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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.”

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.

The ‘woman issue’ in the last US election

On Monday evening I spent a lovely evening in the company of an old friend at the University of Lincoln, who had invited me to participate in a Historical Association roundtable on the 2016 US election. He originally asked me to offer perspectives on race and gender, but in the end I only talked about gender. There’s a lot to say about gender and the US election. In fact, although a lot was said about women and gender in the course of the campaigning, the reality is that for an election featuring the first female major-party presidential candidate, the election cycle didn’t have much impact on the number of women in national politics. So why did this conversation about women and politics, and more broadly women in the US, not translate into real change in the political landscape?

Across US political life, women make up about 20-25% of the overall representation in elected offices. At federal level, this is a little lower: after the 2016 election just under 20% of the House of Representatives, and 21% of the Senate are women. For all the horse-trading, total numbers of women in the House dropped from 84 to 83 in the new Congress. Organizations like Emily’s List have been pushing for more gender diverse selection in the Democratic primaries. In the aftermath of the election, their workshops and training sessions experienced unprecedented attendance by women who were prepared to run in the next cycle.

There were some notable wins for women in November, particularly in the Senate. The Centre for American Women in Politics (CAWP) is a great resource for tracking the election of women at federal and state levels. Kamala Harris (D-CA) became only the second African American woman to sit in the Senate (and the third woman of colour); Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-NV) also took seats in the Senate, to bring the total number of WoC ever to sit in the Senate to five. Five, in the history of the Senate. Only 50 women have taken seats in the Senate since the franchise was extended to women in 1920.

This is significant because we often think of the Senate as the cradle of the presidency. The chamber has variously been described as “the mother of Presidents,” “the Presidential incubator,” and “the Presidential nursery.” This language of mothering stands in stark contrast to the historically male nature of the Senate. In historical terms, though, very few Senators have ever transitioned directly from the chamber to the White House: the only three are Warren G. Harding (1920), John F. Kennedy (1960) and Barack Obama (2008). Many Senators have come to the Presidency via a more indirect route, for example via the Vice Presidency. Hillary Clinton’s stint as Secretary of State should, therefore, have made her a much stronger candidate than she was in 2008. It did, but in the end it was not enough to push her over the line.

Looking at the coverage of Clinton’s loss in the aftermath of November, the general consensus is that she lost because of the interplay of four factors: she was perceived as untrustworthy, perceived as too ambitious, seen as part of an oligarchy/dynasty, and – perhaps most importantly – perceived to be “unlikeable.” Her campaign lacked the ideological buzz generated by Obama and Sanders, but she was fighting a campaign on several fronts: her ability to use her extensive track record was hampered by her need to also run against her own past. And as the Atlantic put it before the election, she was also fighting the fear of a female president.

All of this was accentuated via the rally chants of “Lock Her Up” (often led by now-fired Mww2_2ichael Flynn) and Trump’s use of the “Crooked Hillary” label that stuck. Of course, the idea that women are inherently untrustworthy is not at all new. It was most clearly expressed in popular culture during the Second World War, as the War Department and other government agencies produced propaganda to warn against sharing military information with women who might gossip and inadvertently pass it on to the enemy. The received wisdom is that women are gossips, and so they are untrustworthy and dangerous. This was particularly accentuated in an era when women were pushing against traditional gender boundaries, also a feature of Clinton’s campaign.

The focus on Clinton’s e-mails, and use of an unsecured e-mail server, confirmed this ww2_3sense that women were untrustworthy. The “gossipy” nature of many of the leaked/released e-mails further indicated that Clinton’s self-presentation as a qualified, hard-nosed politician simply masked her gossipy, vain womanliness.

The perception that she was untrustworthy was also a legacy of her husband’s sex scandals. In a 2008 article in the Yale Law Journal, Julia Simon-Kerr explores the ways that the legal system has generally hinged women’s credibility or honour on her moral integrity and sexual virtue. Simon-Kerr concludes that “while our cultural definition of sexual virtue has shifted drastically since the 18th century, and even since the initial enactment of the rape statutes [in the 1970s], the idea that a woman’s sexual virtue bears upon her credibility is still present today.” For one group of American voters, Clinton’s sexual virtue was compromised by her decision to support her husband through scandal, and her excoriation of her husband’s accusers (especially Lewinsky); for another group, her virtue was undermined by her inability to be sufficiently ‘woman’ in order to keep her husband from straying.

It is not a coincidence, then, that the “lying Hillary” myth emerged at the same time as the sex-scandals of the mid 1990s. Her own morality, and so her credibility, was undermined by her husband’s immorality. When William Safire’s “Blizzard of Lies” column appeared in the New York Times in January 1996, he cast Hillary as an over-ambitious woman who was pushing a suspect political agenda alongside her husband’s infidelities. Often identified as the root of the idea that Hillary is a congenital liar, the Safire column cannot be divorced from a narrative of morality/credibility.

In 2016 this took on a surreal significance, given the obvious capacity for pathological lying displayed by her Republican opponent, and fact checking of Hillary’s statements that showed she was really quite honest, for a politician. But where Trump’s lying provoked disbelief, and often cartoonish or comic effect, for Clinton the e-mail scandal simply confirmed a 20-year old mythology. False equivalence was attached to her e-mails (disclosed by the FBI), for example, and early evidence of his ties to Russia (which the FBI chose not to disclose in advance of the election).

This false equivalence is part of a wider phenomenon that holds women in politics to a different set of standards. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation’s “Keys to Elected Office: Essential Guide for Women” indicates that women still have to be more qualified than male counterparts, but must also establish themselves within a language of family. Every time Clinton began a sentence with “as a grandmother,” she was playing by the rules.keys

The results of Pew research analyzing the likely behaviour of voters (pre-election) and attitudes (through exit polls) reveals major differences in the ways that men and women saw the historical significance of the election, and in the “likeability” factor. The research also indicates that Clinton did not get the expected “woman bounce.” Women supported Clinton over Trump by 54% to 42%. But this is approximately the same as the Democratic advantage among women in 2012 (55% Obama vs. 44% Romney) and 2008 (56% Obama vs. 43% McCain).

There is not, and never has been, such a thing as a woman’s voting block. Delays in extending the suffrage to women can be partly explained by this fear that women would all vote in the same way. For example, the dominance of women in the Temperance movement suggested to the alcohol industry that a vote for women would be a vote for prohibition. Once the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified in 1919, alcohol interests no longer funnelled money into blocking the women’s vote. The fear of a monolithic vote amongst women was never realized. Gender was not the defining factor explaining women’s vote for Clinton, although it may have been a significant factor in why men did not vote for her.

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.

Front cover of the Daily Mail, 4 November 2016.

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]