On the first weekend of September we were privileged to travel to the Camugnano region half way between Florence and Bologna where we were hosted by our dear friends Franco and Marinella at their “Casa in Campagna”. This is a beautiful foothill area in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna, and is north of Tuscany where we are situated. They bought half of an old farm house 14 years ago and transformed it into a beautiful hide away. They are in the village of Carpineta and their neighborhood is called Le Piazze. In Le Piazze they have gotten to know all their neighbors and pass many hours eating, drinking and conversing with a diverse set of friends some of who have roots back generations in Carpineta.
On our first night we met Anna Montanari and Arnaldo Morelli, both very engaging human beings. Anna is over 80 and has led a fascinating life of struggle and commitment to the working class and the left. She has worked in the rice fields of Emilia Romagna (Here and Here), among many other jobs. In her latest job she made tagliatelle and we hope to see her again for a taste of this wonderful homemade pasta. While we were with her over the weekend she made “Friggione”, a mysterious but delicious mixture of onions, tomatoes and a small amount of lard with sale-e-pepe.
Anna’s companion is Arnaldo Morelli, a retired cement mason and active poet. He is a poet in the regional dialect of Emilia Romagna – Romagnolo – His work has been recently published in a book entitled Vosi Da E Bur or in Italiano Voci dal buio (Voices from the darkness). The poems are in Romagnolo with side by side translations in Italian. The translations are necessary for Italian speakers because except for a few words, “non si capisce niente di Romagnolo” (One doesn’t understand anything of Romagnolo) These are beautiful sensual poems that describe natural wonder and are inspired by everyday events. For example, Arnaldo was inspired by Christina’s exotic appearance to write a poem the evening he met her. We would later learn from Arnaldo that Romagnolo is best read aloud because of its natural rhythmic cadence.
The phenomenon of dialects or distinct regional languages within Italy is important to understand. It wasn’t until 1871 that Italy became Italy with the capital in Rome http://www.italianlegacy.com/brief-history-of-italy.html. Until then the peninsula and Sicily and Sardegna were city states with their own language and culture. While national government, commerce and especially TV, radio and newspapers have homogenized language, dialects still remain important and are spoken often, although not exclusively, by the older generation.
Although how old is old? I remember vividly my trip during Christmas of 1971-72 to the region of Puglia in the southeast on the heel of the boot. I was accompanying a fellow student at the Universita di Firenze, Joseph “Pepino” Scarola who was from Dumont, New Jersey. Pepino was born in the village of Grumo in Puglia and at the age of 12 had moved with his family to Dumont. Therefore at the age when he would have begun to study Italian “standard” he was wrested from his village in Italy and began studying English in the schools in the United States. When I met him both English and Italian challenged him. He spoke both well but haltingly with accents, and spoke his dialect, Grumese in the home. Sometimes he found himself the target of jokes and barbs because of his language skills, but when we arrived in Grumo, I saw a man transformed. Whe got out of our VW bus to talk with his welcoming relatives, he spoke perfectly, and with great confidence in Grumese, his home dialect. And if we had gone 10 kilometers down the road, the locals wouldn’t understand Grumese!
Certainly such regional differences in speech exist in the US in Appalachia, the bijous of Louisiana and some islands of the southeastern coast being examples. Not to mention the language variations spoken in different urban areas. However usually there is a common understanding, at least on one side of the conversation.
I will never forget attending a memorial for my dear friend Jim Trammel, who died too young in 2002. Jim was a native of Nashville, Tennessee. I went to a service at his hometown church. I met four of his country cousins, white guys from the hills outside Nashville. I spoke with each one of them individually fine, but when they spoke with each other I was unable to understand a word they said.
While common language remains an important indicator of national unity, the acceptance of different languages is an indicator of societal tolerance and advancement. On our trip to Camugnano in Emilia Romagna I was pleased to see that warning signs of high water dangers were translated not only into four European languages (Italian, French, English and German) but also into Arabic, an acknowledgment of the increased presence of immigrants from Northern Africa and the Middle East.
On our last night in Carpineta, Arnaldo insisted on reading Christina’s poem in Romagnolo which was quite musical and charming. It told of a longing admirer passing below a mysterious woman’s window, inspired by her billowing bloomers drying in the wind… Our adventures continue.
What I know about Greece and Greek politics can be put in a thimble, and probably a small one at that. So these observations and questions need that preface. As further preface, it is very difficult to apply lessons learned in the United States to anyplace else without contextualizing them in the new setting. That requires intimate knowledge of what is happening on the ground—so what follows are friendly speculations.
All the political Greek people we’ve met have been warm and hospitable in their welcome to us, Americans whose political and economic structures (government, financial and corporate), along with the European Union, European Bank and International Monetary Fund are largely responsible for the mess in which their country now finds itself. To be sure, there is complicity in past behavior and decisions made in Greece. But it’s not these macro questions that I want to consider here.
We (my partner Kathy Lipscomb* and I) have now met with a public school teacher, taxi driver, waiter (who is also a university graduate in political science), tour guide, night shift security guard and a well known Greek actress ALL of whom blame Syriza (“Who we are” – Syriza) for the current mess, are fed up with politics and politicians (“they are all alike”), and think Syriza (has done nothing for the Greek people or, even worse, point to things Syriza (Here) did (ignore the referendum results), or is doing (see below), that are making things worse.
We have also met with an internationally known political scientist who is active in Syriza, and who is interviewed regularly in various English language left journals, and a Syriza political appointee who is the national coordinator of municipal mayors. The two of them have elaborate explanations for everything Syriza has done or not done. The bad things, in their views, are for the most part the result of constraints imposed upon them by The Troika. They note good things that are done quietly, with no fanfare, under the radar. However, these seem to be so under the radar that none of the other people with whom we spoke mentioned them; indeed they said things that contradicted the claims. Our pro-Syriza informants also indicate that mistakes were made, but they believe these had more to do with Syriza strategy than with decisions that hurt the Greek people.
The clearest example of a bad thing is the story we were told about home foreclosures. There is a high percent of homeownership in Greece. Until recently, we were told, there was an ‘umbrella” that protected a home owner in his/her residence, though it didn’t protect additional property from foreclosure. Syriza, we were told, is responsible for removing the umbrella. Not only that, when the protection was first removed demonstrators appeared at the foreclosure proceedings making it impossible for judgment to be rendered. In response, Syriza made the procedure an electronic one. You now receive an e-mail informing you of the foreclosure as a “done deal”.
Another example we were given, Syriza is further eroding the pensions for which people paid during their work lives. That is a disaster for Greek retirees: there is only a public retirement system. Workers paid 18% of their wage into this system; employers paid 28%. The government has now more than once cut retiree payments.
What is the truth? We are in absolutely no position to tell. I can say with some confidence that not one of these informants was disingenuous; they firmly believe what they told us; none had a pre-disposition against Syriza and, in fact, most of them had been Syriza supporters, and voted for Syriza in the last election. Now, they told us, they either will not, or do not know if they will, vote. And, if they decide to vote, they have no idea for whom that will be.
Is there a way to understand these apparently opposing views of the same facts? There is clearly a participation and perception gap between people we met who were Syriza supporters and those now actively engaged in Syriza. In what follows, I use a framework that I apply in my understanding of what’s going on in the United States. Does the application work? Is it appropriate? I’ll leave that for the reader to decide.
In a democratic and participatory union, workers may decide to strike because the offer being placed on the table by their employer is inadequate. They might conduct an effective strike, and still be stonewalled as far as any improvement in the employer’s offer. At some point, the workers might decide they’ve put up as good a fight as can be waged, and their own economic circumstances are such, or the increasing presence of scabs is such, that they have to end the strike, return to work, build their strike fund again (if they have one), and wait until the next round of contract negotiations to return to the negotiating table from a position of strength. These workers are not likely to blame their leadership for the failure of the strike. The 1948 Packinghouse Workers Union strike is probably a good example of what I’m talking about.
As every American trade unionist who cares about the future of the labor movement knows, what I just described is, for the most part, a memory of the past. It has been replaced by what people call “insurance policy unions”. You buy your insurance policy (pay your dues) and expect your benefits (advocacy—contract negotiations, and services—grievance representation). Thus the common phrase, “What’s the union going to do about ‘x’?” as if the union is a third party—separate from the member asking the question.
What’s all that got to do with Greece, Syriza, and electoral politics in general? It seems to me in the nature of politicians and political parties in formally democratic systems that the party adopts a program, selects its candidates, and then determines a strategy by which to convince citizens to vote for it and them. But “convince” in the modern era is a tricky word because what it really means is to sell buyers (voters) a product (candidates and their program—which might have little to do with what they actually do if elected). At best, during an election a door-to-door mobilization takes place in which the candidate’s volunteers ask voters to support their candidate. Reasoning is not what takes place at the door because the canvassers are instructed not to waste time with opposition and, at best, to spend limited time with the undecided. Campaign imperatives demand this kind of behavior: there is an election that will take place on an already specified date and a majority of voters is required if the candidate is going to win. This imperative makes mobilization necessary and organization unlikely once campaign season has begun.
