All posts by sineadmceneaney

Historian at the Open University. Primarily interested in post-war United States history, with an emphasis on race, gender, social movements and protest. Currently writing about gender, autobiography and civil rights.

From Bhagat Singh Thind to Kamala Harris: an american story

As I write this, Pennsylvania has just flipped. If the trend continues, we are very close to a declaration that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the President elect and Vice-President elect of the US. Whatever about the change at the top of the ticket, Kamala Harris’ election as the first Black woman Vice President is truly historic. I still remember as a child watching Geraldine Ferraro being eviscerated during the 1984 election, mocked during her VP run for not being ‘tough enough’, for being a woman. Somewhere out in the cosmos, Geraldine Ferraro is raising a toast to Kamala Harris. And I have a lump in my throat.

But I’m also thinking this afternoon of Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh man whose petition for citizenship through naturalization was rejected by the Supreme Court in 1923. Thind was born near Amritsar in the state of Punjab in India, and moved to the US in 1913 to undertake his studies, eventually earning a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. Towards the end of  World War I, Thind enlisted in the US Army, where he became the first turbaned soldier in the Army. Before his honourable discharge in December 1918, Thind became a US citizen through naturalization. However, the Naturalization Act of 1906 specified that naturalized citizenship was only available to people who were deemed “free and white”, or of African descent. Four days after he received his citizenship in Washington State, the Bureau of Naturalization applied to have this removed. Thind, an Indian Sikh, was not deemed to be ‘white’.

Thind took his case to the Supreme Court, at a time when the Court’s perception of racial hierarchy was determined by the Plessy case (1896, established the “separate but equal” colour line in law related to Black and white Americans) and a range of anti-immigrant measures including the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the California Alien Land Law in 1913 which prohibited citizens ineligible for naturalization from owning land, the Immigration Act of 1917 and the Asiatic Exclusion League that sought to curtail immigration from Asia, and especially from India. Thind’s lawyers sought to establish that their client was white enough to claim access to naturalization routes to citizenship. They failed.

When the Supreme Court heard the case, they concluded that people from India could not be naturalized as US citizens. In United States v Bhagat Singh Thind (261 U.S. 204 (1923), the English-born Justice George Sutherland authored the unanimous decision declaring that Indian Sikhs were not white, and so ineligible for naturalization under the terms of existing legislation.

Towards the end of his opinion, Sutherland wrote:

“the children of… European parentage quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin,” but “the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.” Thind presented in his turban, unwilling to compromise his own religion and identity to become invisible in Americana.

Part of the explanation for the Court decision lies in racism, but it was also the case that the courts were suspicious of Indians, like Thind, who articulated political sympathies with anti-imperial movements challenging British and western hegemony on the continent. Thind was not only deemed to be non-white; he was potentially a dangerous political radical.

Thind did eventually gain US citizenship in 1935, although his eligibility at that stage was based on his military service in World War 1. The Supreme Court decision in Thind was not overturned until after World War 2, when Harry Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act in 1946, finally overturning much of the previous discriminatory legislation and allowing people from India to naturalize as citizens, and to own property, and to sponsor their family members abroad to come into the US. Quotas were tiny at first (only 100 allowed under the 1946 Act), eventually revised upwards in the 1950s and later.

Some 40 years after Thind’s case, Kamala Harris’ mother Shyamala Gopalan – herself born and raised in India – was awarded her PhD by the University of California at Berkeley, Thind’s alma mater. Kamala Harris has long identified both with her father’s Jamaican and her mother’s Indian heritages — in historical terms, quite complex, since there had been little solidarity between immigrant Indians and African Americans during Thind’s lifetime. Like Barack Obama, Harris’ self-identity is intersectional. Her election is important for a wide constituency: a triumph for Black women, many of whom are responsible for pushing the Biden-Harris ticket past Trump in the key states of Georgia and Pennsylvania; a triumph for women in the Democratic party, where she stands on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton, among many others; and a repudiation of the racist exclusion of immigrant groups in the past, who despite their commitment to the nation were denied access to its citizenship. A new administration will need to grapple with the racist legacies of the Trump era, including the debacle of separated children at the Mexican border. Thind’s story reminds us how the courts and the government have conspired in the past to use concepts of “whiteness” to decide who gets to be American. Kamala Harris, with dual heritage steeped in histories of exclusion, should be in a unique position to challenge this.

The Electoral college

On 7 November 2012, Donald Trump tweeted “The electoral college is a disaster for democracy”. In that election, Barack Obama won almost 66 million votes nationwide, carried victories in 26 states and the District of Columbia, and 332 electoral college votes. His overall percentage was 51% to his opponent Mitt Romney’s 47%. This stands in stark contrast to the margins in 2016, where Trump won victory through the Electoral College while his opponent Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency although she won the popular vote. As we wait for votes to come through in Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona, Trump is again playing for Electoral College votes – his opponent Joe Biden has already won an unassailable lead in the popular vote, and has in fact garnered more votes in hard numerical terms than any other presidential candidate in history.

