of cross-cultural "dialogue" when religious ignorance and fear are involved:

The tenor of the inquiry became so fraught that the meeting eventually collapsed in shouting around 11 p.m., prompting the police and security guards to ask everyone to leave.
But just 20 minutes earlier, as Bill Finnegan stood at the microphone, came the meeting’s single moment of hushed silence. Mr. Finnegan said he was a Marine lance corporal, home from Afghanistan, where he had worked as a mediator with warring tribes.
After the sustained standing ovation that followed his introduction, he turned to the Muslims on the panel: “My question to you is, will you work to form a cohesive bond with the people of this community?” The men said yes.
Then he turned to the crowd. “And will you work to form a cohesive bond with these people — your new neighbors?”
The crowd erupted in boos. “No!” someone shouted.
 The tolerance that Americans celebrate as a national value remains a weak one. If it is to really mean what it should, which is the freedom of anyone to celebrate any faith they choose (or to choose no faith at all), assimilation cannot require other minority faiths to prove their worthiness to the dominant Protestant-Catholic-Jew pantheon.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The View from Afar

My blog-related google news filter caught this article about American patriotism in the Irish Times. It's rather episodic and shallow in its analysis of an impossibly huge topic for a standard newspaper article to capture, but the patently shocked tone it takes in reporting its findings about American political culture is worth considering. The concept of American exceptionalism, taken so much for granted by most citizens of this nation, appears to be particularly foreign to the writer.

The implied thesis of the piece is that European nations have learned the historical lessons of their experiences with fascism, while the United States has not. This is a more interesting assertion than a crude survey of flag-related Americana, particularly since there is a great deal of difference between popular American patriotism and the right-wing nationalist movements of contemporary Europe. The intervening experience of the Cold War, during which the United States found it quite necessary with the rest of the West in shambles to assert itself as the hope of the world, weighs heavily in any answer. But I think it is safe to say that some of the more millennialist-mided among us have not thought long or hard about the similarities between the metaphysical relationship they see existing between nation and the divine and that of the fascist worldview.

Maybe there's a reciprocal exceptionalism at wok here, too. In my only experience attending a conference on foreign soil (in exotic Oxford, UK) I came to the rescue of my friend and fellow American historian Carl, who was arguing with a Danish student about what I thought was the American invasion of Iraq -- which we, of course, opposed as well. It turned out that Carl was defending the American military intervention in Afghanistan, on the grounds that the then-small American presence there was harming Afghan civilians. The European experience, I gathered, had demonstrated that no military adventure, no matter the purpose, was worth the blood of any innocent soul. Having grown up in a county that had lost scores of equally innocent civilians on September 11th, I found this moral relativism upsetting. I was proud my nation had deposed the Taliban and had wished the incompetence of the Bush Administration had not prevented our military might from unleashing more death upon such fanatics. Feeling this way did not make me a fascist or even particularly patriotic, nor did it force me to disregard the lessons of Hitler. It felt more like a defense of principles and ideals that were not exceptional to the American experience and that me and my dining partners from other Western European nations held so in common as to be unremarkable. They were principles and ideals that many Afghans likely ascribed to, too.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Populist Interest in the Constitution is Nothing New

Populist Interest in the Constitution is Nothing New, says Jeff Shesol on HNN, recapping his own study of the 1930s. His relaying of GOP efforts to capture the energy of an anti-New Deal movement that concentrated on defending the Constitution is an interesting historical parallel for this fall. In his own right, FDR tried to use invocations of the Constitutional order and citizenship for his own purposes. I just finished reading Benjamin Alpers' terrific book on the concept of dictatorship in 1930s-50s political culture, in which he describes how Roosevelt creatively argued against the dictatorial power of the Supreme Court in 1937 (of course, unsuccessfully) during the court-packing controversy. The Roosevelt Administration also helped to launch "I Am an American Day," a new and short-lived holiday that celebrated new voters turning 21 and the Constitutional order they were about to join. The WPA ran naturalization courses for immigrants that focused heavily on instruction in the Constitution.

So the real issue is how critics of the welfare state used a popular conception of the Constitution to attack liberals. Such efforts continued well after the 1930s. Lawmakers in Ohio in the early 1950s required high school students who wanted to take courses that discussed economics, social issues, foreign affairs, or the United Nations to take a course on the US Constitution first -- so fellow traveler teachers couldn't get their hooks in them first. My guys in the American Legion made broad public education in the Constitution a lynch pin of their anticommunist efforts during the Cold War, insisting that the American political system did not guarantee anyone more than their natural rights. The Tenth Amendment became a popular tool of segregationists to defend themselves from federal intrusion. etc...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Past Solutions to Present Problems: Snyder v. Phelps

The Supreme Court will rule on Snyder v. Phelps, the case involving whether or not horrible human beings have the right to picket other people's funerals. The facts of the case are about as deplorable as it gets: Fred Phelps and the rabble he has inspired pickets the funerals of war dead in an attempt to convince the public that god is punishing the nation for tolerating homosexuality. Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq and his father is suing Phelps for damages for picketing his son's funeral.

