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Too ‘wretched’ for a visa?: a brief history of immigration policy in the US

In 1883, Emma Lazarus published a sonnet called The New Colossus. Influenced by a renewed interest in her own Jewish ancestry, and spurred on by the influx of thousands of Jews fleeing Russia after the anti-semitic crackdowns of 1881, Lazarus articulated a vision of an America that was a safe haven, a place of welcome where those who had been oppressed could find freedom. Twenty years later, the words of Lazarus’ poem were affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty, a statue that became the symbol of immigration, the welcoming symbol for immigrants on ships heading to the Ellis Island processing centre that opened in 1892.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In 2010 President Barack Obama quoted Lazarus’ sonnet at the end of a key speech on immigration reform, but leaving out the line about the ‘wretched refuse’. Commentators at the time wondered whether this was a deliberate omission, or simply a blunder in recitation. Either way, it should make us think about the ways in which US immigration policy struggles to square the mythology of ‘give me your huddled masses’ with the reality that many of those seeking entry are perceived by the political class, and by the wider population, to be ‘wretched refuse.’ That mythology exploded this week when President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning entry to the US by nationals (including dual nationals not holding a US passport) from a list of ‘wretched’ countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia.

Signed on Holocaust memorial day, Trump’s executive order seems to fly in the face of what America means for those who seek refuge from persecution in their own countries, as well as for those who see the US as a place to create new economic futures for themselves and their families. But none of this is new. In fact, this is just the latest effort by a US administration to decide who is ‘deserving’, and who is ‘wretched refuse’. Just over fifty years after Lazarus penned her poem, the US turned away thousands of Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis. In 1882, the year before the poem was published, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, putting a 10-year moratorium on immigration of Chinese labourers. This was a racist measure justified by a perceived economic imperative. For Chinese people already living in the US, travelling outside the country was fraught with uncertainty, in case they would not be able to re-enter. Sound familiar?

In truth, while Americans tell themselves that the nation was built by hardworking immigrants who brought prosperity and modernity, the reality of immigration law is quite different. Since the inception of the state, governments have tried to figure out who is ‘deserving’ and who is too ‘wretched’ to be a desirable immigrant. In defining nationhood, and belonging, American administrations targeted what Stanley Cohen called ‘folk devils’ by fashioning moral panics around the perceived threat of immigration. The folk devils these days are Muslims, or as the Trump administration says, people from specific Muslim-majority countries which are deemed suspect (notably not Turkey, or Saudi Arabia though). Certain kinds of Muslims are just too ‘wretched.’

But however the US wishes to cast itself as a haven for the poor and tired masses, its history is as much one of exclusion as inclusion. In the early republic, moral panics were initially visible through the rules negotiated around naturalization. Before 1790, a mere two years of residency were required for naturalization. By 1795, after the peace had been concluded with Britain, this increased to five years. In 1797, politicians seeking to ensure that only the wealthy could be naturalized proposed a $20 tax on naturalization certificates. This proposal failed, but in the following year Congress passed the Naturalization Act and the Alien and Sedition Act, which established a 14-year residency requirement for naturalization, and made it easier to criminalize and deport any immigrants who criticized the government. Alexander Hamilton, himself an immigrant, declared in support of the Acts that

“…[F]oreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners… The influx of foreigners [will serve to]…change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities.”

Forty years later, during the administration of Andrew Jackson, a prominent anti-slavery advocate warned against the dangers of Catholic immigration. Writing about the promise of Westward Expansion, Lyman Beecher (father of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe) appealed to his fellow Americans not to allow the republican spirit of the West to be tainted by the corruption of Catholic immigrants. As Irish and Italian immigrants sought entry for economic opportunity, Beecher deemed them too ‘wretched’ to be part of the American nation. Incidentally, it is interesting that President Trump has chosen a portrait of Andrew Jackson to hang above his desk in the Oval Office: Jackson was a populist who pursued a sustained policy of Indian removal, helping to ensure that America defined itself primarily as a whiteman’s nation.

Thomas Nast’s anti-Irish cartoons captured this anti-CaNast.jpgtholic immigration sentiment, as it continued to rise mid-century. The National Party, or the Know Nothings, reflected this in the political arena. Their nativist policies would be at home on Breitbart; they were essentially the Tea Party of the 1840s. Their America was a Protestant one. In the words of their leader Thomas Whitney:

“Religion, patriotism, and morality have been the foundation stones of our success as a nation, and our happiness and prosperity as a people. These foundation stones were laid upon the rock of a stern Protestant faith, and their fruits have been all that our institutions promised: civil and religious liberty… But the foundation is being removed, and the rock upon which it was laid is in danger of being undermined. Imported infidelity is supplanting the religion of our fathers.”

Replace ‘Muslim’ with Catholic in the spirit of the Know-Nothings, and you have the key to today’s moral panic and folk devils. Things escalated during the Mexican war, with prominent opponents of the war framing their opposition in racist terms. America should not seek to annex parts of Mexico, they said, because (in the words of Rev. Theodore Parker), Mexicans were “a wretched people; wretched in their origin, history, and character.” President Trump may have stolen his election slogan from Ronald Reagan, but he stole his position on Mexico from Theodore Parker.

The aftermath of the Civil War opened up more questions about who constituted the citizenry of the nation; eventually the 14th amendment recognized that all people (including former slaves) born on US soil are citizens. But simultaneously, new colour lines were drawn. Even Frederick Douglass, prominent abolitionist, saw immigrants as the enemy of free Blacks who were vulnerable to being enslaved. Writing in 1855, he complained that

“Every hour sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room perhaps for some newly arrived immigrants, whose hunger and color are thought to give them a title to special favor.”