So, what is the electoral college, why does it exist, and how does it work?

When Americans vote in a presidential election, they are not actually voting for the President. They are voting on a state-by-state basis for a panel of people nominated by their state legislature as Electors, who will then cast their votes in line with the decision of the voters in their state. While the Electors never actually meet as a whole group, the congregation of these people is called the Electoral College, and votes are usually cast and certified by December.

There are currently 538 Electors distributed across the various states, based on the population of these states. So, when you look at the interactive electoral maps produced in the media showing ‘Electoral college votes’, this tells you how many electors each state has. This all means that whatever the voters may think, the Presidential race in the US is decided by indirect voting: the popular vote doesn’t matter, and the winner is determined on a state-by-state basis according to the number of Electors casting their vote.

The existence and selection of Electors is provided for in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. So, to change the Electoral College system is a tricky thing and would require a constitutional amendment. When the constitution was written and ratified in the late 1780s, the Electoral college was devised as a tool to balance out the power of the more populated states: a national winner-takes-all approach would have advantaged the interests of states with bigger urban populations, and for the Founding Fathers, it was important to ensure that some power was held by rural, low-population states, and of course they also had to balance the power of slave states and free states to maintain national unity.

But a lot has changed since the 1780s, and demographic shifts in the 20th and 21st century reveal real weaknesses in the Electoral college system. No president in the 20th century managed to win victory in the Electoral College without also carrying the popular vote. This is true even in the notorious 1960 election where John F. Kennedy was accused of ‘stealing’ the election through Democratic rigging of the Chicago vote. That year, Kennedy won the popular vote by a mere 100,000 or so votes, but he won the Electoral College by 303 to Nixon’s 219 Electoral votes.

But in the 21st century, the story is very different. Famously, in 2000 Al Gore conceded victory to George W. Bush after the Florida count was decided against him. Bush took the Presidency with 271 Electoral College votes, despite winning only 47.9% of the popular vote to Gore’s 48.4%. In 2016, four years after criticizing the Electoral College via tweet, Donald Trump took the Presidency with a large Electoral College majority, but only 46% of the popular vote, to Hillary Clinton’s 48.1%.

Why does this happen? It goes back to the balance of power envisaged by the Founding Fathers. The system preserves the power of rural, less populous states (like Nevada and Arizona) against the dominant interests of more urban, more populous states (like California and New York). So, the vote weight of Nevada, with a population of 3 million and 6 Electoral College votes is about 1.35. But the vote weight of Pennsylvania, with a population of over 12.8 million, and 20 electoral votes is about 0.83. The Electoral College means that not all voters’ votes count equally.

That would be less divisive if the population was more evenly distributed, and if we could talk about a broad spread of voting values across the US. But the population is becoming less white, more urbanized, and more progressive. Often voting outcomes seem at odds with this. If the Presidential vote was calculated on a national winner-takes-all basis, you can be pretty sure that California and the more progressive East Coast, heavily populated states, would pick the winner every time. Nobody would care about Nebraska, or South Dakota. The existing system, however flawed, keeps these states in active political participation. As the country becomes more politically polarized, this is important. Political alienation encourages separatist mindsets, and we have seen in the recent past that this poses a real threat to national security. As much as we might complain that the Electoral College damages democracy, it serves a function and it is unlikely that political powers will seek to change it any time soon.

As I write this, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by 253 Electoral college votes to 214. He needs 270 to win. If Trump does overtake him to snatch victory, he will do so without a popular vote mandate, and to use his own words, this would be a disaster for democracy. If this does happen, he will continue this century’s trend of Republicans taking the White House while losing the popular vote. Only in 2004 has a Republican (G.W. Bush) won the Presidency with a popular vote majority. What this underscores is the inability of the Republican Party to appeal sufficiently to the majority feeling in the country. A party that appeals to a narrowing population base will eventually run out of steam: perhaps that is where real change is needed to protect democracy.

The Republican Revolution and the Death of Trust

“So let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”

John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech in January 1961.

This could be a blog post with a very short shelf life. As we wait for results to start coming in from today’s general election in the US, I’m reminded of Kennedy’s inaugural speech in 1961. Kennedy was speaking about Cold war divisions here, but I think his words have peculiar resonance in relation to the opportunity for change, healing divisions, rounding a corner, beginning anew in the current domestic situation.

I think most of us would agree that the most significant casualty over the past four years has been political trust. The decline of trust did not start in November 2016. From the early 1990s, New Gingrich developed a destructive partisanship that almost inevitably led to Trumpworld. He created conspiracy theories, engaged in strategic obstructionism, and sought to use the so-called ‘culture wars’ to destroy bipartisanship and create disfunction in Washington. Since the start of his career as a Republican activist in the late 1970s, Newt Gingrich called for Republicans to act “nasty”, in what he called a “war for power”. This was the so called Republican Revolution: to destroy trust in the system and divide the electorate along what Karl Rove, Bush’s key strategist, would later call wedge issues – mostly what we might call progressive social change like abortion, marriage equality, and broad civil rights agendas.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Gingrich has been one of Trump’s big supporters. Trump’s nasty, name calling, personal attacking strategy is straight from Gingrich’s playbook. Rather than draining the swamp, his golfing, Fox-watching, late night tweeting, lying, obstructionism has done exactly what Gingrich wanted: made people sick of politics, mistrust Washington, buy into completely ludicrous conspiracy theories, opt out completely.