It is not by accident that this kind of campaigning takes place. The gap between the political parties and their candidates, on the one hand, and the voters, on the other, is huge. More likely than canvassing, it is direct mail, social media and television advertising that are used to reach the voters (the market). In national campaigns this approach is built into campaign structures: campaign consultants, who are the principal operators of campaigns, are paid by a percentage commission on the cost of the medium used for reaching to voters. Door-to-door work gets almost no money because most of the workers are volunteers!
Even in a campaign that is heavily dependent upon volunteer effort, the contact with the citizen is a fleeting one, and the follow-up is typically electronic, not personal except for election-day when the favorable voter is contacted to insure his or her turnout.
Potential voters do not say about the candidates they support, “What are we going to do about ‘x’ (unemployment, student debt, immigration, etc)?” They want to know what the candidate is going to do about ‘x’. The very nature of the campaign process tends toward the separation of “the campaign”—candidates and their inner-circle, donors, leaders of key interest groups (whose members already think of their organizations as third parties), and activists.
The question then becomes, “How deeply rooted are these activists in the day-to-day lives of the various constituencies addressed by the candidate?”
My friend Herb Mills was chairman of a “stewards’ council” in the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). There developed under his leadership a widespread system of elected stewards at worksites. The stewards worked alongside other workers. There was little-to-no gap between them. They were the point of connection between a worker or a “gang” (a working group that unloaded cargo) and “the union”. There was no gap, no “what’s the union going to do about ‘x’?” question.
In my experience as an organizer, “the activists” typically lack the rootedness in constituencies in whose behalf they believe their candidate will, if elected, act. Frequently they are sociologically very different: young, instead of spread across the age spectrum; “Anglo”, rather then reflecting the racial/ethnic diversity of the constituency; college educated, etc. They are people with whom I might agree on a very high percentage of things they believe. But they aren’t people upon whom I would rely to engage in a continuing conversation with the voters after the election, especially if the person elected had to make a compromise that appeared to violate the platform on which s/he had run as a candidate. Thus the activist isn’t likely to be able, over the long haul, to “deliver” at the base.
Is any of this applicable in Greece? People who know that situation far better than I will have to draw those conclusions. I hope the questions and observations are useful.
I suspect that Syriza and its activists lack the kind of rootedness that is required for everyday voters to say about their plight, “What are we going to do to solve the mess we are now in?” Both our Syriza informants told us nuanced examples of how the organization is now supporting things like soup kitchens, community gardens, homeless shelters and other programs and activities to solve the problems of poverty. They also claimed that Syriza had expanded funding for education, and stopped some bad things from happening to pensions. They see Syriza as having an organic connection with the “social movements”. Yet the school teacher and her security guard husband made no connection between their volunteer time spent in a soup kitchen and Syriza. Similarly, other activities we heard about from our other Syriza-critics (retiree organizations and mobilizations, campaigns to save peoples’ homes, worker strikes, etc) do not seem to be viewed as an aspect of a larger movement of which Syriza is a part. Quite the contrary, Syriza is seen as part of the problem, not the solution.
In the U.S. I think there needs to be a vehicle for “we”, and it is not a political party because the dynamics of parties don’t lend themselves to the effective creation of “us”. Is that idea relevant in Greece?
One of our informants said that when her son arrived at the university to begin his studies there, nine different political parties had registration desks where he could join one of them. But there was no registration desk for a student union that enlisted the vast majority of students around a lowest significant common denominator program that represented their values and interests—for example their indebtedness and the almost 50% unemployment rate their age group faces. Similarly, there is no organization in the community that includes mothers’ clubs, soccer teams, retiree organizations, unions, interest groups of various types and others, and new groups that could be formed among the marginalized. Various interest groups engage in protest demonstrations, but only political parties seek to bring them together. Thus there is nothing outside the electoral politics process capable of defending and advancing a program, and effectively demanding of politicians that they implement it.
Is something like that possible and/or desirable in Greece? I’ll wait to hear from them on that question.
*Disclaimer: My partner Kathy doesn’t agree with all that’s said above. These are my views alone.
Readers of Stansbury Forum might want to look at my earlier post, “Syriza Prompted Musings”. For readers who would like to dive further into Mike’s thinking about Greece, write him @ firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for “Reflections on Greece”.
Amid the food booths serving everything from Gyros to Brazilian Churrascaria with plenty of pizza intermixed, the Teatro Falcone was the staging area for a public “chiacchierata”, or chat by Matteo Renzi, the ex Prime minster of Italy, now National Secretary of the Partito Democratico (PD), the largest Party in Italy with 283 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The PD coalesces with other mostly center left parties to garner 394 seats for a secure majority in a Camera of 630 total.
Christina and I were at the Festa de L’Unita to hear Renzi. In many ways the gathering was extraordinary by US standards. The ex Prime Minister (PM) appeared without the presence of armed guards and without any sophisticated pre-screening for a crowd that numbered over five hundred. He spoke alone from the stage without notes or teleprompter to a home crowd of Fiorentini. He engaged the crowd spontaneously with “battute” impromtu and banter with the audience. At one point he compared the improbability of his becoming the youngest Prime Minister at age 39 in 2014 to the seeming impossibility of the home team Fiorentina winning the “Scudetto”, the Italian championship of Serie A soccer/Futbol. His ease with the microphone and back-in-forth reminded me of the skilled and crafty Bill Clinton at his best.
Who is Renzi? Renzi is a local boy made good. Raised in Rignano sull’Arno, a small town in the outskirts of Florence, he was brought up in a strong Catholic political tradition and was a Catholic Boy Scout. A brilliant student, he was also a contestant at 19 on a high profile game show and won 48 million lire (about US$30,000). He also was an accomplished futbol referee in Serie “B” of the Italian Calcio league. At a young age he was elected Governor of the Province of Florence. Than he became Mayor of Florence and by most accounts did some very good things. One among them is the provision of fresh mineral water in many public piazzas. Here in Piazza Tasso we can refill our bottles every day with both “regolare” and “frizzante or gasata”. Renzi became a high visibility leader of the newly constituted PD and wrested control of the party apparatus from Enrico Letta and became PM. In December of 2016 after his first 1000 days he bet his career on the passage of a controversial referendum (Stansbury Forum) that would have reformed the structure of Italian government. In effect he told the voters if this referendum loses, I resign. The referendum lost and as promised he resigned the job of PM. However, now he is campaigning full bore in advance of the regional elections in Sicily that will be a bell-weather for the national elections in 2018.
His commanding performance was in Le Cascine, which is the major recreational park of Florence. This is a public space that borders the Arno and would make Frederick Law Olmstead proud. The Festa de l”Unita is a remnant of the annual festivals in celebration of the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) whose newspaper was entitled L’Unita. The PD has appropriated much of the old membership (especially demographically) of the PCI and also its annual festival. But no longer are there speeches in support of workers struggles and third world liberation; only cultural presentations and dry discourses from local, regional and national PD figures. Renzi was certainly not a dry presenter. The crowd was partisan to him and warmed to his remarks. The demographics of the crowd however were indicative of the challenge of the PD. Christina and I were about the median age of the crowd. I looked around and figured that 45 years ago when I last lived in Firenze, these would have been the “compagni’ presenti” at a demonstration against the war in Vietnam in the main Piazza della Signoria. The crowd was also exclusively white; no immigrants from Africa or America Latina. My wife experienced the lash of an Italian journalist’s racism and sexism when he tried to dislodge her from a press perimeter that was full of Italian men, none of whom were with the media.
The message from Renzi, while spirited, was a defense of his premiership and the premiership of his successor Paolo Gentiloni, also of the PD. There were facts and figures on growth and jobs, all positive, to combat the slanders of the know nothings of the right. While “fake news” or “alternative facts” are problems in Italy, the problems with economic growth, the environment, youth unemployment are also pressing and daunting. The speech was a defense of the status quo somewhat similar to Hillary’s defense of Barack’s record and that of her husband, Bill. The polls are showing that while Gentiloni is the most popular political figure in Italia, the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement led by political outsider and comedian Beppe Grillo) probably will win a plurality of seats in the Camera unless things change radically between now and 2018. The fact-based critique of anti-establishment populism was one major theme of Renzi’s speech.
The other theme was a call for left unity. In February of 2017 a group of PD deputies left the party to form the Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP). MDP has 43 deputies in the Camera and still coalitions with the PD and other smaller parties to form a government, but the MDP is refusing to coalesce with a united list in Sicilian regional elections threatening the center left and potentially throwing the election to the right. Many view the MDP’s abstentionism as a shot at Renzi. If the PD loses in Sicily then Renzi’s brand is damaged, and he will not be in position in 2018 to make another run at the Prime Minister position.
This is a delicate dance that recalls the Sanders ballet within and without the Democratic Party. Certainly the 2018 Congressional midterms pose a similar challenge. To recapture the house for the Democratic Party 24 seats need to be flipped from Republican to Democrat. Many candidates may run on platforms that stand for social justice and anti-corporate values, but not all Democrats will be 100% up to snuff on the progressive measuring stick. Is control of the House worth holding one’s nose and voting for an imperfect Democrat? I say yes. Many Italians of the left face similar choices and challenges.
Next in Saggio #3: A poet in Emilia Romagna writes in his native dialect, Romagnolo.