This is the kind of case that makes me glad I didn't go to law school because everyone would have hated me. I'm really nervous that Snyder is such a compelling plaintiff and Phelps is such an incredible monster that the First Amendment implications of the case may go by the wayside. Professor Christina Wells at the Mizzou Law School has some interesting stuff to say on this point, so I'll leave you to read her here.

While I'm not a First Amendment attorney, I am a historian (d'oh!). As such, this case is fascinating because seventy or so years ago and earlier, something like this wouldn't have ended up in front of a court. Some group of vigilantes would have simply beat the everliving snot out of Phelps and his fellows, or perhaps just have thrown them into some cars and driven them off into the hinterland. The local constable would look the other way, or maybe arrest Phelps afterward for some permit violation. And that would be that. While it's certainly some sign of progress that Americans now litigate these kinds of grievances rather than get all punchy (and this blog never endorses violence) I can't help but feel a bit wistful for the simplicity of the earlier solution in just this one instance. 

Link: U.S. Mexico Border Area Actually Pretty Safe.

American Prospect blogs that something is fishy with the claim that illegal immigration has produced a crime wave in the Southwest. Oh, indeed.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A few Memorial Day thoughts

Travel and personal stuff kept me away from blogging, so this post isn't exactly at its timely-est. Let's just call it a really long weekend.

A few pieces caught my eye around the holiday. Alison Buckholtz's piece for Slate on the political (or apolitical) meanings of flying the American Flag outside of one's home was really interesting, particularly on her point that patriotic pomp has become so ingrained into the political rhetoric of the Right that to display the flag opens one up to a whole set of assumptions as to one's politics.

When it's so easy for a columnist to mail in some lazy holiday piece it's nice to have people like Jon Meacham around to actually think about what they're doing. His piece in Newsweek on the widening disconnect between the experience of those in the military from everyone else was a pleasant moment of sobriety. I think it is, as he claims, much easier for the public to unflinchingly support as he puts it "the projection of force" because the consequences of doing so are limited to a particular set of American families. Meacham nibbles around the edges of the hard truth left unsaid on days like Memorial Day -- that the military is an extension of American foreign policy, and that people die in the pursuit of interests of that foreign policy. Being empathetic with those who lost loved ones in that process should be part of what it is to be patriotic. But it is difficult -- particularly with the divisions of class, geography, and experience that have widened in the all-volunteer force.

When it began, Memorial Day originally was all about death. It was a way for the women who developed it to reflect on the immense loss of life the Civil War wrought on the nation. It was also a way to recapture a bit of human dignity for those loved ones who lay anonymously in mass graves near battlefields scattered about the country, a fate that almost half of the fallen endured. About 18 percent of all white males of military age in the South died in the war. Communities on both sides lost almost all of their young men as locally-raised regiments were decimated.

But then the meaning of the holiday (originally Decoration Day- as in decoration of gravesites) shifted. Meacham cites the same veterans responsible for the shift, as Union men themselves took up the cause of memoralizing their fallen comrades and crafting the political meaning of the effort. The holiday became more about the celebration of manly virtue and of the fighting spirit that defined national greatness. Veterans and similar patriotic groups have guarded its meaning ever since. The holiday has moved  beyond a public and sentimental commemoration of the dead and toward a generic celebration of heroism and sacrifice that points to graves as evidence of the necessity of a strong military, robust foreign policy, and dutiful loyalty.

Even simple and well-meaning celebrations seem to have lost touch with Memorial Day's morbid grounding. I was watching CBS Sunday Morning with my dad and was struck by a piece on a guy in the Midwest who kept meticulous records of every veteran's grave in his community and took it upon himself to place a flag on the person's grave before Memorial Day. But he did it, I opined, outside of the spirit of the original holiday because he did it for every veteran, even guys who died years later from natural causes.

My dad basically answered back, so what? Service is service, whether or not a guy gets capped by the bad guys or dies of a heart attack 50 years later. But the more "service" is unblinkingly celebrated, and the more generic our "support" of the troops becomes, the less tied to the actual reasons for military intervention the act of warfighting will become. To declare all dead, even those who died peacefully decades later, to be war dead, or to declare all service heroic in many ways absolves us all from the responsibility of actually thinking about what it would mean to have people killed in the pursuit of foreign policy ends. With an all-volunteer force, it becomes even easier because those who enlist willfully choose this heroic path for themselves.