It was Gingrich who turned legislating into a reality show. With C-Span cameras installed in the House, Gingrich became a performer in his own political reality show. He repurposed the term ‘communist’ as an insult. The Trump supporters who accuse Harris and Biden of being socialist have, for the most part, no idea what that term actually means; they get their insult handed down from Gingrich, through Rove, through Palin, through Trump. Gingrich even wrote a memo about language use: in the late 1980s, his “Language: a Key Mechanism of Control” encouraged Republicans to call Democrats “radical”, “traitors”, “corrupt”, “socialist”. He weaponized impeachment – again an opportunity for reality tv – and he weaponized supreme court nominations in new and nefarious ways.

If Trump wins in 2020, it will be another triumph for Gingrich, and Gingrich’s successors like Mitch McConnell. We’ll spend four more years going around and around in a spiral of lies, obfuscation, maladministration and distraction, while the foundations of democracy are hacked away, live on tv. I am usually not that melodramatic. But Trump didn’t start this – he is a symptom of it. I’m not sure if a return to civility and sincerity is entirely possible after four years of Trump, but it certainly won’t be after eight.

The high turnout figures being reported this week give some pause in this. Not to indulge too much in counterfactuals, or “what if” history, I do wonder whether this high level of engagement would have been the case if we weren’t dealing with a pandemic. I’m sure the political scientists will be analysing the ways in which the coronavirus influenced political engagement over the past months. And they’ll be able to gauge how much voters register the origins of their political engagement through racial polarization, reactions to police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Democrats, and those who lean Democrat, do not trust the government. Melania voted maskless. Do you trust the masked people or the unmasked? Do you trust Fox news or MSNBC? A good friend of mine told me yesterday that in relatively affluent parts of Philadelphia, the drugstores and other shopfronts have been boarded up for the past couple of weeks. There is no trust that civility will return, no matter who wins.

All the norms appear to be gone. Disinformation has eroded all trust.

The New York Times editorial today headlines: “You’re not just voting for President. You’re voting to start over.” “The American experiment has taken a beating, but there’s a chance to renew our democracy”, the editorial tells us. But Republican activists in Texas are still – even now, even after several court cases – trying to throw out 120K votes. Voter suppression is real. It’s not clear that democracy can be renewed.

What do Biden and Harris represent? Contrary to the Republican hype, they are about as middle ground as you can get. I like Kamala Harris a lot, but you might suspect that if she were a politician in Britain, she could easily have been one of David Cameron’s so-called compassionate conservatives. It’s telling that one of Biden’s last pre-election tv ads was voiced by Bruce Springsteen – a symbol of good old fashioned solid Born in the USA American values. Whereas Biden came into the VP in 2008 on the Obama ticket of Hope and Change, he’s now essentially running on a ticket of God, Can We Rewind the Clock to Civility and Sincerity? Less catchy.

When I was a child, and I would go for a walk with my grandmother, I would start to whine when my feet got sore and I didn’t want to walk any more. She would always tell me the same thing: just a little further. It’s just down the road, and around the corner. Oddly, this is what this Trump cartoon reminds me of. We’re just rounding the corner. Except, like Trump, my grandmother was always lying. Will the US round the corner this week?

Working from home, but not alone

As I write this, my wife is in the kitchen, trying out Skype for Business for the first time. I can hear her comments to her colleague: “Oh yes, I can see that Word document. Yes, Powerpoint is good. Oh no, I can’t see the whiteboard. Download it?” I presume these kinds of exchanges are happening across the country, for those of us who thankfully still have jobs in this new challenging economy.

laptop photo

The biggest change for many people with non-essential jobs is that we are being asked to work from home. For lots of people, this will be a welcome shift. But for many others, this will be very challenging. If your employer is already difficult to work for, my bet is that working from home won’t make things all that much better. If you have a good employer, you might find that the things that make them good employers don’t fully transfer to when you’re working in your living room surrounded by kids who are going stir crazy without their usual play dates.

A year ago, I made the switch from working in a regular, bricks and mortar university, to a university that specializes in distance and online education. As many of my academic friends scramble to put their lecture and seminar content online, I am vaguely amused by their discovery of the tools that make the Open University so good at distance education provision. Friends who railed against Skype for Business a month ago are embracing its potential for seminar teaching, others are debating the relative merits of Zoom and Skype, and I’ve even heard whispers of Adobe Connect. But the big challenge is translating materials designed for face to face delivery into online-friendly formats. This is hard. They are being asked to do in 2 weeks what it often takes 9 months to do in the OU, with sophisticated IT support teams. I can only imagine how hard I would have found that in my underfunded bricks and mortar institution just over a year ago.