A key result of the German elections is not that Angela Merkel and her double party, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavarian CSU (Christian Social Union), managed to stay in the lead with the most votes, but that they got clobbered, with the biggest loss since their founding.
A second key result is that the Social Democrats (SPD) got clobbered too, also with the worst results since the war. And since these three had been wedded in a coalition government for the past four years, their clobbering showed that many voters were not the happy, satisfied citizens often pictured by You-never-had-it-so-good-Merkel, but are worried, disturbed and angry. So angry that they rejected the leading parties of the Establishment, those representing and defending the status quo.
A third key story, the truly alarming one, is that one eighth of the voters, almost 13 percent, vented their anger in an extremely dangerous direction – for the young Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, whose leaders are loosely divided between far right racists and extreme right racists. With about 80 loud deputies in the new Bundestag – their first breakthrough nationally – the media must now give them far more space than before to spout their poisonous message (and most media have been more than generous with them up till now).
This danger is worst in Saxony, the strongest East German state, ruled since unification by a conservative CDU. The AfD has pushed into first place with 27 %, narrowly beating the CDU by a tenth of a percentage point, their first such victory in any state (the Left got 16.1, the SPD only 10.5 % in Saxony). The picture was all too similar in much of down-at-the-heels, discriminated East Germany and also in the once Social Democratic stronghold, the Rhineland-Ruhr region of West Germany, where many working class and even more jobless looked for enemies of the status quo – and chose the AfD. Men everywhere more than women.
It is difficult to ignore the history books. In 1928 the Nazis got only 2.6 %. In 1930, this grew to 18.3 %. By 1932 – to a great degree because of the Depression – they had become strongest party with well over 30%. The world knows what happened in the year that followed. Events can move fast.
The Nazis built on dissatisfaction, anger and anti-Semitism, directing people’s anger against Jews instead of the really guilty Krupps or Deutsche Bank millionaires. All too similarly, the AfD is now directing people’s anger, this time only rarely against Jews but rather against Muslims, “Islamists”, and immigrants. They have been fixated upon these “other people” who are allegedly pampered at the expense of “good German” working people, and they blame Angela Merkel and her coalition partners, the Social democrats – even though both have been hastily retreating on this question and moving toward ever more restrictions and deportations. But never quickly enough for the AfD, who use the same tactics as in past years, thus far with all too similar success. Over a million CDU voters and nearly half a million SPD voters switched allegiance on Sunday by voting for the AfD.
There are many parallels elsewhere in Europe, but also on almost every continent. The chosen culprits In the USA are traditionally African-Americans, but then Latinos and now – as in Europe – Muslims, “Islamists”, immigrants. Attempts to counter such tactics with counter-campaigns of alarm and hatred of Russians, North Koreans or Iranians only make the matter worse – and far more dangerous, when countries with giant military might and atomic weapons are concerned. But the similarities are frightening! And in Europe Germany, in all but atomic weapons, is the strongest country.
Were there no other, better alternatives than the AfD for opponents of “staying the course”? The Free Democrats, a polite bunch with ties almost exclusively to big business, were able to achieve a strong come-back from threatened collapse, with a satisfying 10.7 percent, but not because of their meaningless slogans and clever, unprincipled leader, but because they had not been a party to the governing establishment.
Neither were the Greens and DIE LINKE (the Left). Unlike the two main parties, they both improved their votes over those of 2013 – but by only 0.5 % for the Greens and 0.6 % for the Left, better than a loss, but both great disappointments. The Greens, with their increasingly prosperous, intellectual and professional trend, offered no great break with the Establishment.
On the national level dramatic developments may well be in the offing.
The Left, despite unceasingly bad media treatment, should have had a big advantage. It opposed the unpopular national coalition and took fighting stands on many issues: withdrawal of German troops from conflicts, no weapons to conflict areas (or anywhere), higher minimum wages, earlier and humane pensions, genuine taxation of the millionaires and billionaires who rip off Germans and the world.
It fought some good fights and, doing so, pushed other parties toward some improvements, out of fear of Left gains. But it also joined coalition governments in two East German states and Berlin (even heading one of them, in Thuringia). It tried hard, if vainly, to join in two others. In all such cases it tamed its demands, avoided rocking the boat, at least too much, for that might hinder hopes for respectability and a step up from the “disobedient” corner usually assigned to it. It found too seldom a path away from verbal battles and into the street, loudly and aggressively supporting strikers and people threatened with big layoffs; or evictions by wealthy gentrifiers. In other words, engaging in a genuine challenge to the whole ailing status quo, even breaking rules now and again. Not with wild revolutionary slogans or shattered windows and burnt-out dumpsters but with growing popular resistance while offering credible perspectives for the future, near and far. Where this was lacking, especially in eastern Germany, angry or worried people viewed it, too, as part of the Establishment and defender of the status quo. Sometimes, on local, even state levels, this glove fit all too well. Its almost total lack of working-class candidates played a part. Such an action program would seem the only genuine answer to menacing racists and fascists. To its credit, it opposed hatred of immigrants even though this cost it many one-time protest voters; 400,000 switched from the Left to the AfD.
One consolation; in Berlin, where it belongs to the local coalition government, the Left did well, especially in East Berlin, re-electing four candidates directly and coming closer than ever in two other boroughs, while militant Left groups in West Berlin gained more than in older East Berlin strongholds.
On the national level dramatic developments may well be in the offing. Since the SPD refuses to renew its unhappy coalition with Merkel’s double party, she will be forced, to gain a majority of seats in the Bundestag, to join with both the big business FDP and the torn, vacillating Greens. Both dislike each other heartily, while many grass-roots Greens oppose a deal with either Merkel or the equally rightwing FDP. Can those three join together and form a so-called “Jamaica coalition”- based on the colors of that country’s flag, black (CDU-CSU), yellow (FDP) and Green? If not, what then? Since no-one will join with the far-right AfD – not yet, anyway – no solution is visible, or perhaps possible.
The major question, above all, is all too clear; will it be possible to push back the menace of a party replete with echoes of a horrifying past and full of its admirers, who ever more openly want to reincarnate it, and are ready to employ any and every method to achieve their nightmare dreams. And can, as part of the defeat of this menace, such looming dangers to world peace be repelled?
*A possibly interesting side note:
The Left improved its percentage standing in every single West German state, by between 1.4 and 3.4 points, and achieved the 5% mark in every one, often for the first time.
The Left lost in percentage points in every single East German state (by between 2.9 and 6.1 %), especially in the two states where it is the coalition and the one where it had hoped and tried to be.
In Berlin the Left lost 1.0 points in East Berlin (from 29.5 to 28.5), but gained in West Berlin (from 10.8 up to 14.1%) which meant a general gain of 1.3 % (from 18.5 to 19.8%).
This piece ran originally in Witness, which is published by the World Press Photo Foundation, and receives support from the Dutch Postcode Lottery and is sponsored worldwide by Canon.
A little over a year ago, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. For some this was a cause for jubilation, the successful end point of years of campaigning. For others it was a disaster, the triumph of a dark, xenophobic streak in British politics. Whichever it was, the vote was also an undeniable reminder of how fractured the United Kingdom has become, with analysis of the results revealing stark demographic divisions in who voted to leave, and who opted to remain. Shortly afterwards, I was waiting at London’s St. Pancras Station to board a Eurostar to France and pondering how the referendum result was likely to affect even this simple act of travel. As I waited, my eye was drawn to the rows of digital displays hanging throughout the departure lounge. Normally displaying advertisements and train departure times, instead these boards were illuminated with a series of photographic portraits.
This was part of Portrait of Britain, a collaboration between the British Journal of Photography and the digital billboard operator JCDeaux, who came together to display 100 portraits of contemporary Britons on digital signage across the country. The subjects of these portraits last year ranged from representing the well-known to the anonymous, with the likes of Don McCullin and Nadiya Hussain alongside ordinary Britons. Watching them change from one to another, I felt a sense of discomfort with the image of Britain that was emerging from the screens, one which I found difficult to explain. One year later, as a new iteration of Portrait of Britain launches and the Brexit negotiations continue in earnest, that feeling returns strongly enough for me to now attempt to dissect it.
For even a casual student of photography, it is hard to miss the reference Portrait of Britain makes in both title and form to one of the seminal works of documentary photography, August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, published in 1929 as the book Face of Our Time. A commercial studio photographer by trade, in 1911 Sander began this multi-decade project to document the people of inter-war Germany through portraits grouped into a series of thematic portfolios. In the process, he produced a work of social documentary which combined an aesthetic beauty with a remarkable scale. Sander recorded a deep cross-section of German society, from the obviously noteworthy figures of politicians and industrialists, to people at the bottom of the hierarchy, including wounded war veterans, circus performers, artisans, and peasants.
While sometimes seen today as almost naïvely humanist, Sander’s undertaking was not seen in such a light at the time, with the ascendant Nazi regime regarding this expansive image of Germany as dangerously in conflict with its own. The Nazi vision for Germany had little space for the existence, let alone the representation, of many of the ‘types’ that Sander felt it important to document. Consequently, his book was banned in 1934 and many of the negatives were destroyed. Sander spent the next decade undertaking less contentious work, while also compiling a final, secret portfolio titled The Persecuted. Perhaps the most poignant, but least well-known, section of Sander’s project, this addendum includes a photograph covertly taken of Sander’s own son Erich in his cell at Siegburg prison, where he had been interned and would later die for his involvement with left-wing political groups.