At any rate, only immigrants deemed to be ‘white’ were allowed to become naturalized citizens. Propaganda about the “Yellow Peril” targeted Chinese immigrants who had mostly settled on the west coast, and the Exclusion Act of 1882 and the so-called Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 clearly indicated that Asiatic people were not part of the American ‘nation.’ State and territorial legislation restricted Chinese and Japanese rights to own property, and a landmark Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) reaffirmed that people from India were not eligible to become naturalized citizens (even though, ironically, the court acknowledged that they were ‘Caucasian’). this decision would hold until 1946.

The assassination of President McKinley provided an excuse for emergency crackdown on suspected anarchists. The passage of new legislation through Congress was facilitated by the rise of eugenics. In 1911, prominent biologist, statistician and eugenicist Charles Davenport bemoaned the impact of immigration from south and eastern Europe:

“The population of the United States will… rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape and sex immorality. And the ratio of insanity in the population will rapidly increase.”

Sound familiar?

Laws in 1901 were followed up in 1917 with the Immigration Act of 1917, which was a resoundingly nativist piece of legislation. In particular, it targeted Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe who were tarred with the label of communism. A waiver to the law exempted Mexicans, perhaps ironically given today’s political climate; businesses in the Southwestern states relied heavily on immigrant labour, especially in a war economy.

After the war, immigration quotas were introduced, which disproportionately favoured western European applicants and disadvantaged people from Asia and Latin America. Much has been written about the isolationism of the ‘America First‘ movement, spearheaded by noted anti-semites like Charles Lindburgh. We know a lot about Japanese internment during World War II, after generations of silence. japanese internment.jpgMarking Holocaust memorial day, somebody has been tweeting the names of Jewish refugees who were turned away from the border in 1939, and died in work and death camps. They were too ‘wretched’ to be accommodated in a US which would only two years later organize its war effort around Roosevelt’s ideas of Four Freedoms.

The next major developments in immigration policy came in 1952, when the Immigration and Nationality Act abolished racially-based restrictions, although it kept quotas based on national origins which, it was hoped, would control the immigration of ‘undesirables’ who would taint American democracy. Critics of the bill claimed (rightly) that it would give prefernce to immigrants from northern and western Europe. The co-sponsor of the bill, Senator Pat McCarran (D-NV) was eager to maintain the national origins controls, arguing that

“..this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.”

Although the 1952 Act opened the door to increased Asian immigration, the numbers remained low. Seeking to veto the bill, President Harry S. Truman said

“We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries–on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again.”

The key piece of legislation that people are talking about in the context of current developments is the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. This was a major departure from previous policy, and radically overhauled the ways that immigration quotas were decided. For the first time, national origin and race were eliminated from immigration decisions; labour became the defining issue. In fact, the 1965 Act specifically made it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of race, echoing the terms of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Fifty years after the 1965 Act, it is clear that the legislation did not have the consequences that were intended. But this piece of legislation established a principle of non-discrimination in the issuance of immigrant visas, and it is likely that Trump’s Executive Order is in contravention of this law.

The reality is that the US has a troubled history with squaring up the mythology of itself as an immigrant nation, a beacon upon a hill, a refuge for the tired, poor and huddled masses, yearning for freedom, and the reality of a white, protectionist, political system that has used immigration as a wedge issues since the establishment of the early Republic. Donald Trump’s actions must be seen in historical context, in an arc of history that has rarely bent towards justice. This does not mean it shouldn’t, and can’t, be resisted. It will be interesting to see which way the courts go. The US should protect itself from illegal immigration and terror, but this kneejerk, arbitrary and misguided reaction only reminds us of the the mid 19th century, and the Know-Nothings. It’s certainly not by accident that Trump has chosen Jackson as his office-mate.



Home sweet home: homelessness in Dublin, fifty years after the Dublin Housing Action Committee

The current ‘Home Sweet Home’ campaign to force the Irish government to take notice of the endemic problem of homelessness on Dublin streets has captured the empathy of a city. Reading the reports over the past few days, it is clear that there is a public appetite to address an obvious unfairness: the deliberate decision to leave properties vacant while people are homeless on the streets. When these properties, as is the case with Apollo House, belong to the government (or its agency, NAMA) the situation appears even more acutely illogical. It is not without significance that the occupation of Apollo House comes at the end of the celebratory year of the Rising, when we re-told ourselves stories of the bravery of men and women who had a social and political vision for an independent Ireland. Jim Sheridan, one of the celebrity supporters of the campaign, captured the problem within a historic narrative:

We were the first nation in the world to do that and, coming from a famine country where everyone was displaced and had to leave, we think we should be in the forefront of ending homelessness especially in these cruel times of austerity, of banking crisis, of people paying debt.

Indeed, this historic sensibility was a feature of the founding of the Dublin Housing Action Committee fifty years ago (1966 was also a commemoration year) against the background of rising homelessness, lengthening waiting lists for social housing, and the apparent contradictions between the promise of the Proclamation and the delivery of a social vision for justice within an Irish Republic. One wonders whether the Home Sweet Home campaign might finally deliver on the state’s promise to cherish its children equally, and to realize the social justice that we often attribute to the foundation myth of the state. If it does, then it might finally provide a resolution to problems that have been fifty years in the making.

In 1968 and 1969 a small activist organization called the Dublin Housing Action Committee grabbed headlines in much the same way: their protests and occupations against the spiraling problem of homelessness were framed within a language of historical responsibility. The roots of the crisis, like ours now, lay in events several years before. The tenements of the early 1900s were mostly gone, but housing provision in the city was still well below contemporary standards. Matters deteriorated rapidly in the summer of 1963, which was one of the wettest summers on record. Flooding caused numerous houses to collapse, almost all in areas traditionally associated with traditional ‘tenement’ dwelling. On both sides of the Liffey, fears increased regarding the safety of old houses. Housing shortage became so critical that the Dublin Health Authority acquired a section of Griffith Barracks to house homeless families.