When I moved to the OU, my biggest challenge was changing my work practices in order to accommodate the distance between me and my colleagues. I have colleagues who work from home across the country, and we see each other only several times a year, at departmental or School meetings. These moments of personal interaction are prized.

I am not a designated home worker, but I routinely work about 2-3 days at home each week, going to my office at Milton Keynes on average twice a week. This routine suits me. It allowed me to move from overpriced suburban London to Birmingham, where my wife works, in April last year. With the Covid19 crisis, I am very glad that I no longer shuttle up and down the M40 on a weekly basis. The nature of the academic job market is such that couples often live apart for chunks of time during term; this is another good reason for universities shifting teaching online during this crisis, so that families can pull together in one common place.

But working from home has its challenges. I don’t have children, so I will leave it to others to give advice on how to successfully work from home if you have to juggle children into the mix. But I can share some tips I learned over the past year about working from home:

  1. Create a dedicated space for work. In our house, that means I’ve repurposed our dining room into a home office. We already planned to move house this summer (will there be any houses on the market??) so that I can have a more formal office space. But for the moment, a room with a door, a table that is bit enough to work at, and a chair that is comfortable will work. Find a way for your kiddos to understand that this is mommy or daddy’s office, and that they need to knock if they want to come in. And that sometimes they won’t be able to, because you’re in a meeting or busy. And use that dedicated space to create the psychological distinction between home and work: you’ll need that.
  2. Shower and dress properly: Ok, so I have conducted interviews while wearing sweatpants, which I would never have done in my previous job. But I absolutely can’t work in my pajamas. Dress like you’re going to work on casual Friday. Wear shoes, even if they’re trainers. I promise: you’ll feel more productive than if you’re wearing slippers.
  3. Start your day at time that is more or less normal, and end it at a more or less normal time. If you’re working around kids, you might find that you can shift your work hours around a bit to let you spend some time with them that you wouldn’t ordinarily do. But don’t expect to be able to all your work in the evening when they’re asleep. It just won’t happen.
  4. Begin your day with an easy and enjoyable job. That will kick start you in work mode and give you that sense that home has ended and work has begun.
  5. Keep the heating on. One of the big challenges is that you are now responsible for all of the utilities you use during the day, including the internet. Most people won’t be able to claim compensation for these, because your status as home worker is temporary (at least for the moment). But you won’t be able to work if you’re cold or generally uncomfortable. So, if you’re the sort of person who turns on the heating system on 1 December and turns it off again on 1 February, you might want to rethink this position. Keep your working space well heated, and as well ventilated as possible. Make sure you have enough light. If this is financially difficult, talk to your employer about mitigating electricity costs and if you need help to increase your internet data capacity. It’s in their interests to help you out.
  6. Do not look at cats on the internet. It’s all very well to get distracted in the office where there are other people around. It’s quite a different thing when you’re at home, and there is nobody to shame you into stopping the autoplay on youtube.
  7. If you are newly working from home with a spouse or partner (or several…. whatever your situation is), try to provide moral support for each other rather than distraction. Office romances are never a good idea, and that’s as true when your office is your home. No hanky-panky just because the boss isn’t looking.
  8. Keep in touch with your colleagues. One of the things I struggled with over the past year is the lack of casual interaction we take for granted in the workplace. I had to learn to use our messenger apps, skype for business, and even email as replacements for those conversations we have at the photocopier, or wherever you get coffee, or en route to the bathroom. It seems obvious: you won’t meet people by accident when you are working from home. You have to engineer those informal chats. Use whatever works: WhatsApp groups for your team, your company messenger apps, twitter. Think about how many times a day you just wander over to speak to a colleague. Halve that. Now try to engineer short informal interactions about nothing in particular that number of times per day using online tools. Working from home doesn’t have to mean working alone.
  9. Get out of the house for at least a half hour, if you can. Again, I know this can be difficult if you have kids (especially small napping ones). But it’s important. Your morning and evening commute gets you out of the house, and you need to replicate this. Also, if you usually go to the gym or play a team sport, it’s likely that you might not be able to do that as normal for a while. So, get out of the house at least once a day. Take a walk around the block. Go for a jog. Take your kids out somewhere uncrowded for half an hour. Park nearby? Go for a walk. This can be at lunchtime or in the evening. And remember if it’s raining, you can at least have a shower and change your clothes when you get back. Getting out of the house will keep you sane.
  10. Take breaks, but not too many. The temptation to watch tv is overwhelming, especially if you are in the house on your own. Resist it. Take the breaks you usually would do at work. But don’t take more. Once you sit down in your living room to watch that episode of Doctors that you wouldn’t usually see because you are at work, you’re done for. Spoiler alert: daytime tv is terrible. You’re not missing anything. The same goes if you are watching tv on your laptop. Switching on Netflix at 2pm is a Very. Bad. Idea.