Sander also continued to take commercial portrait photographs in his studio, including many commissioned by members of the Nazi hierarchy. One of these taken in 1937 shows a Captain of the SS, standing in front of the Cathedral of Cologne, the city where Sander’s studio was located. Amongst Sander’s oeuvre it is again an image far less seldom displayed than his photographs of pastry chefs or amateur boxers, perhaps because it is one of the most challenging and confrontational of the images he produced. The captain is a perfect representation of Nazism, presenting himself unashamedly before the camera, safe in the knowledge that he and his kind are in the ascendancy. The brazen gaze of this man, and the knowledge of Sander’s own persecution, often make me wonder what inner resources it must have demanded of the photographer in order to take this picture.
Portrait of Britain is clearly making no claim to such comprehensive documentation as Sander, although given that it is drawing on the works of multiple photographers one might think that depicting a truly broad representation of Britain would be a more achievable goal than for one acting alone as Sander did. And yet in contrast to the breadth of Sander’s project, the people who have made it into Portrait of Britain constitute a noticeably narrow cross-section. They are predominantly young, beautiful, multi-cultural, aspirational. This is not in itself problematic, the people depicted are certainly part of the complex patchwork that makes up Britain today. But if these are the people who, to borrow a phrase from JCDeaux’s copywriters, are worthy of being ‘given noble status’ by their elevation to electronic advertising billboards, it seems we should also ask who are those implied to be unworthy of such ennoblement.
One of the privileges of teaching documentary photography is experiencing the world somewhat vicariously through one’s students, learning from them as they return with stories about people and places I have not myself encountered. My students frequently remind me how little I know of my own country, and through them I also become aware of the gaps we have as a nation in our collective, imagined image of ourselves. To speak only of a few of my fellow countrymen who my students have helped me become better acquainted with, I must ask where in Portrait of Britain are the disabled, quietly starving in freezing homes because of cuts to social security? Where are the refugees living on tenterhooks at the expectation of imminent relocation or deportation? Where are the fishermen rendered unemployed by globalisation, marking time by drinking themselves into oblivion? Where are the racists and xenophobes, gathering to unite in their shared hate?
The answer is that these people, like the English Defence League member depicted in Ed Thompson’s photograph above, are largely absent. Some of the selected photographs might touch indirectly on such issues (Claudia Leisinger’s photographs of a Billingsgate fish porter for example, speaks to me quietly of the onward march of globalisation and its impact on ordinary people), but presented on the Portrait of Britain website or on digital displays in shopping arcades and railway stations, they are shorn of such vital context. The reason ultimately being that while it might be clad in the guise of social documentary photography, Portrait of Britain is a commercial exercise for the organisers, and commerce fears nothing quite like a controversial opinion clearly stated. Yet whether we like to acknowledge it or not, these people are as much the face of Britain in 2017 as Stephen Hawking and Dizzee Rascal.
What Portrait of Britain really represents is a problem across the arts at large. In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, with the right seemingly on the ascendancy across the western hemisphere, there has been much discussion of the ways that we have insulated ourselves from reality in echo chambers which resound with reassuring noises, and blanket us from the fact that the alarmist rhetoric of the right finds many receptive and attentive ears. Rather than engage with enormously complex problems like globalisation and immigration, to which there are few simple answers, it has often proven easier for the left to ignore or dismiss those who are disquieted by them. In the process, the arts and even the supposedly mass, democratic medium of photography all too often become echo chambers of their own, perpetuating a comforting but ultimately misleading image of the world, which under the appropriated banner of documentary masquerades as an objective truth.
Photography has a potentially important role to play in helping us to rediscover the sometimes uncomfortable contours of our country, and perhaps also helping to heal some of the scars of the last few years. But such incomplete images of Britain cannot do that, and the tendency to deny and overlook sections of society has played no small part in the fractures and fissures that wrack our country and drive people to the empty promises of the political extremes. August Sander, in the introduction to a post-war reprint of Face of Our Time, wrote that ‘I have been down good paths and bad paths, and I have acknowledged my mistakes…so allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people.’ Today it seems we could badly do with some of the same honesty.
Talking about Detroit the movie, Kathryn Bigelow’s devastating and deeply moving film on the city’s violent summer of 1967, begins with the difficulty in naming the story it tells about the city. In an interview about the film, Bigelow calls it an “uprising”. Among many of my friends and acquaintances it is politically incorrect to call it a “riot”; their preferred terms are “revolt”, “rebellion” “insurrection” or “uprising”. Neither “riot” nor the latter four options work for me, so I’ve invented a few alternatives: “riovolt”, “reviolution” or “uprioting” – take your pick. If Detroit was an uprising/revolt/insurrection/rebellion, then we need different terms for what Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Jemmy, Gabriel and hundreds of other slave leaders did. At a minimum, there is a dimension of planning and targeting in the latter that is absent in the former.
Detroit begins at a party, at an unlicensed after-hours club, celebrating the return of two African-American Vietnam war veterans. In the wee small hours of the morning, the cops raid the place and begin arresting the party-goers. Probably most of the people had more than a few drinks by that time. In any case, initially they were in good humor, trying to tell the cops they weren’t doing anything wrong. Things get out of hand. The cops rough-up some of the arrestees. A crowd gathers around the paddy wagons. A bottle is thrown at the cops. Glass is broken. The cops leave, looking for reinforcement, but the crowd remains. Pent up hostility toward the 95% white and widely known-to-be racist police force is expressed. Windows are broken, looting begins, alarms go off, fires break out, sirens are heard in the distance.
From there things quickly escalate. To reveal them will take nothing from the drama of the movie, so, briefly, here are some: Congressman John Conyers appears and addresses a crowd, acknowledging the legitimacy of their anger but urging them to cease their activities. Windows continue to be broken. In one case, a man runs from a store with stolen property; he is shot in the back. He manages to get away, and crawl under a car. There, blood running from his body, he dies. At police headquarters, a supervising cop calls what happened “murder”. That is the only time we see a specific cop on the side of law enforcement. (While the National Guard, State troopers, U.S. Army paratroopers and Detroit Police are backgrounded as bringing the uprioting under control, the main character cops are engaged in lawlessness.)
Another harrowing scene: a young black girl opens the window curtains in her living room. Scared cops see a gun rather than rustling curtains, and open fire. She is killed.
There is an interlude: The Dramatics, an up-and-coming male gospel turned R & B quartet, is about to perform in a Detroit auditorium when the cops arrive and shut the concert down. The four young men make their way to The Algiers Motel where they join with other young blacks and two young white women. The why of the women’s presence isn’t totally clear: the cops later call them prostitutes (they weren’t); they describe themselves as visiting from western Michigan. One of them says her father is a judge. But how they ended up at a mostly-black motel should be made clearer. One of them helped in the making of the film, and says they were following “a band, an R & B group” they met in Columbus.
An African-American security officer, Melvin Dismukes, is an enigmatic figure in the film. What makes him tick is never made clear. It should have been. On the one hand, he at times appears to go along with the cops at their worst. At other times he’s a careful calculator of the possible in an impossible situation and does what he can to diminish the evil, including saving the life of one young black man. He is so disgusted by the not-guilty verdict in the criminal case against the cops that followed the events at the motel that he vomits.
But, according to the post-incident Citizens’ Action Committee, formed by a group of Detroit black leaders, Dismukes played a role in the murders. In an interview 25 years later, he said, “I had nothing to do with what they [the cops] had done. And to this day I still say the only reason my name was linked with them was to get them off. It would put less pressure on them if they could tie a black person in with it. Now you can’t make it a racial issue.”
“The Algiers Motel Incident,” as the events there came to be known, is a horror story of police intimidation, brutality and murder. I won’t go into the details here. Suffice to say that the Dramatics make their way there from their cancelled concert. Initially, the motel is somewhat removed from the unfolding riovolution. That soon changes. A toy or starter gun (no bullets) is used by one of the men there in a pretended shooting of another man in the room. He falls to the floor in a pretend-to-be-wounded moment. When everyone realizes what’s taken place they laugh. Edgy cops across the street don’t. They assume they’re being shot at. The Algiers Motel Incident follows. It is a grueling, unrelenting, example of law enforcement at its worst. It also captures the power of the worst racist in the group of law enforcement people (state and local police, national guard and a security guard) who invade The Algiers to impose his will on those (except for one) who might otherwise have been unlikely to do what they did to totally innocent people. Three young black men end up murdered by cops.
Bigelow puts human faces on the huge scale of the events that are here summed up statistically: 43 civilians killed, 33 of them African-American; more than 1,000 people injured; over 7,000 arrested; thousands of buildings destroyed, many never rebuilt; millions of dollars in damage.
“It was as if God was saying, ‘I’m going to give you this test, Ike, and let you see how bad people can be, but I’m going to let you live through that,’ ” said McKinnon, who returned to work the next day. “I was never so afraid as those days in July during the riots.”
The mid-to-late 1960s was a season of riovolts. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 prompted dozens of them across the country. I was working in the Kansas City, MO African-American community when one erupted there—clearly provoked by local cops who tear-gassed non-violent marchers. They are scary!