When the Housing Act of 1966 was signed into law, the government’s priorities in housing matters became clear. Already in the pipeline since the Housing Act of 1962, the 1966 Act declared government incentives for citizens to purchase their own homes. This was a move away from state responsibility for housing provision, and effectively called upon citizens to make provision for their own accommodation. Government-backed loans would be offered to help families (the basic constitutional unit of the state) to purchase homes; the expectation was that these measures might provide adequate incentives for families to move out of the city centre and into family homes in the suburbs, without having to resort to adding their names to lengthy local authority lists in the hope of acquiring social housing.

By 1968, housing protests had escalated. Protests and arrests gained media attention. In September that year a group, heavily influenced by Sinn Fein, protested outside the Shelbourne hotel to highlight the ways that the Republic had failed to deliver on its promise to free the working people of the nation:

Our freedom has not yet been won, that the 26-county “Republic” declared in 1949 is a sham. Ireland cannot be free until her whole wealth is under the control of the organized working people of the whole country. To achieve this we must sweep aside the present administrators of money-grabbing politicians and their foreign monopolist bosses.[1] [italics in original]

The new Lord Mayor of Dublin, Frank Cluskey, attempted to meet with a deputation from the DHAC in August. But the problem remained that Minister Kevin Boland remained intransigent on the issue. In fact, apart from the Minister, the whole country was obsessed with the issue of housing towards the end of the year. In his presidential address to the annual conference of the Association of Municipal authorities of Ireland, Dan Spring stated that ‘the provision of houses was one of the most pressing matters for all councils’[2]; RTE’s Seven Days program invited Fr Michael Sweetman to show them around what he considered to be the worst parts of Dublin (they were unable to broadcast the footage because it was deemed to be too upsetting); Kevin Boland was plagued by questions from deputies in the Dail regarding plans to address the lengthy housing waiting lists.

Frustration grew. At a Conference of Dublin’s Homeless, held in November 1968, a resolution was passed stating that squatting was the only resort left to homeless people.[3] This was a direct challenge on private property, designed to test Article 41 of the Constitution requiring the state to protect the family. On 17 November Denis Dennehy, a key organizer of the DHAC, moved his whole family into a room at 20 Mountjoy Square. The property belonged to a prominent Dublin businessman and member of the Georgian Society, Ivor B. Underwood; it had been left vacant for some time, possibly in the hope that its conditions of use could be changed from residential to commercial. On 16 December, Mr Justice Butler ordered the Dennehys to vacate the premises, or find themselves in contempt of court. Reporting the case in its January issue, The United Irishman concluded that ‘despite the grand language of the Sacred 1937 constitution, a working-class family counts for nothing against the might and majesty of landlordism in Ireland.’[4] Dennehy refused to leave: on 3 January, he was imprisoned for contempt of court. In protest at his arrest, he went on hunger strike.

There is no doubt that the timing of the incident was carefully choreographed: January 1969 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the first Dail. On 20 January, one day before a civic reception was planned to commemorate the anniversary, Lord Mayor Frank Cluskey sent a telegram to Taoiseach Jack Lynch, appealing for

the release from prison of Denis Dennehy to his wife and children on humanitarian grounds, as a tangible token of our acceptance on the great occasion we will commemorate tomorrow and of the princibles (sic) espoused on that occasion.[5]

Since Dennehy was in prison for contempt of court, neither the Minister for Justice nor the Taoiseach could intervene on his behalf. Notwithstanding this, the commemoration held on 21 January at the Mansion House in Dublin was interrupted by a veteran of the 1916 Rising, who used the occasion to highlight the perceived hypocrisy of the government. Una O’Higgins-O’Malley, daughter of veteran Kevin O’Higgins and member of a well-connected Irish political dynasty, wrote to Lynch the following day:

The wrong elements may be being used for the wrong motives but the truth is that far too many people are living in sub-human conditions and the children of the nation are very far from being cherished equally. (I do not question the validity of the High Court decision in the case of Mr. Dennehy – but rather the position which gave rise to all this).[6]

Significant marches were organized in mid-January in support of Dennehy. In fact, the Dennehy hunger-strike was the single most important consciousness-raising activity undertaken by the DHAC. Not only did it increase popular support, it also galvanised support from external groups: opposition politicians, students, the unions, the Dochas Society, all called for his release. A statement from the Cooperative Society, Dochas, summed up the mood of protesters:

A housing crisis exists in Dublin, despite all the good work of Corporation officials… What happened to Denis Dennehy on the eve of the first Dail’s 50th anniversary must never be allowed to happen again. The gaoling of homeless Denis Dennehy should be the last indignity that we allow the homeless to suffer.[7]

More radical voices also came out in support of the Dennehy protest. A group calling themselves the ‘Irish Exiles Association’ placed a picket on the Irish embassy in London: they threatened violence if Dennehy was not released from prison.[8]

The eventual release of Dennehy in late January, and the publication of a new Housing Bill the following March, marked some degree of success for the DHAC. The main purpose of the Bill, in the words of its accompanying explanatory memorandum, was to ‘secure more effective control over the demolition or change of use of houses.’ The Bill also attempted a more precise definition of a ‘habitable house’ as ‘one which in the opinion of the housing authority is reasonably fit for human habitation or is capable of being rendered so fit at reasonable expense.’