Right. Back to work for me. I can hear the wife (I’ve taken to calling her my co-worker) in the kitchen on another call. She’ll be back in our home office again in 10 minutes, and I don’t want her to catch me watching cat videos on youtube…


Damian Hinds and the distraction of grade inflation panic

There are so many mixed messages coming from government about Higher Education that it seems clear that there is no clear strategy at all, just a handful of reactions to perceived problems. Cambridge’s response to TEF highlights the clear errors in government proposals to ‘measure’ teaching excellence; it is ludicrous to think that some subjects at Cambridge might be awarded TEF ‘silver’ because students are smart enough to boycott the NSS. And the papers over the weekend were full of Damian Hinds, gnashing his teeth over the number of firsts awarded in Universities. More distraction and reaction, rather than strategy. Students may be getting Firsts than ever before, but this is not necessarily a crisis of ‘grade inflation.’ In fact, it is a crisis of misunderstanding by government about how universities have changed their teaching model – often for the better – in response to the never-ending barrage of bright ideas put forward by a long list of Universities Ministers desperate to get up the political ladder.

When I started university in 1993, I was the first of my family to attend university. I was 17. I had no idea what university was about, really. For each of my classes I received a reading list of around 200 items, alphabetized by author surname; there were no further instructions about what to read for each session. The outline of each module was vague: a four page outline of broadly what subjects would be covered in each week. Often lecturers and professors would stray away from these broad topics. One of my lecturers – a very highly regarded academic in his field – would routinely come into the lecture theatre, sit down, and read verbatim from the folder of notes he had used for the same class for at least 10 years. Individual tutorials were a thing to be feared: students were viewed as a necessary evil, but office hours were certainly an interruption from the ‘real’ work of most academics on campus.

I do not think that my experience differs greatly from that of most of my pre-internet generation. I graduated in 1997 with a first class in both History and French: my recollection is that two Firsts were awarded that year in Arts, out of a cohort of several hundred. I had taken a year off before my final year to teach English in northern France, and the point of university clicked for me that year. What I know for sure is that many of my classmates were smarter than me, and could have achieved first class grades. Why did they not? Some of the reason is that they were not supported to do so. There were no grade descriptors. There were no Personal Tutors who could explain the mystery of university to a naive and lost student. There were three mental health counselors for the whole university, and appointments were seen as a last resort. Exams were at the end of the year, and in three weeks of pressure, students were examined on material that they had learned in all three terms. No wonder first class grades were rare.

In the past 15 years or so of an academic career teaching in large and small universities, elite and non-elite in the UK and Ireland, I have seen a major shift in the way that teaching is undertaken. It is absolutely true that more students are being awarded first class grades for their university work. But this is not necessarily a negative thing, although it is often reported as such in the many reports that come out about grade inflation. In reality, this is the inevitable result of the stellar work in curriculum reform, in student support, and in teaching methods, that has been undertaken in universities over the past 10 years.

I hope students today are much more informed about how university works than I was. They should be. They have lots of pre-entry information about universities. They are offered significant support on writing and time management in the first year, they are given very detailed and prioritized reading lists and module outlines – now all online for accessibility and interaction. They know they are able to ask questions if they don’t understand, and to book individual tutorials to discuss their work. There are dedicated student support teams – academic, mental health, learning supports – on campus to act as a safety net for students who are struggling. Academic colleagues work harder to support students who, 15 years ago, might have failed out in first or second year. Lecturers are encouraged to reflect on their teaching formally and informally, and are given incentives to do so. Many undertake formal teaching qualifications. Pedagogy is becoming more and more important, even in a regulatory environment that still rewards research over teaching innovation. If half my class were failing, for example, I would question the efficacy of my teaching practice.

The bottom line is that political panic over grade inflation is a manufactured crisis. Many more students are getting higher grades, but they have never been so carefully supported to do so. As competition for student numbers steps up, Russell group universities are catching up on the good practices that have been developed in teaching-focused universities. So, it should not be a surprise to anybody that the number of first class grades has risen. We equip our students with the resources and skills to excel in ways that were reserved only for the exceptionally clued-in when I was a student. Demonizing this as ‘grade inflation’ is deeply unhelpful. Seeking a return to a time when only a small handful of firsts were awarded is retrograde.

We should absolutely seek to uphold academic standards. But we should also not devalue the excellent work many universities do to ensure that their students can do their best work. For some, their best is a 2.2. For others, their best is a First. It is great to see that more students are capable of reaching that standard than ever before. This is something to be celebrated, not penalized.

New article: Home Sweet Home? Housing Activism and Political Commemoration in Sixties Ireland,’ in the History Workshop Journal

Lots of important changes last week:

On Thursday 28th February, I officially finished working for St Mary’s University, Twickenham, after 8 and a half mostly happy years as part of a great team of historians. It’s odd to leave an academic position in the middle of a semester; I shall miss my historian colleagues, my other amazing colleagues in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and of course my students who have kept me sharp, engaged and grounded (and entertained!) for many years.

Overnight, I moved from of one of the UK’s smallest Higher Education providers to one of its largest. I’m very pleased to start work with the Open University as a Staff Tutor in the History programme, and I’m looking forward to all the new challenges, opportunities and experiences I’ll have in the new position.