Predictably, none of the cops is convicted in the criminal trial that follows. A civil court case produces compensation for two of the families of murdered young men.
As might be imagined, Detroit provoked strong reactions. Many were positive, and appeared in mainstream media. One white critic is incapable of seeing that an explosion like Detroit’s could happen today. Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody is offended that the film “suggest[s] that, in the intervening half-century since the events depicted in the film took place, little has changed.” Sad to say, there are still cities where police brutality is a continuing problem, and where similar riovolts might well take place. Bigelow sums it up: “These events seem to recur — this is a situation that was 50 years ago, yet it feels very much like it’s today.”
Another, Angeleica Jade Bastien, is angered by what she saw and deserves to be quoted at some length:
“Detroit” is ultimately a confused film that has an ugliness reflected in its visual craft and narrative. Bigelow is adept at making the sharp crack of an officer’s gun against a black man’s face feel impactful but doesn’t understand the meaning of the emotional scars left behind or how they echo through American history. “Detroit” is a hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gives it its title.”
Here are some facts about the “rioters” from a study done shortly after the events by the Detroit Urban League and the Detroit Free Press: “Rioters are different,” begins a survey-based article, “What Sets Him Apart?” Most striking, “Fifty-nine percent of the rioters were between 15 and 24 years old,” and, “60% were male.” They were twice as likely to have experienced long-term unemployment, though there “was no pattern to directly link rioting and low income.” The report finds deep alienation: “rioters profess to shun the American dream.” “Their attitudes “represent a bitter reservoir of resentment…” but there are contradictions: about three-quarters of the respondents “accept the traditional American belief that people with ability and drive get ahead and that people who are unsuccessful in the conventional sense should blame their own mistakes.” The grievances “that were associated most strongly with rioting were of a notably short term nature: Gripes against the local businessmen, mistreatment by police, lack of jobs, dirty neighborhoods, lack of recreation facilities.”
The survey sums up its findings: “These, then, are the rioters: Young people, raised in the North, with little concern for their fellowmen and a frustration in meeting near-term goals—people susceptible to the black nationalist philosophy that the law and order of a white-built society is not worth preserving.”
Editorially, the Free Press concluded, “…if the attitudes of alienated young Negroes are to change, the attitudes of the rest of society must change.” (The entire document is worth careful reading, and can be found here).
These findings fill in blanks missing from the film. It does not provide context for what it so dramatically portrays. Perhaps it is too much to ask from a gripping moment-by-moment account of a brutal series of events. But the viewer who is not already convinced is unlikely to fully appreciate why these riovolutions take place. They are more likely to be viewed as riots, an insufficient concept to understand the events.
An Eyewitness Story:
Ike McKinnon, a Detroit policeman at the time, reminisced about those 1967 events in a Detroit News account of an incident he experienced. He was in full uniform, completing a 16-hour shift, when he was stopped by a pair of white cops. This is what ensued:
“I said ‘police officer. I’m a police officer,’ “They had their guns out. I remember one officer so vividly. He was probably in his late 40s. He had brush-cut, silver hair. He said ‘today, you gonna die (racial slur).’”
It was as if things were unfolding in slow motion, McKinnon said, as he watched his fellow officer pull the trigger. He dove back into his car.
“With my right hand, I pushed the accelerator, my left hand I steered my Mustang, and they were shooting at me as I drove off,” he said.
McKinnon escaped uninjured, drove home and reported the shooting to a sergeant. It was never investigated.
That was McKinnon’s first brush with death during those tense July days, but he said it wasn’t his last.
“It was as if God was saying, ‘I’m going to give you this test, Ike, and let you see how bad people can be, but I’m going to let you live through that,’ ” said McKinnon, who returned to work the next day. “I was never so afraid as those days in July during the riots.”
McKinnon would later become Detroit’s chief of police in the 1990s as well as more recently deputy mayor under Mayor Mike Duggan.
September 7, 2017
My wife Christina and I have settled in to our life here in the San Frediano neighborhood of Florence, Italy. San Frediano is Oltrarno or on the other side of the river from the famous Duomo and the major tourist center of the city. However San Frediano, once a working class neighborhood of artisans and craftsman, was just voted the “coolest” section of Florence by Lonely Planet. The proletarian quarter that gave rise to the post World War II novel of Vasco Pratolini, “The Girls of San Frediano” is now an ascendant super hip zone. This transformation is not unlike the change that has overwhelmed the Mission District in our home city of San Francisco.
Other parallels here in Italia are more disconcerting. Forza Nuova, in shades of Charlottesville, has announced a Marcia dei Patrioti” (March of Patriots) to be held on the 28th of October. That is 95 years from the day in 1922 that 25,000 black shirts from the Partito Nazionale Fascista marched on Rome, forcibly taking power for Mussolini, beginning the twenty-year reign of Il Duce.
Forza Nuova has already been designated twice by the Supreme Court as “nazi-fascist” but continues to gather strength even winning a seat in the European Parliament. The march is being promoted on the internet and financed using PayPal. Fascism is formally outlawed in Italy by the Scelba Law of 1952 so the staging of this march/rally may be in doubt. For example Prato, a working class city in Tuscany, and not far from Florence, just passed a new regulation forbidding demonstrations “that violate national laws against propaganda that instigates racial hatred and the reconstruction of the fascist party”. Fascist demonstrations per se then are violations of the postwar constitution. But groups like Forza Nuova skate close to the edge by disavowing explicit references to a fascist party but nevertheless promoting the values of racial hatred and anti immigrant venom.
Every day the newspapers, particularly those owned by ex Premier Silvio Berlusconi dramatize alleged attacks by immigrants, usually Africans, on Italians, and particularly assaults on Italian women. One recent incident involved the death of a 4 year old Italian girl of malaria because off supposed contamination of a hospital treating refugees from Burkina Faso. Tragedies become opportunities for the far right to denounce the waves of immigrants “assaulting us on the streets and even now in the hospitals.” Here in Tuscany this summer, Samuel L. Jackson and Magic Johnson were vacationing at the beach at Forte dei Marmi. They were captured on film lounging on a bench with bags of Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Social media exploded with angry denunciations of “two African migrants taking advantage of the daily 35 Euro stipend we give them” A new twist on the old Ronald Reagan “welfare queen” slander.
Very sad News arrived in Italy on Tuesday of the Trump decision to eliminate the “dreamers” or DACA program. DACA gives children born in foreign lands but brought to the United States at a young age the right to remain and eventually apply for US citizenship. The Italian Chamber of Deputies passed an immigration reform law in 2015 that would grant “ius soli temperato” to thousands of immigrant children. “Ius soli”, Latin for a right linked to territory or soil, is the existing constitutional right of a child born in the United States to become a citizen. This right does not exist in any country in the European Union. In Italy the latest immigration law of 1992 gave automatic citizenship by “ius sanguinis” or by blood meaning that if one of two parents is Italia then the child is a citizen. The new law of 2015 that must be passed by the Senate would give citizenship to a child born in Italy of at least one parent who has been living in Italy legally for at least five years. However if the legal parent is not from the European Union then there are further qualifications of income, lodging and language.
The new law if passed would impact about 634,592 young people according to estimates from the Leone Moressa Foundation. This is a not insignificant number in a country of 61 million. Passage is not assured however. The law is supported by the Partito Democratico, the largest party in Italy, but the aforementioned neofascist Forza Nuova, and the right wing Lega Nord, both oppose the law in very visible fashion – on June 8th the Lega Nord staged a very raucous demonstration inside the Senate chambers against the “Ius soli temperato”.
More to come as October 28th approaches. Will the march be outlawed? Will the left mount a counter protest? Saggio da San Frediano will continue on The Stansbury Forum
After thinking I was stuck in Miami until Monday, I made it out. Here’s the short take.
I awoke from my short sleep at about 12:30. Still a bit groggy, I headed for what looked to be the most comfortable restaurant that was still open. That was the Irish Pub where my Irish omelet was perfect. Given my plan to stay at the airport for the duration of my stay in Miami, I thought this was a good place to start: comfortable seats, CNN TV, good food, good service. One of the waiters even scoured the restaurant to find an electric power outlet so I could plug in and restore my computer battery. He even looked behind the TV screens. No luck. Oh well.
But around 2:00, it was clear they were shutting down. “Can I hang around here?” I asked. “No, sir, we’re closing” “I’ve got no place to go.” “What? You don’t have a place to stay, and you don’t have a fight?” “No, neither one.” “Let me ask.” That was a combination of my waiter and the manager, both of whom are Latinos—so they talked with one another in Spanish that was too rapid for me to do more than catch a word here-and-there. The manager checked with his boss, also in Spanish. “Sorry, sir, but you can’t stay. But let me see if I can make you some sandwiches.” That was encouraging. I figured my safari in the desert of Miami Airport might be well served with an occasional bite to eat. No deal. “The kitchen is closed.”
Down the hallway of Gate D, however, there was still a Hudson Magazine store open with various packaged goodies. I stocked up: two healthy packages, and my sweet tooth won out on the third.