While the Bill did not offer total control over the demolition of sound houses, it did represent a softening of the establishment’s position regarding the housing issue, and demonstrated at least some willingness to consider the most significant concern of the DHAC. It was not enough for many activists. Demonstrations continued until late 1969, but the focus of attention began to gravitate north as violence escalated in Derry and Belfast. The antics of Hilary Boyle, a 70 year old grandmother who chained herself to the railings outside City Hall in November 1969 did not attract the same level of attention as Dennehy’s hunger strike.[10]

And now, almost fifty years later, activists are resorting to the same kind of tactics (consciousness-raising, occupation) in order to raise the profile of the capital city’s homelessness. The obvious disconnect between the promise of the founding period of the state and the delivery of the ideals of the republic continues to capture the public imagination. Commemoration comes with expectation. Half a century after its ‘Just Society’ platform, Fine Gael still struggles to balance social justice with political imperatives. The occupation of Apollo House is the latest attempt to force successive governments to prioritize people over profit.

[1] This was the language from a DHAC membership bulletin, in issues of the United Irishman from mid-1968 through 1969.

[2] Irish Independent, 18 September 1968, p. 7.

[3] Irish Independent, 18 November 1968, p. 13.

[4] United Irishman, January 1969, p. 10.

[5] Cluskey to Lynch, 20 January 1969, Dept. of the Taoiseach, NA 2000/6/423.

[6] O’Higgins-O’Malley to Lynch, 21 January 1969, Dept. of the Taoiseach, NA 2000/6/423.

[7] Irish Independent, 21 January 1969, p. 9.

[8] Security briefings, 20-24 January 1969, Dept. of the Taoiseach, NA 2000/6/423.

[9] For example, Seamus Costello, a local councilor in Bray who was involved with the Dublin Committee and the Bray Housing Action Committee, joined the INLA and was shot dead in 1971.

[10] Correspondence, Hilary Boyle to Jack Lynch, October-November 1969, Dept. of the Taoiseach, NA 2000/6/423.

Musings on democracy

It has been interesting to see the cries of outrage in the newspapers since Thursday’s ruling by the UK High Court, which affirms that the Westminster parliament is obliged to make the decision on the UK’s exit from the EU, in accordance with the constitution. Almost all of the negative reaction to the Article 50 judgment has pitted the ‘people’ against the ‘judges’, casting the judiciary as an establishment that is somehow determined to thwart the will of the people. The Daily Mail ran the most outrageous headline accusing the judges of the High Court of being ‘enemies of the people’. This indicates a fundamental misunderstanding, or mischaracterization, of the role of the judiciary in the British constitution, and it also reveals a real misunderstanding about the place of the ‘people’ in the British political system.daily_mail

Tensions between ‘the people’ and a more remote political elite are not new. These tensions are escalating, though, as economic alienation, changing demographics, and rampaging nationalism increase the gap between the promise and the delivery of the social contract that underpins the ideal of democracy. What is new is the idea that the will of the British ‘people’ is sacrosanct. Unlike Switzerland, and even neighbouring Ireland, referenda are rare here. The will of the people is moderated through an electoral system and a constitutional arrangement which has traditionally emphasised that democracy, UK style, is far from direct. To suggest otherwise in a constitutional monarchy, supported by parliamentary democracy and an unwritten constitution, is ludicrous.

Across the Atlantic, in the cradle of modern democracy, the will of the people is similarly moderated through a complex set of voting regulations. The promise of direct democracy plays out in every electoral cycle through ballot initiatives, caucuses and primaries, and Americans have a system of recall, in which elected officials (including judges) can be recalled or impeached if they transgress their constitutional duties. Yet even from the foundation of the state, direct democracy has been limited, to mitigate the risks that a tyranny of the majority might pose. This was a particular preoccupation of James Madison in The Federalist Papers, and the architecture of the US constitution is designed around periodic consultation of the people (elections) and balances between the will of the people, of special interests, realpolitik and the branches of government. The promise of American democracy has never been one of direct democracy, or even participatory democracy.

This last concept was popularised in the 1960s by the Students for a Democratic Society, one of the key student groups of the New Left ‘movement’. Their manifesto, The Port Huron Statement, outlined a proposal for participatory democracy, which they argued was the opposite of a ‘politics without publics.’ The Statement, written in committee but principally drafted by Tom Hayden, complained that in the ‘American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.’ Tom Hayden died last week at the age of 76, just over two weeks before the US general election which has positioned the ‘people’ against its enemies, the special interests of the state. Donald Trump’s blunt messaging makes a lot of sense to people who feel that the system is confusing and privileges these special interests. But his candidacy also reflects the ways in which irresponsible business interests and the political system are intertwined. If Americans think that by electing Donald Trump, they are somehow going to wrest control back within a system that was never designed for their voices to be heard, then they are going to be disappointed, even if he is elected.

The problem is outlined in detail by Noam Chomsky in his recently released documentary Requiem for the American Dream. Available now on Netflix, the documentary allows Chomsky to communicate quite dry and complex ideas about the American system in a very accessible way. Chomsky’s searing message is that the mythology of the American dream has always been about exclusion: of the ‘people’ from politics, of specific marginalized groups (especially people of colour). It has always been a system that favoured business over people, even to the point that the Supreme Court declared that corporations could be treated as ‘people’ under the law. Chomsky reminds us that in representative political systems, the voice of the people is only heard periodically (as Madison explicitly suggested it should be) and it is curbed by the system itself. In the American context, the vote has been compromised so often in history that it is very debateable whether the US has ever really been a functioning democracy in the true sense of the word. Even now, systems of power ensure that the voices of the ‘undeserving’ (read: criminal) remain unheard. When we worry about the numbers of dead people still on the voter registration lists, we should pause and think of all the citizens in the US who cannot be on the voting lists because they have been stripped of their citizenship through criminalization.

Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary 13th (also available now on Netflix) explores this theme in detail. Prompted by Michelle Alexander’s excellent book, The New Jim Crow (2010) DuVernay’s scholars, experts and activists piece together the ways that the political and corporate systems work, and have worked for generations, to exclude large numbers of people — especially people of colour — from the body politic. Tracing the exclusion of African Americans from voting during the slave period, Reconstruction (through convict-leasing) and the Jim Crow era, the documentary makes three compelling arguments. First, that the systematic criminalization of people, and communities, of colour has left them disconnected from the mainstream of American society, or from what we might call the American dream. Second, that the positioning of these communities as ‘other’ creates the conditions in which black lives do not matter, because they are perceived to be inherently criminal. Thirdly, that there is enormous political and economic profit to be made from this exclusion. Watching the story of how an organization called ALEC brings together political and business interests in order to develop legislation that will guarantee the profiteering of the now privatized incarceration sector in the US makes one think of the SDS concern about ‘politics without publics’. It calls to mind Madison’s fear over the primacy of special interests in the political sphere.

But the extent of the problem is almost too much for the mind to process. It is certainly impossible at this stage to solve it without wholesale change, in which money interests lose out. So, it is unlikely to happen without totally re-writing the rules. It is true that Hillary Clinton represents this inherently unfair system. But it is also true that Trump represents this system: his ‘outsider’ status only holds true if you believe that politics and business are not in cahoots with each other. DuVernay and Chomsky remind us that they are, and that this collusion between business and legislature, upheld by the courts and essentially written into the DNA of the constitution, thrives upon the exclusion of the people, especially people of colour and poorer people.

But who are the people? And who are the ‘enemies of the people’? The phrase conjures up Robespierre who declared, in justification of the Terror in 1793, that nothing but death would be good enough for the enemies of the people. It recalls Nigel Farage’s boasting that the referendum result in June was a victory for the ordinary decent people (whoever they are). The problem is that there is no such thing as ‘the people’. It is a useful construct for representative democracy, which relies on the periodic engagement of voting citizens in a system that seeks to keep them as far away from power as possible. The job of the justices of the High Court was to define the obligations of the parliament in the context of the constitution. They did that, and the government is following constitutional process by appealing. But the real enemy of the people is the system itself. Will getting out of Europe change that? Or will we find that with no other system to blame, we recognize that the problems are much more difficult to solve?

New season of Gender and History in the Americas at the Institute of Historical Research

The Gender & History in the Americas seminar at the Institute of Historical Research will begin its 2016/2017 programme on Monday 3rd October. Full details for this academic year will be available at very soon.

In the meantime, please join the convenors and regular attendees on Monday 3rd October for our first session: a roundtable discussion on Hillary Clinton, gender and the US election. Professor Iwan Morgan (UCL), expert on the US Presidency, and Dr Sylvia Shaw (University of Westminster), socio-linguist with expertise on gender and language in political institutions, will share their perspectives on an election campaign which continues to be uniquely ‘gendered’. 

The event takes place at 5.30pm at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London in room 204, Senate House North Block. All are welcome to attend and to join us for drinks and dinner afterwards.

Please share this on relevant mailing lists, or with colleagues and students who may be interested in attending.

You Say You Want a Revolution? Will You Settle For Some Nostalgia?

Last Sunday I went to see the new exhibition ‘You Say You Want a Revolution: Rebels and Records, 1966-1970’ which has recently opened at the V&A. For students of the 1960s, like me, this has been much anticipated, although with equal measures of hope and anxiety. As Alexis Petridis wrote in the Guardian a few weeks ago, the V&A’s treatment of the end of a ‘radical decade’ is not particularly revisionist. The curators Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes give us a rollicking ride through the more notorious happenings of the 1960s. In the words of Martin Roth, the Director of the V&A, the aim is to frame the counterculture in a way that “shows the incredible importance of that revolutionary period to our lives today”. But by maintaining the focus on the music and the ‘rebels’ of the decade, there is little real room for critical thought about the ways that music and rebellion were often uncomfortable bedfellows. After all, this was also the period when the modern music industry was born, and anti-establishment figures like Bob Dylan profited greatly from a new music capitalism and the cultural appropriation of African American musical genres. This is not to say that the exhibition is badly organized, or badly curated: it is not. Quite the opposite: it is a completely immersive experience of music and 60s nostalgia, and it is thoroughly enjoyable. But if you say you want a revolution, well, it doesn’t really give you that.

The first thing to say is that the exhibition is sponsored by Levi’s and Sennheiser. The product placement is everywhere. If one of the legacies of the 1960s is the monetization of what Tom Wolfe called ‘radical chic’, then the V&A have captured the sentiment perfectly. Several corridors before you get to the entrance of the exhibition space proper, a V&A assistant gives you a pair of Sennheiser headphones, and once they go on, you enter into a totally individual experience, with few points of communal reprieve. My wife Fiona was with me, and as soon as she put on her headphones she blew me a kiss goodbye from the tips of her fingers. Well, it wasn’t quite as final as that, but if we wanted to exchange any commentary as we walked around, we had to yell at each other. As we walked towards the entrance, stories of community and shared experience streamed through these personal headphones, a strange contradiction between the notional shared trip of the decade and the isolation produced by Sennheiser.