Also last week, the History Workshop Journal published an article I wrote about housing activism in Dublin in the 1960s. In particular, the article seeks to place this protest movement within the context of both the political commemorations in Ireland and the wider landscape of global protest associated with the decade. It will be out later in the year in the print edition of HWJ, but you should also be able to read the advance publication here on the journal’s OUP site. 

New Article: “Sex and the radical imagination in the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Oracle”

In November, the journal Radical Americas published a special issue on ‘radical periodicals.’ There are all sorts of interesting articles in the issue, from anarchist periodicals of the Depression era through to the ways in which Black Power aesthetics were captured through graphic design in magazines.

berkeley barb cover
Photo credit: Berkeley Barb Archives,


My contribution to the volume looks specifically at two influential newspapers of the American underground press during the 1960s. Using the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Oracle, my paper proposes two arguments: first, that the inability of the countercultural press to envisage real alternatives to sexuality and sex roles stifled any wider attempt within the countercultural movement to address concerns around gender relations; and second, the limitation of the ‘radical’ imagination invites us to question the extent to which these papers can be considered radical or countercultural. The reinforcement of heterosexism, especially the primacy of the male gaze, gave little space for any radical challenge to gender norms. In short, these radicals weren’t as radical as they might have thought they were!


You can read and download the full text here:

The value of higher education

Two things happened this morning. At 7am, I started work writing up a new section of my new first year module on Transatlantic Slaveries. At 8am I read Laura Kennedy’s column in today’s Irish Times. The headline caught my eye: “I have my PhD, but what is the value of a university education?” Full disclosure: I have a PhD, and I value university education. So, I expected a sharp analysis of the challenges facing the higher education landscape, and perhaps some discussion of the ways in which access to education could be improved to make it more attractive to groups of people who have traditionally found themselves excluded from (what we crassly call in the UK) high tariff universities.

women university

This was not what I got. So I did what every good academic does when she reads something she disagrees with on the internet: I had a bit of a rant on Twitter.

Mostly it was the timing. Across the UK and Ireland over the next few weeks, universities are welcoming hundreds of thousands of students, all eager to learn, meet, think, drink, experience. Today, we welcomed a new cohort of first year students in the Humanities at my university – a small university in west London where our student profile is extremely diverse, and where we offer a supportive and encouraging environment to students who often feel they would get lost in a larger institution. I have taught elsewhere, in larger, more elite institutions both Ireland and the UK. I can honestly say some of the smartest students I have taught in 14 years have been here at St Mary’s University.

The core proposition of Kennedy’s article is that university education gives poor value for money in an era when people can research and learn through their own endeavours. That people who want to know about, say, history, can do so by reading the internet. A sort of home-school higher ed. In theory, Kennedy is correct. In practice, she’s missing the point and real value of university education.

University education encourages people to think differently, beyond what they thought was possible, or acceptable. Academic staff and the wonderful people who support tertiary learning, guide and push students towards knowledge, and to reflect on what and how they learn.

The line in the article that made me genuinely sad was this: “We joylessly and fruitlessly engage in the accumulation of education we don’t value or use.” If the writer’s experience of higher education was joyless, then I feel very sorry for her. It is true that some people do find education joyless. I’m sorry for them too, and I suspect that they chose the wrong course. This is a flaw in the system, and one that I would change given half a chance: due to funding priorities, it can be very difficult for somebody to get out of a course that is not for them.

But my sense from talking to students over many years, from all kinds of backgrounds and of all abilities is that the vast majority find their degree an enjoyable, difficult, rewarding experience.

Can we “do” higher education ourselves? Of course. But most people don’t, and don’t want to. If I want to learn how to play tennis, then I can watch youtube clips to learn topspin technique, and I can bang a ball against the wall for hours to practice. But a true understanding of the game can only be gained through playing with other people: this is where you learn tactics, quick responses, new strokes. And hiring a coach? She’ll push you well beyond what you think you’re capable of.

Is higher education too expensive for students? Yes it is, especially in the UK. But it is expensive at the point of deliver because since the turn of the century, governments have decided that the purpose of education is to serve industry. This is one way to see education, but not the only one. Higher education is not synonymous with vocational training, nor should it be. And we accept without question that the GCSE and A-Levels (or for that matter the Junior and Leaving Certificates) are not vocational qualifications. Why should it be assumed that university education be a direct training for industry, easily measured in usefulness? Is it because students pay so much? Well, if so, then the value for money narrative is one that has been constructed by government policy. It is not a measure of inherent value.

Indeed, this attitude has influenced parents and students to think of higher education as any other commodity, something that can be easily evaluated by a “value for money” calculation. Utilitarian approaches undermine the whole experience of higher education. By this measure, nobody should ever study drama, or English literature, or Classics. There are few requirements these days for expert knowledge of Greek mythology.