“What the heck”, said I to myself, “I’m going back to AA customer service. Maybe something is breaking there.” Now, instead of last night’s crew of two counter staff, there were eight. And the line was shorter. And when I got to the counter, lo and behold there was one last flight to Dallas, and there were seats on it and a decent connecting flight to San Francisco. Turns out American Airlines made a last minute decision to put passengers on the flight that was taking their remaining staff out of Miami Airport. So, believe it or not, I’m on a plane with a number of pilots, flight attendants, ground crew, who knows who else from American, and a lucky umber of “civilian” passengers. Further believe it or not: there are at least a dozen empty seats on the plane. The decision must have been made at the last minute to let passengers aboard, and there weren’t that many of us left in the airport—at least at the customer service counter, and they weren’t broadcasting availability.
By 3:30, I was on the plane. But I’ve been here before. “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” says I to myself. To make matters more suspenseful, there were a couple of false starts: first, the doors were shut to the plane—you now the message, “attendants lock your doors and prepare for departure” (or something like that). They did, and they were belted in their seats when they got up and opened the doors. More passengers. Breathe a sigh of relief: people getting on is good; people getting off is bad! More waiting. Pilot announcements that explain: “due to the skeleton air control crew, planes are spaced with 20 miles between them.” Then, “the plane to your left isn’t leaving because it’s too large. But we’re o.k.” Whew! Who knows what “too large” has to do with departures, but I’m glad we’re small.
In the air: I think we took off in an easterly direction, then banked to the south, then headed west. In any case, the sky was beautiful. Puffy cumulus clouds look like marshmallows stacked in the sky. Below, an archipelago: I didn’t realize there were so many small islands of the coast of Florida. Below us, Miami is bathed in sun. Skyscrapers line the east coast, and there’s a lot of water in Miami itself. Who knows what it’s going to look like in 24 hours.
More stories from yesterday.
In the first line I waited on, the one with people who had dogs in kennels and baggage too large to take on board, a woman behind me was scheduled to depart for London in a couple of hours. Initially we were a trio in line having a conversation: a young woman who had a Chloe size dog in a kennel; the London-bound woman, probably in her 60s, and me. When the rate of movement in the line made it obvious she would miss her flight if she waited her turn, she asked us if we minded her moving ahead. It was fine with us. I watched her ask the same question to every couple of people in front of her; nobody objected. She inched up the line to the counter. The kindness of strangers; I’m sure she made the gate on time. I hope the plane left.
“Me First” people
At the gate where we got kicked off our 9:30 pm scheduled San Francisco departure flight, there were American Airlines attendants answering questions from people in their order in the line. Some people thought they deserved special treatment: they looked young and healthy to me, so neither age nor illness appeared to be an issue. But there they were pushing their way to the front. The AA people were firm: “we’re talking with people in the order they are in line.” One guy wouldn’t take no for an answer: he went to the other counter attendant’s line, and pushed himself forward there. Same answer. A different answer might have precipitated a riot; I would have been a rioter! Same thing happened when the sheriff’s deputies arrived—the “me first” people trying to get ahead of the line.
I had my own feel-good story: after two hours in yesterday’s line, my 80-year old feet didn’t want to stand any more. I asked the young lady with the dog if she’d move my suitcase along while I found a place to sit for a while. “Of course,” she replied.
I’m my brother’s and sister’s keeper people.
This was told to me by one of the women in today’s line about her experience in the same line yesterday. An older man was desperately looking for his Alzheimer-ill wife who had wandered off while he was dealing with a ticket agent. A scouting party was pulled together, but turned out not to be needed. A young man encountered her at a gate where he had just won the lotto (a drawing of the few available seats for the 50-per-plane standby travelers. (Some people scheduled to be on planes couldn’t get to the airport or for some other reason were staying in Miami). He brought the missing-wife with him to the customer service counter. Somehow it turned out that if he sacrificed his ticket, the couple could get on a flight. I never did figure out how that worked, and maybe it was an airport legend already being born, or I got the details wrong. Anyway, it was a nice feel-good story.
In addition to the two people at the counter last night, AA had a roving agent who moved down the line to answer “quick questions”. Nobody had any of those, they all wanted his time. This guy was extraordinary, and obviously fit for his assignment. No story was too insignificant for his sympathy. No detail was too small for his attention. No complaint was without merit. And no matter what the story, the answer turned out to be the same: there are no more seats; every plane has a wait-list; you won’t get any flight out of Dallas before Monday. Go to a shelter. He was made for the job.
There were lots of people like that: flight attendants, ground crew, counter personnel, waiters and waitresses, hotel staff. A lot of people helped make the best of a bad situation.
Today’s line at Customer Service (“Gate D-37” is now indelibly imprinted in my mind) was a totally different story from yesterday’s chaos, frustration and anger. One of the people in the line told me that there was a near-riot here late last night because of the snail’s pace of the line, due to the presence of only two agents at the counter. Today there were eight. And there were fewer people in line. And lo and behold, when I got to the counter there was a seat—the one I’m now sitting in as we head to Dallas!
Everyday people. Stress brings out the best and worst in people. I saw dozens of airport workers stretch to make things work for beleaguered passengers: the waiter and manager at the Irish Pub; the counter people who were infinitely patient with some customers who actually yelled at them; the pilot of this plane who came back to the economy section where I’m sitting and invited a man with his young son to take a look-see in the cockpit as we waited for stragglers to board the plane; a flight attendant on this flight volunteered to work today to make things easier on passengers and fellow staffers; an electric jitney driver re-configured the luggage he was carrying so I could squeeze on his cart for the extra-long trip from one “D” gate to another. (Dallas Airport doesn’t have moving walkways; there’s a skyway that operates overhead, but I wasn’t sure it was working so walked most of the time.)
Be persistent. Be skeptical. Hope for luck
Had I not returned to the customer service line for a fourth try, I would never have gotten on this flight. Beside a general ornery character trait that arises in these circumstances, I also thought about institutional dynamics. AA didn’t want a repeat of the scandal in Chicago when a United staffer dragged a doctor, who turned out to be Chinese which added the dimension of race, from a plane—all on living cell phone video! Not very good for the bottom line! My thinking about that bottom line told me that by today the AA higher-ups who thought about profits and had a longer term view would have passed the word down: no egg on our faces! I think that’s why there were so many extra people at the ticket counter today, even with far fewer people in the line.
And I had a little bit of luck!
In the line today, I was between two Jamaican women who let me in their conversation. The younger of them was traveling with her older aunt who came to Miami for some medical treatment. Now they were having difficulty getting home. The older one was “going home” after a number of years living in either Georgia or Florida. “At home,” she said, “you can go anyplace on a bus or a jitney or in an inexpensive taxi or by foot. Here, everything is so far apart and it’s so hard to get from one place to another.” And the pace of life was better at home; and the people were friendlier.
As the conversation went on, the older woman said, “Do you notice almost all the people in the line are of darker skin; you don’t see fair-skinned people here.” “I’m pretty pale-faced,” I piped in. “I didn’t mean you,” she said. The younger one was skeptical. So was I. Then I looked at the line: of the 30-or-so people in it, I would estimate that at least 80% of them were black. Could this be? I still doubt it. But in today’s world, I could believe it, and surely I can understand how a black person would believe it.
W.E.B. DuBois had it right: “…the world problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line…” Add the 21st. And don’t forget, he thought class was real important too. Were he alive today, he’d add gender.
Crippled programs syndrome
In our work together in my Mission Coalition organizing days, my friend Steve Waldhorn developed the “crippled programs syndrome” concept. He applied it to the inadequacies of federal programs that were underfunded, constrained by limiting guidelines, and legislatively designed so they wouldn’t compete with the private sector. Then, when beneficiaries and the broader public complained about the programs, the conservative, anti-government crowd used their inadequacy to argue that government doesn’t work. Remember Ronald Reagan’s, “government is not the solution; it is the problem”?
Applied to the airport situation, I found some parallels:
> TSA—the security agency—has a mandate to prevent terrorism. That, of course, is why we have to go through those horrible lines and screens before we get to our flight gate. Applied to this situation, TSA would not allow baggage that was already stowed to be removed and transferred to other planes via their owners without another screening. That made transfers for checked-luggage people impossible.
> Flight control was on skeleton-crew status because air controllers had earlier been sent home. That meant a slow-down for departures that, in turn, meant planes that might have flown couldn’t get to the tarmac, and the earlier flight I was on couldn’t take off!
> The passenger bill of rights was adopted by Congress because of a horrific incident some years back in which a plane full of travelers sat on a runway for hours before it finally either took off or discharged those on board (I don’t remember which). The result was an outcry from travelers that led to a provision that says an airline is liable for a fine of $35K per traveler if the plane holds you on board for three or more hours without departing. At least that’s what our pilot told us. So, of course, as the three-hour mark approached, the airline had an interest in getting us off the plane if it couldn’t get us in the air.
> Union contracts stipulate maximum hours for pilots to be in the cockpit—for very good safety reasons. Maybe the provision is also in flight attendant agreements as well—I don’t know. That turned out to be another reason for our plane heading back to the gate. “If we don’t leave in four minutes,” our pilot informed us, “we have to take you back to the gate because of contract provisions. We will have to be in the air too long.” “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile,” is the standard trade unionist’s response to a query about “a little flexibility”. There’s good reason for the argument.