On Sunday afternoon, the V&A was already busy. The exhibition space itself was packed. As you enter, the first section is an assault of nostalgia: perhaps unsurprisingly, Beatlemania reigns supreme, and there is an impressive selection of handwritten Beatles lyrics and notes. Of course, all of this coincides nicely with the London opening of Ron Howard’s new documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week: a veritable cocoon of sixties nostalgia. An array of LP covers juxtaposed with paperback novels attempts to set the ideological tone of ‘revolution’. All the usual suspects are there: Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Marcuse. Not many women: the exception is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which shares a display case with Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, symbolizing an ideological mishmash that we often forget was part of the youth experience. John Peel’s musical soundtrack is fabulous, but everybody was on their own individual trip (as Ken Kesey might have said), bopping to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel or clips from Radio Caroline or Radio Tiger, ‘the radio that listens to you.’ I felt controlled by the curation: the music transitions as you move from one part of the space to the next. It is relentless. It is inescapable. To paraphrase Kesey again, you are on the bus and you can only get off by throwing off the Sennheiser.

Around the corner in the next section, a large poster of a Blow Up magazine cover, featuring Vanessa Redgrave, reminds us how the 60s generation continues to occupy a significant place in today’s cultural imagination. While Redgrave kept her radical and left-wing credentials, many others did not. Most of the hippies grew up and got jobs in the new corporations of the 1980s. Jerry Rubin of the Yippies became a banker. Tom Hayden of SDS went into mainstream politics. In the Guardian, Polly Toynbee asked whether the baby boomers brought revolution, or neo-liberalism: the display of the first Barclaycard credit card is perhaps a nod to the answer. Not far away from the V&A, the gentrification of King’s Road is a testament to the failure of revolution.

There is no denying that the exhibition is slick. It is beautiful. It holds over 350 items, including album covers, books, posters, letters, clothes, furniture. It is incredibly impressive in its breadth, and it is visually impressive. There were some things that I hadn’t seen before. In the Psychedelic section, a poster for the AntiUniversity of London reminds us of a time before mass-availability of education raised the technocratic university to an art form.


Against the strains of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, I could hear well heeled ladies in their sixties discussing which of the wide array of albums they owned. Ravi Shankar, Syd Barret, Black Widow’s 1970 Prog Rock album Sacrifice. Album covers are placed alongside iconic novels of the era: Hunter S. Thomson, Erich Von Daniken, the Children of Albion’s Poetry of the Underground, Theodore Roszak’s Making of a Counterculture. The maleness of it all is overwhelming. The women, in keeping with almost all narratives of the 1960s, have their own space towards the ‘end’ of the decade, alongside the gay rights section, and near the black power section. This is a classic sixties: the ‘identity politics’ that emerged towards the turn of the decade. It was an international movement: Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Angela Davis and her raised fist: the movements that transcended and sought to undermine borders. This is further underscored by materials relating to the student movements in France and Germany, accompanied by the wonderful soundtrack of Claude Nougaro’s Paris Mai.

Two of my favourite objects are in this part of the exhibition. The first is Huey P Newton’s throne, immortalized by Sam Durant’s famous photo. I have seen reproductions of the photo hundreds of times, but the empty chair was striking.

Credit: American National Biography Online

The second item that really caught my eye was the papier-mâché figures of Lyndon B. Johnson and a Vietnamese mother and baby, which was produced and used by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. No photo: there is a strict no camera policy.

The rest of the exhibition asks us to think about the ‘defining moment’ of the 1960s. Is Robert Poole right when he says that the space programme was the ‘defining moment of the twentieth century’? Did Al Aronowitz get it right when he wrote in the New York Post that Woodstock was ‘probably the single greatest moment of the sixties’? Festivals, the space race, the Oz trial, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup: idealism gives way to consumerism. The ‘recreation’ of the Woodstock festival space is the only part of the whole exhibition that is designed to be experienced communally: time to ditch the Sennheisers, sit on bean bags and experience images and sounds of Woodstock via huge cinema-style screens. Country Joe’s anti-war anthem was accompanied by karaoke lyrics, but I think it was just me and a couple of old guys who were singing along. By the time we arrived at this point, all the bean bags were already occupied. Some people were having a better version of the sixties than others.

The experience ends as it begins, with a nod to the Beatles. Or at least, with the remnants of a split Beatles. John Lennon’s Imagine plays unironically at the end, juxtaposed by newsreel catastrophe: Donald Trump, Wikileaks, the Paris attacks, Police brutality and #blacklivesmatter in the US. Did these things start in the sixties? Are they the legacy of the ‘excesses’ of the decade? Or did the revolution simply not happen? Even as the screens remind us of the important legislative changes (civil rights laws, the Equal Pay Act, decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality, among others) we are painfully aware that we are nowhere near the alternative that Lennon imagined. And as we emerge into the shop at the end, we could hear the woman ahead of Fiona say to the assistant, as she handed her Sennheisers back, that the whole experience was exhausting. It was. Relentless, immersive. But really worth a visit. #RecordsandRebels

Autobiography, women and movements for African American rights: a list

This is a bit of an experiment. I’m currently writing about autobiography, protest and gender in the Civil Rights, and Civil Rights-related, movements of the 1950s-1970s. I am particularly interested in female-authored texts, and so far my main targets have been Elaine Brown, Anne Moody, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, JoAnn Robinson and Winson Hudson. My plan is that over the next couple of years I want to work through a project to  examine the ways that women activists saw, and continue to see, the act of writing about their lives as an act of continued protest. There are many texts that I already know, but many others that I do not. I’m open to considering any variation on ‘life narrative’, at least at the outset, so I’m eager to hear of poetry collections, edited collections, and even fictionalised first person accounts by activists. The best thing to do at the start of these kinds of projects is to make a list, and so I’m going to start the list here. I hope others will add to the list in the comments section.

Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power (1992)

Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968)

Angela Davis, An Autobiography (1974)

Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography (1988)

Afeni Shakur (with Jasmine Guy), Afeni Shakur: Evolution  of a Revolutionary (2004)

Winson Hudson, Mississippi Harmony: Memoir of a Freedom Fighter (2002) [with Constance Curry]

Constance Curry (ed.), Hands on the Freedom Plow (2010) [not strictly an autobiography, but a series of autobiographical sketches]

Judith Rollins, All is Never Said: the Narrative of Odette Harper Hines (1995) [an oral history, recounted to Rollins]


10 books by women to read before you start a History degree

Since Fiona de Londras posted her 10 books by women to read before starting Law School, I’ve been thinking about how to narrow down some reading suggestions for students who are due to start university degrees in History over the next month or so. In truth, many of the books on Fiona’s list could easily be recommendations for history students, and the reality is that the overlap is large between the disciplines of history and law. At least five of Fiona’s suggestions fall into the genre of historical fiction. Although not a new genre, historical fiction has become really popular in recent years: Toni Morrison, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters and many others have demonstrated how historical research and fiction can so successfully bring stories of the past to new audiences. The arbitrary lines between ‘expert’ historian and master of fiction have never quite been clear, but are becoming even more murky as history becomes more accessible and agreement on what ‘history’ is becomes less fixed. Hayden White’s position on historical writing as interpretation of the ‘real’ rather than production of a ‘truth’ is much more mainstream in history writing (especially outside the academy) than it was when he first invoked literary characters in his critique of historical dogma in his 1966 article, The Burden of History. Historical narrative can be fiction, and fiction can be historical narrative.

I must confess that I’m not a huge fan of the kings and queens literature of Gregory and Mantel, and much more interested in the grittier stories brought alive by authors like Waters. As it turns out, my list includes none of these three, and instead suggests some slightly less mainstream fictional, semi-fictional, autobiographical, and scholarly texts that I think will provide students of history with a sense of what is possible in thinking, writing and imagining things about the past. It is not intended to be a definitive list: if you have other suggestions, please use the comments box to add to the list.

1. Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005)

Caroline Elkins’ controversial account of the British response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for nonfiction. It also earned her  widespread criticism for the way she used ‘unconventional sources’ like oral testimony, and the way she questioned colonial official accounts of the ‘savagery’ of the Kikuyu. The Guardian recently ran an excellent review of the book, including  the fallout. For budding historians, this is an excellent example of a book that created debate and forced re-evaluation of assumptions we make about empire, the value of official sources, and the erasure of certain kinds of voices in the stories we tell each other about the past. Elkins does not write dispassionately: her style conveys her anger about imperial atrocities that were covered up for years. For undergraduate students, who are often overly-preoccupied with what they call ‘bias’, this is a great example of how historians can take a political position while producing an important and thought-provoking discussion about the past.

2. Annette Gordon-Reed: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997)

When this Pulitzer prize-winning book came out in 1997, it shattered the efforts of generations of historians who attempted to ‘protect’ the reputation of Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the USA and noted slaveholder. Gordon-Reed, a lawyer by training, set out to build a case that the liaison between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings could have existed, and to question the reluctance of historians to give credence to the story over the previous two centuries. It is a critique of historiography, a criticism of the ways that histories preserve myths, and the architecture of historical research that privileges the voices of ‘great men’ over those deemed less important. Through a series of biographical portraits, Gordon-Reed helps us to see Jefferson and his environment through contemporary eyes, and to examine the assumptions we make about the character of ‘untouchable’ figures in history. Gordon-Reed’s prose is sharp, insightful and engaging: this is a book that sucks you in, and then makes you spit out all of your preconceived notions of what we accept to be possible, or plausible in the lives of historical giants.

(Gordon-Reed spoke at one of the Gender and History in the Americas seminars that I co-run at the IHR: you can dowload the podcast of her talk here)

3. Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996)

One of Canada’s most important authors, Margaret Atwood writes extensively about the condition of women and how we can assess the strengths and weaknesses in our society through the experiences of marginalized women. In this novel set in the mid 19th century, Grace Marks is imprisoned for life for the double-murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The key theme of the book is imprisonment: Grace is metaphorically imprisoned by her condition as a woman, her view of the world is restricted even before she is sent to prison, and of course she is physically imprisoned for much of the book. Set in an era when prison reform was becoming an important political issue, Grace’s story is told in her own voice, and through the voice of a fictional doctor who is researching conditions in prisons and asylums. This is based on a true story, but with a heavy dose of fiction, and the constantly changing voices challenge us to question what we actually know: the book is an excellent example of how the historical imagination can go beyond the ‘true’ and represent the ‘real’.

4. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

I read this book as an undergraduate as part of a survey course on the 19th century US. I must confess that I didn’t like it much as a book; it’s not terribly well written, and I found the main character Tom really quite unsympathetic. But this is an extremely important book that draws together lots of the narratives of antebellum US history. Stowe was the daughter of famed preacher Lyman Beecher, and sister of Catharine Beecher who was the ‘inventor’ of what became domestic science. An abolitionist, women’s right advocate, and social reformer, Beecher Stowe became internationally famous as her book became a bestseller. It personalised the condition of slavery, and although radical abolitionists thought it was too conservative, it was a useful propaganda tool to galvanise support for the anti-slavery movement. Stowe was keen to prove the historical veracity of the book, and even published a ‘key’ to the book, mostly to respond to criticism that her description of the horrors of slavery was fictional and had no basis in real experience. Whatever the flaws of the book, it was the most influential book on slavery in the years before the Civil War, and it also demonstrates the ways that American women reformers were able to establish themselves as political actors in a system that continued to deny them political autonomy through suffrage.

5. Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince: Life of a Slave (1831)

Before there was Solomon Northup, Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Jacobs, there was Mary Prince. Born into slavery in Bermuda, Prince spent years working on the salt flats in Grand Turk, before eventually having to leave her family in Antigua and come to London with her owner. Even though slavery was not legal in England in the 1820s, her owner refused to release her from slavery. Without independent means, it was extraordinarily difficult for her to leave her enslaved position. Her story follows the style of what we call ‘slave narratives’, a certain kind of autobiography which gives the account of a slave’s family origins, early life, life as a slave, and then eventual escape from slavery. Slave narratives (including Prince’s) were usually published by anti-slavery societies, who would use them as a way to increase support for the abolition of slavery. This book is important for several reasons: first, it is the first account of the life of a female slave, related by herself. In an era when women’s voices were easily silenced, and when Victorian ideals around womanhood and respectability largely excluded non-white, and especially enslaved, women, the fact that this book was a bestseller in England in the 1830s indicates a shift in the way women’s voices were being represented in the public square. Secondly, it is easy for us to think about slavery as a phenomenon specific to the United States; set mostly in the Carribean, Prince’s tale explores the experiences of slaves outside of the archetypal ‘plantation’ system. Finally, her story highlights the informal ways that slavery continued to exist even after abolition: Prince could leave and be ‘free’ in London, but was for a long time constrained by lack of means. And she could not return to Antigua without being re-enslaved; freedom in England simply did not translate well back to the Caribbean. This is a salient lesson: it is easy to assume that a legal position on rights (abolition of slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights) solves inequality; Prince’s story reminds us that custom often outweighs law.

6. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Hurston was a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, and is often eclipsed by her more celebrated male contemporaries, like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Alain Locke, and Claude McKay (many of whom criticised the book). This is a mistake. Her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie, a light-skinned African American woman in Florida who struggles with her identity as woman and free, as the slave system is dismantled, but ‘freedom’ remains elusive. Janie just doesn’t fit anywhere: she is perceived as too white, or too black, and her sexual conduct challenged the ‘racial uplift’ movement which advocated that African Americans would ‘prove’ their social and political worth through positive engagement with the economy and embracing respectability. The book is great: it is challenging, and thought provoking, and forces you to think about the ways that identity is shaped by external conditions.

7. Martha Freeman (ed.) Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman 1952–1964 An Intimate Portrait of a Remarkable Friendship (1995)

I first came across Rachel Carson when I started studying the protest movements of the 1960s, and read a book about the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson was a scientist whose research into the environmental damage of pesticides like DDT eventually contributed to the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US in 1970. Carson had died by then, of breast cancer probably caused by her constant exposure to chemicals. Her most famous book Silent Spring, published just over a year before she died, changed the conversation about environmental responsibility. I’m not recommending that book as one of my 10, but instead this collection of letters between Carson and Dorothy Freeman, the woman who may have been her lover, and was definitely her love. Over years, Carson and Freeman exchanged thousands of letters, some of which Freeman shared with her husband so that he would understand her relationship with Carson. For historians, letters are wonderful. The intimate details revealed in these letters (published by Dorothy Freeman’s granddaughter in 1995) give unique insight into a story of the past that so often eludes us. Freeman and Carson destroyed hundreds of letters before Carson’s death, but even this partial collection is a wonderful example of how letters can help craft beautiful narratives of the past. Goodness knows how long this will last; how are we to deal with a historical future where intimacy will be deleted with the transience of e-mail, facebook and snapchat?

8. Emma Donoghue, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002)

I bought this book primarily because I enjoyed Donoghue’s earlier books Hood (1995) and Stir-fry (1994), both coming-of-age and coming-out novels set in the Ireland of the 1980s and 1990s that I grew up in. I expected The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits to give me more of the same. It did not. A historian by training and fiction writer by profession, Donoghue gives us a collection of short stories which revolve around historical ‘oddities’ in Scotland, Ireland, England and even Italy, from the 1400s to the end of the nineteenth century. Using recorded historical episodes (like the story of Mary Toft, who became notorious in 1720s England for giving birth to 18 rabbits) Donoghue mixes realism, fantasy and history to create a tapestry of the past that is alive and malleable. Not to spoil the story, but Mary Toft’s story was a hoax. Originally Donoghue was going to call the collection Histories of Nothing: the book reminds us that for most of history, the most interesting things that happened were the nothings.

9. Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

Many years ago, one of my students undertook a final year dissertation on Civil War photography, with a focus on the work of Matthew Brady. One of the things he found fascinating was the ways that Brady would re-arrange the battlefield in order to make the photo more aesthetically pleasing, or to imply victory or loss had occurred in a particular way. My student was intrigued that photography was not ‘real’, and that the presentation of an image of the past was no more ‘true’ than a text created about the past.  Sontag’s book on photography grapples with these kinds of questions, exploring the connections between truth, reality, image, and history. Look, it’s not a history book: it’s full of theory, and examples of photography, film and image, and it is a challenging read. The book is a collection of essays, each dealing with variations on the theme. But it is a wonderful book, and challenges the ways that we think about representations of the past. And Sontag’s writing is exciting.

10. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

I first read this as an undergraduate, and it was probably the first book I ever read about women’s frustrations with social constraints. Friedan was not the first to write about such things: Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe was published in 1949 and is arguably a better discussion about attitudes towards femininity and the political marginalization of women in the post-war era. But Friedan’s book appeared at a time of social and political change; the reaction to the book was not universally positive, but it provided a language to a new generation of college-educated women who were increasingly unhappy at their suburban lives that were sanitized and disconnected from the kind of fulfilment they craved. I could have picked Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch here, or Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (both published 1970) but Friedan’s classic manifesto is a must-read. It claims to be the cri de couer of a whole section of womanhood in the 1960s, but in reality it fails to represent the voices of poor women, women of colour, or non-heterosexual women. But it is accessible in ways that Greer and Millett’s manifestos are not, and it continues to be a useful springboard for today’s young women to think about the genesis of the kind of feminism that many now find quite suspicious.