The real value of higher education is much more difficult to quantify. It lies in the quest, the divergent pathways taken, the development of self-knowledge, the skills to acquire further knowledge, a critical understanding of working with other people, assessing new ideas, challenging them, having the time and space to think and engage critically with information, knowledge and people, and to develop a love of something, a passion for something, even if for only a few years. It is the joy of having time to push your boundaries, and to be guided in doing so. That has value, and it is about time that society and government policy recognized this inherent value.

“Where do we go from here?”: #MLK50

king memorialIn August 2011, 48 years after the March on Washington, the African American poet Maya Angelou dedicated a poem to Martin Luther King, Jr to mark the unveiling in Washington D.C. of the new memorial to his legacy.

The opening lines of ‘Abundant Hope’ remembered King as a prophet, a saviour:

The great soul
Flew from the Creator
Bearing manna of hope
For his country
Starving severely from an absence of compassion.

Martin Luther King

Angelou was born on 4 April 1928, and today marks what would have been her 90th birthday. Between 1968 and her death in 2014, she shared her birthday with the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The death of King devastated her. She had first met him in 1960 and had collaborated with him and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on various civil rights projects. After his death, she refused to celebrate her birthday, and instead marked the anniversary by sending flowers to Coretta Scott King, with whom she remained close until King’s death in 2006.

Angelou’s devastation at King’s murder was felt across the United States. His assassination at the Lorraine motel on the evening of 4 April 1968 was followed by outrage from civil rights leaders, and riots in 110 cities across the country. In Washington D.C., the site of the massive march in 1963, over 20,000 people took to the streets in anger and frustration, looting and burning large parts of the inner city. Stokeley Carmichael, the former president of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee who later espoused black power militancy, warned reporters: “When White America killed Dr. King, it declared war on us. We have to retaliate for the execution of Dr. King.”

King had arrived in Memphis, Tennessee on 3 April, and had delivered a searing speech at the Mason Temple in the Washington Heights district of the city. He was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, who had been protesting poor conditions and wages for almost two months. This was indicative of King’s radical turn: exactly a year before his death he had made a controversial public statement against the war in Vietnam, and by 1968 he was preoccupied by the economic disadvantage that African Americans continued to face despite the Civil Rights legislation passed in 1964 and 1965. He had spent two years pressurizing the government of Lyndon B. Johnson to pass a fair housing bill. To the eyes of conservatives and racists, all of this seemed to confirm that King was a communist.

Indeed, in the years prior to his assassination, King was deeply unpopular. In 1966, Gallup measured his popularity amongst the American public: 32% positive versus 63% negative. In the midst of the Selma controversy in March 1965, King appeared on the cover of Time magazine: the depiction was of an angry black man, in stark contrast to the statesmanlike portrayal a year before when Time named him Man of the Year.King Time

Years later, during the debates about whether to institute a federal holiday in honour of King, Senator Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) attempted to block the passage of the bill by accusing King of “action-oriented marxism”, of espousing the “official policy of communism.” And there was a kernel of truth to Helms’ accusations: King was a radical. He was attempting to upend the systemic inequality within American society. The danger of remembering King as a prophet, a saviour, is that we risk de-radicalizing his memory. This is made all the easier by a national holiday that remembers King’s contribution as ‘service.’ The most recent misuse of the memory of King was during the Superbowl interval in February, when Ram used King’s voice in their advert to sell trucks. “In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the ad people tell us, “Ram truck owners also believe in a life of serving others. They serve because they’re driven by a higher calling. They serve because they feel a shared responsibility and commitment to their family and community.” Conservatives like Helms have got their way: the memory of King is not of the radical preacher who sought to undermine the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” Instead, his memory is preserved in the aspic of 1963, when he had a dream.

The monument to King’s memory in Washington D.C. does very little to counter that saccharine version of his legacy. In Lei Yixin’s design, a great white King looms up over the Tidal Basin, overlooking a series of decontextualized quotes that emphasize humanity, justice, peace, loyalty and love. This forms a comfortable narrative that allows King to be accepted as an establishment figure, completely consistent with the mythology that America is like the arc of the moral universe, and will bend inevitably towards justice. This is the version of King that allowed Bill O’Reilly to claim in 2016 (with goodness knows what authority) that King would not have marched with the Black Lives Matters protesters. It is a simplistic version of a complex man, who spent his final days criticizing the government for their war in Vietnam, campaigning for fair housing provision and for labour rights for sanitation workers. King understood that change would not be given easily: it had to be forced.

In his address to the SCLC convention in August 1967, King tried to answer the question, “where do we go from here?” His answer questioned the very foundations of the American project:

“‘Where do we go from here?’ that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”

Maya Angelou’s recollection of King in her 2011 poem is a rose-tinted one. She deliberately forgets the animosity shown towards King when she writes:

All creeds and cultures
Were comfortable in
His giant embrace
And all just causes
Were his to support and extol
Through sermons and allocutions
With praise songs and orations

In his remarks at the delayed dedication of the King memorial in October 2011, Barack Obama got much closer to describing a more real King:

“We forget now, but during his life, Dr. King wasn’t always considered a unifying figure. Even after rising to prominence, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was vilified by many, denounced as a rabble rouser and an agitator, a communist and a radical. He was even attacked by his own people, by those who felt he was going too fast or those who felt he was going too slow; by those who felt he shouldn’t meddle in issues like the Vietnam War or the rights of union workers. We know from his own testimony the doubts and the pain this caused him, and that the controversy that would swirl around his actions would last until the fateful day he died.”P1010002.JPG

He continued: “Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination.”