Add all this together, and you get the mess we had at the Miami Airport. No doubt it would have been messy in any circumstances, but isn’t there a better way?
Radical decentralization and worker control: A better way?
Imagine the airport and airlines organized according to different principles and in different structures.
First of all, while operating in the black is important (and government subsidies could help keep an enterprise in the black if that served the common good/general welfare), the maximization of profit for absentee, concentrated and super-wealthy owners would not be determining decisions. Rather, workers, travelers, managers, airline hub communities, would own airlines and their support services with widely shared stocks.
Second, everybody is organized: customers, workers, communities all have capacity to act on their particular interests so that the general interest/common welfare doesn’t end up screwing anybody. Results are negotiated, not imposed.
Third, site structures have a great deal of autonomy to deal with both routine and extraordinary circumstances. Granted the exceptions noted above, the overall impression I had was of workers who wanted to serve and do a good job, and travelers who were generous in spirit and caring about others who might be facing special circumstances that required special attention. The older Jamaican lady in today’s line put it clearly: there should be recognition of special circumstances like age, health, necessity of getting to one’s destination for important work or health reasons, and so on. Lots of wisdom in that idea, but it implies trust in goodwill rather than reliance on rules. It implies a basic decency on the part of people if they don’t think they’re being suckers. If they had authority, I think those with good will would impose their wisdom on the “Me-First” people. Bullies shrink when faced with opposition that is bigger than they are.
Lord of the Flies?
When I was an undergraduate major in political science, we read the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies. A group of British youngsters, probably sixth graders, is stranded on an isolated island. They organize themselves for self-governance. It quickly declines into rule by the most brutish.
The book draws its philosophical premises from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, in which life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” There is a “warre of every man against every man…every man is Enemy of every man…” In this circumstance, men give up their freedom to be ruled by a monarch who imposes order on the disorderly. Hobbes is a critical philosopher in the history of conservatism.
I have a different view. The experience at Miami International Airport confirms it. Most people behave toward one another with decency and generosity when they think that’s the rule of the day. Only when they think that’s the way suckers behave do they resort to “me first.”
Heading down to Dallas
The pilot just announced arrival in ten minutes at Dallas. I’m packing up my computer. And I’m tired, so I’ll probably try to get this off at the Dallas Airport then take a nap before getting on my last flight of this trip.
Thanks all of you for your calls and messages. Nice to feel that support from family and friends!
Signing off from 10,000 feet.
PS. As my flight was descending into the Dallas Airport, I opened American Way, the AA flight magazine. There I found
“The people of Gander opened their homes to complete strangers,”
by pilot Beverly Bass who on 9/11 (the infamous one) flew her re-routed plane into this small Newfoundland village. She writes,
All told, about 7,000 passengers descended on the small Canadian town, nearly doubling its population…[T]he people on the ground were phenomenal. They delivered everything you could imagine throughout the night to the planes—diapers, formula, nicotine patches. They even filled 2,000 prescriptions for people who had packed their medicine in their checked bags.
When we got off the planes the next morning, tables of food lined the airport. The residents had stayed up all night cooking for us…Gander treated us like family, opening their homes and hearts. The flight crews stayed at hotels and schools, while the town converted churches and gyms into shelters for the passengers. When those filled, the people opened their homes to complete strangers and prepared thousands of meals for their guests.
PPS. It’s now about 11:00. As luck would have it, my Dallas-SFO flight is delayed by more than an hour. I’m really running out of gas. I know I’ll sleep on the plane. And I hope to see or hear from you all soon!
And, cousin, I’m a union man” – Warren Zevon, “The Factory”, 1987
For more than 60 years, millions of Americans have gotten health care insurance through their work. Despite employment changes in the American economy, that sort of coverage is still enjoyed by more than half of the non-elderly population. But it wasn’t always that way. The hard work of organized labor was instrumental in making employer-sponsored health coverage a cornerstone of the human services safety net.
One benefit of the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) was that large companies had to offer some form of industrial health care for workers. That made good business sense, since an injured worker isn’t very productive. But what happened if you broke your arm at home, or your kid got sick? You were at the mercy of fee-for-service medical care.
The first employer-sponsored health insurance is usually noted as 1929, when a group of Dallas teachers contracted with a hospital to cover inpatient services for a fixed annual premium.
The large federal construction projects during the Great Depression boosted support for expanded occupational health care. When industrialist Henry J. Kaiser got the contract to finish Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington in 1938, he also had to care for the thousands of workers in this remote worksite. He brought in Sidney Garfield, MD, who’d finished a successful industrial care program for the Colorado River Aqueduct project in Southern California. At the Mason City Hospital, Dr. Garfield worked with the unions to create one of the first family plans. It wasn’t insurance, it was health care offered for a prepaid amount. For 50 cents a week, workers (spouses and children cost a small amount more) were guaranteed medical care. That comprehensive, voluntary, and affordable health plan would be replicated during World War II for the 190,000 workers and their families in the Kaiser shipyards.
But this was an anomaly. Most American workers had nothing remotely close to a nonindustrial health care plan, even in the booming years after the war. That would change in 1948 and 1949 with two key labor law rulings.
In late September of 1946, the union at Pacific Coast Steel Co., Local 1069, in the San Francisco Bay Area selected the Permanente Health Plan (now called Kaiser Permanente) for its members and requested that employers provide payroll deductions for health care. Bethlehem Steel Company (which acquired Pacific Coast Steel in 1930) disputed their right to make such a decision. The union brought the issue to court, and won. The case of (BOLD) W. W. Cross & Company, Inc. v. United Steelworkers of America, CIO decided June 17, 1948, found the company had violated the National Labor Relations Act by refusing to negotiate on the terms of a group health and accident insurance plan.
That next year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled fringe benefits were an appropriate subject for collective bargaining under the NRLA after reviewing the case of Inland Steel Co. v. National Labor Relations Board, which established a precedent for union contracts regarding hospital and surgical benefits for employees and their dependents.
The Inland Steel case first emerged in late 1947, when the NLRB arranged hearings on two cases involving the CIO-Steelworkers. One case concerns Inland Steel company plant at Indiana Harbor, Ind., and Chicago Heights, Ill.; the other the W. W. Cross and company of East Jaffrey, N.H. In each case, NLRB trial examiners ruled that the employers were guilty of unfair labor practices in not consulting the Steelworkers, with which they held contracts, when they put insurance and pension plans into effect. The examiners in both cases directed the companies to bargain with the union on the type and extent of these plans.
On April 14, 1948, the NLRB ruled that employers are legally bound to bargain on pension plans with unions whose officers have signed Taft-Hartley affidavits that they are not Communists. The United Press news coverage noted:
“…the far-reaching decisions could put CIO President Philip Murray and some other high union officials in an awkward position. Murray and several other top labor leaders have refused to sign the non-Communist affidavits. But they are now engaged in a drive to win pension plans… The NLRB split 4-to-l on its verdict that pension plans are a form of wages, on which the Taft-Hartley act requires employers and unions to bargain collectively. The case involved the Inland Steel Co., and the CIO United Steelworkers, which Murray personally heads.”
The requirement for non-communist affidavits would remain through the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration; in the beginning of 1959 he even proposed extending it to employers. But in the fall of that year he signed the new Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (Landrum- Griffin Act) amending Taft-Hartley, which included a repeal of the affidavits.
Corporations followed the Inland Steel case closely. Charles E. Wilson, president of General Motors, was quoted as saying:
“The inclusion of health and welfare plans within the area of collective bargaining can only create new and unexplored areas of industrial disputes, difficult —if not impossible—to solve.”
Inland Steel appealed, but on September 23, 1948, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the NLRB position [in 170 f(2d)247] and ordered Inland Steel to bargain with the CIO union concerning retirement pension plans, a ruling that applied to all companies in interstate commerce where a union is the recognized bargaining agent of the workers. In 1949 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision. Although denial of a hearing does not formally constitute Supreme Court approval, the issue was effectively settled.
Labor and health policy scholar Marie Gottschalk noted this breakthrough in her 2000 book The Shadow Welfare State: Labor, Business, and the Politics of Health Care in the United States, the Inland Steel case introduced a period where “labor and management waged bitter battles over how much money employers should contribute to employee benefit plans, the items to include in these plans, and whether dependents should be covered.” But the door had been opened, and hundreds of thousands of working people benefited.
In 1949 the International Longshore and Warehouse Union approached the Permanente Health Plan about covering their membership. Permanente and the ILWU had been in discussion since 1945, but the Inland Steel ruling made the leap possible. Permanente was attractive to the ILWU for its racially integrated facilities and labor-friendly record during the war.
The January 6, 1950, ILWU newspaper The Dispatcher announced the new Permanente Health Plan, and by year’s end, 90 percent of eligible members had signed up.
When the plan began, there was a big rush for treatment of such illnesses as hernias and hemorrhoids, conditions the men had suffered with and lived with for many years. They hadn’t been able to pay for medical care on their own. A March 10, 1950, article in The Dispatcher put it this way:
“The Welfare Plan is the greatest thing since the hiring hall.” That’s the opinion of D.N. (Lefty) Vaughn, Local 13 longshoreman, hospitalized here under Permanente. Vaughn told Local 13 visitors last week that if it wasn’t for the Welfare Plan he would have had to sell his home to pay for the major operation he’s getting for nothing through the Plan.