So, today we remember Maya Angelou, rising with an abundance of hope, and Martin Luther King, Jr, whose vision of change for African Americans still has a way to go.


#Takeaknee: lessons for Donald Trump in heritage and respect

“We have a great country. We have great people representing our country, especially our soldiers, our first responders, and they should be treated with respect. And when you get on your knee, and you don’t respect the American flag or the anthem, that’s not being treated with respect. This has nothing to do with race. I have never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race, or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.” Donald Trump, in an interview with CNN, 24 Sept 2017.

In the last 48 hours, the President of the United States has been picking a fight with NFL players. Specifically, he has criticized the practice that some players have adopted of kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at the start of a game. In August 2016 San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began this #takeaknee protest in order to bring attention to the Black Lives Matters movement, and to protest killings of black men by white police officers. According to Kaepernick, he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Of course, when Mr Trump says “this is not about race”, he is deliberately ignoring that this is all about race. In doing so, he adopts an ahistorical stance of colour blindness in order to disempower black Americans who protest against ongoing discrimination through economic, political and social systems that are structurally racist.

I’m struck by the timing of this recent outburst by this president who staunchly refuses to engage in any meaningful way with the history of the nation. Sixty years ago, in September 1957, Mr Trump’s predecessor President Dwight D Eisenhower struggled with an escalating situation in Little Rock, Arkansas. At the start of the school year, on September 3rd, nine students arrived at Central High School in Little Rock in order to being the process of desegregation of the school in line with the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs Board of Education three years earlier. Met by throngs of protesters, and opposed by Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, the black students were turned away from the school amid fears that widescale riots would break out. When Eisenhower eventually sent the 101st Airborne Division (without its black soldiers) to Arkansas, he explained the move as one designed to enforce the orders of the court, not as something that should be interpreted as indicating his position regarding integration or segregation. The crisis was never fully resolved: the riots petered out, but the students were verbally and physically abused during their time at Central High. Eisenhower’s official explanation for sending in the troops was that he wished to avoid anarchy; but everybody (including him) knew this was about race. Eisenhower had the good sense to never utter those words: “it’s not about race.” But then Mr Trump is no Eisenhower.

Ten years before Little Rock, in April 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play for a major-league baseball team since the 1884 season. The grandson of slaves, Robinson was probably the most talented American athlete of all time. At UCLA he excelled at track, baseball, football and basketball. He served with honour in the military during World War II. Years before Rosa Parks, he refused to sit at the back of a military bus, and was court martialled (and acquitted) for his opposition to an authority enforcing rules that were patently unfair. Despite his success, he was taunted and racially abused throughout his career in major league baseball. Signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he faced racial taunts on the baseball diamond and in the press. In 1949 he played with two other black players on the All-Star team, the first time an All Star team was desegregated. Those players were also given lockers in a secluded part of the locker room; they showered separately from their white teammates. It was clear to Robinson that desegregation did not mean equality. Writing not long before his death in 1972, Robinson revealed his attitude towards the national anthem and the flag:

As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made. Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography (1972)

Donald Trump sees the flag as universal: in his “colour blindness” he does not recognize the historical baggage of that flag and of that anthem. Of course, he doesn’t acknowledge problems with Confederate symbols, so how can we expect him to understand the complex historical relationship between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slaveholders? He should have paid more attention to Frederick Douglass, who he lauded last February as having “done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” In 1852, Douglass’ address to mark the fourth of July reminded his audience of the lack of universality of American national symbolism. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” he asked. The answer, he suggested, was “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license… your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery…” To think that key national celebrations — the fourth of July, or Thanksgiving — hold an inherent universality is to misunderstand all of American history.

There are deep divisions in the American experience. The symbols of nationhood have long been used to cover those differences, to convince Americans that theirs is one progressive story. But this is an ahistorical notion, promoted now by an ahistorical president. Donald Trump chose a rally at Huntsville, Alabama as the opportunity to attack NFL players following in Kaepernick’s wake. Trump used his platform to denounce this protest as a “total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.” Alabama is still a highly segregated state. Huntsville is still a highly segregated city. A more historically sensitive president might have chosen to steer clear of criticizing non-violent protest in a state where the civil rights movement escalated in December 1955, through the leadership of Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. That is the heritage of Alabama: racial segregation, and non-violent protest against it.

But Donald Trump is a modern know-nothing. Ultra nationalist without any understanding of the nuances of nationalism, embracing a “colour blindness” which allows him to deny pervasive problems of racism, and an ahistorical proponent of a “heritage” that is neither shared nor universal. You might not agree with the NFL players’ protest, but the #takeaknee protest is precisely in line with a strand of American heritage. Respect that.