An editorial three weeks later further explained:
“Life can be beautiful if you’re healthy is the way the ad men put it. There’s no doubt they’ve got a point, though it’s oversimplified. Health is no fringe issue, not when you are required to make a choice between an operation which will allow you to go on working and living, and the home you must sell to pay for that operation. Longshoremen no longer have to make such choices. More than one home has been saved since the medical coverage section of the Welfare Plan became effective.”
The two rulings fundamentally shifted organized labor’s role in defending and expanding workers’ rights. Gottschalk further describes the impact:
“The myth of the consensus years of labor-management relations in the 1950s obscures how contested an issue benefits remained at the bargaining table. In 1949, health and welfare issues were central in 55 percent of all strikes; in the first half of 1950, 70 percent of all strikes were over these issues.”
While it’s true that the benefits of Inland Steel only applied to organized workers in larger industries, leaving out agricultural labor and smaller shops, it was a major step forward in building public expectations that medical care be affordable and accessible.
Thank you, organized labor – you not only brought the weekend to our regular work week, you brought us the employer-sponsored health plan. And on this particular Labor Day weekend, let’s remember and honor the gains made by unions.
Special thanks to ILWU archivist Robin Walker, who has put newspapers from 1932 to present online.
Theodore W. “Ted” Allen (1919-2005) was an anti-white supremacist, working class intellectual and activist. He developed his pioneering class struggle-based analysis of “white skin privilege” beginning in the mid-1960s; authored the seminal two-volume “The Invention of the White Race” in the 1990s; and consistently maintained that the struggle against white supremacy was central to efforts at radical social change in the United States. Born on August 23, 1919, in Indianapolis, Indiana, he grew up in Paintsville, Kentucky and Huntington, West Virginia (where he graduated from high school), and then went into the mines and became a United Mine Workers Local President. After hurting his back in the mines he moved to New York City and lived his last fifty-plus years in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
The Invention of the White Race
Allen’s two-volume “The Invention of the White Race” (1994, 1997: Verso Books, new expanded edition 2012) with its focus on racial oppression and social control is one of the twentieth-century’s major contributions to historical understanding. It presents a full-scale challenge to what he refers to as “The Great White Assumption” — the unquestioning acceptance of the “white race” and “white” identity as skin color-based and natural attributes rather than as social and political constructions. Its thesis on the origin, nature, and maintenance of the “white race” and its understanding that slavery in the Anglo-American plantation colonies was capitalist and enslaved Black laborers were proletarians, contain the basis of a revolutionary approach to United States labor history.
On the back cover of the 1994 edition of Volume 1, subtitled “Racial Oppression and Social Control”, Allen boldly asserted “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.” That statement, based on 20-plus years of primary research in Virginia’s colonial records, reflected the fact that Allen found no instance of the official use of the word “white” as a token of social status prior to its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691. As he later explained, “Others living in the colony at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally they and their Virginia-born children were English, they were not ‘white.’ White identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be only after the passage of some six crucial decades” that the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”
In this context he offers his major thesis — that the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the latter (civil war) stages of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77). To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the ruling elite deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to define and maintain the “white race” and to implement a system of racial oppression, and 2) the consequence was not only ruinous to the interest of African Americans, it was also disastrous for European-American workers.
In Volume II, on “The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America”, Allen tells the story of the invention of the “white race” and the development of the system of racial oppression in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Anglo-American plantation colonies. His primary focus is on the pattern-setting Virginia colony, and he pays special attention to the reduction of tenants and wage-laborers in the majority English labor force to chattel bond-servants in the 1620s. In so doing, he emphasizes that this was a qualitative break from the condition of laborers in England and from long established English labor law, that it was not a feudal carryover, that it was imposed under capitalism, and that it was an essential precondition of the emergence of the lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude imposed upon African-American laborers under the system of racial slavery.
Allen describes how, throughout much of the seventeenth century, the status of African-Americans was indeterminate (because it was still being fought out) and he details the similarity of conditions for African-American and European-American laborers and bond-servants. He also documents many significant instances of labor solidarity and unrest, especially during the 1660s and 1670s. Of great significance is his analysis of the civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion when thousands of laboring people took up arms against the ruling plantation elite, the capital (Jamestown) was burned to the ground, rebels controlled 6/7 of the Virginia colony, and Afro- and Euro-American bond-servants fought side-by-side demanding an end to their bondage.
It was in the period after Bacon’s Rebellion that the “white race” was invented as a ruling-class social control formation. Allen describes systematic ruling-class policies, which conferred “white race” privileges on European-Americans while imposing harsher disabilities on African-Americans resulting in a system of racial slavery, a form of racial oppression that also imposed severe racial proscriptions on free African-Americans. He emphasizes that when free African-Americans were deprived of their long-held right to vote in Virginia and Governor William Gooch explained in 1735 that the Virginia Assembly had decided upon this curtailment of the franchise in order “to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos,” it was not an “unthinking decision.” Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie and was a conscious decision in the process of establishing a system of racial oppression, even though it entailed repealing an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.
Key to understanding the virulent racial oppression that develops in Virginia, Allen argues, is the formation of the intermediate social control buffer stratum, which serves the interests of the ruling class. In Virginia, any persons of discernible non-European ancestry after Bacon’s Rebellion were denied a role in the social control buffer group, the bulk of which was made up of laboring-class “whites.” In the Anglo-Caribbean, by contrast, under a similar Anglo ruling elite, “mulattos” were included in the social control stratum and were promoted into middle-class status. This difference was rooted in a number of social control-related factors, one of the most important of which was that in the Anglo-Caribbean there were “too few” poor and laboring-class Europeans to embody an adequate petit bourgeoisie, while in the continental colonies there were ‘’too many’’ to be accommodated in the ranks of that class.
In “The Invention of the White Race” Allen challenges what he considers to be two main ideological props of white supremacy — the argument that “racism” is innate (and it is therefore useless to challenge it) and the argument that European-American workers “benefit” from “white race” privileges and white supremacy (and that it is therefore not in their interest to oppose them). These two arguments, opposed by Allen, are related to two master historical narratives rooted in writings on the colonial period. The first argument is associated with the “unthinking decision” explanation for the development of racial slavery offered by historian Winthrop D. Jordan in his influential “White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812”. The second argument is associated with historian Edmund S. Morgan’s influential “American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia”, which maintains that in Virginia, as slavery developed in the eighteenth century, “there were too few free poor [European-Americans] on hand to matter.” Allen points out that what Morgan said about “too few” free poor was true in the eighteenth century Anglo-Caribbean, but not in Virginia.
“White race” privilege
The article “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy” (Cultural Logic, 2010) describes key components of Allen’s analysis of “white race” privilege. The article explains that as he developed the “white race” privilege concept, Allen emphasized that these privileges were a “poison bait” (like a shot of “heroin”) and he explained that they “do not permit” the masses of European American workers nor their children “to escape” from that class. “It is not that the ordinary white worker gets more than he must have to support himself,” but “the Black worker gets less than the white worker.” By, thus “inducing, reinforcing and perpetuating racist attitudes on the part of the white workers, the present-day power masters get the political support of the rank-and-file of the white workers in critical situations, and without having to share with them their super profits in the slightest measure.”
As one example, to support his position, Allen provided statistics showing that in the South where race privilege “has always been most emphasized . . . the white workers have fared worse than the white workers in the rest of the country.”
Probing more deeply, Allen offered additional important insights into why these race privileges are conferred by the ruling class. He pointed out that “the ideology of white racism” is “not appropriate to the white workers” because it is “contrary to their class interests.” Because of this “the bourgeoisie could not long have maintained this ideological influence over the white proletarians by mere racist ideology.” Under these circumstances white supremacist thought is “given a material basis in the form of the deliberately contrived system of race privileges for white workers.” Thus, writes Allen, “history has shown that the white-skin privilege does not serve the real interests of the white workers, it also shows that the concomitant racist ideology has blinded them to that fact.”
Allen added, “the white supremacist system that had originally been designed in around 1700 by the plantation bourgeoisie to protect the base, the chattel bond labor relation of production” also served “as a part of the ‘legal and political’ superstructure of the United States government that, until the Civil War, was dominated by the slaveholders with the complicity of the majority of the European-American workers.” Then, after emancipation, “the industrial and financial bourgeoisie found that it could be serviceable to their program of social control, anachronistic as it was, and incorporated it into their own ‘legal and political’ superstructure.”
Allen felt that two essential points must be kept in mind. First, “the race-privilege policy is deliberate bourgeois class policy.” Second, “the race-privilege policy is, contrary to surface appearance, contrary to the interests, short range as well as long range interests of not only the Black workers but of the white workers as well.” He repeatedly emphasized that “the day-to-day real interests” of the European-American worker “is not the white skin privileges, but in the development of an ever-expanding union of class conscious workers.” He emphasized, “‘Solidarity forever!’ means ‘Privileges never!'” He elsewhere pointed out, “The Wobblies [the Industrial Workers of the World] caught the essence of it in their slogan: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.'”
Throughout his work Allen stresses that “the initiator and the ultimate guarantor of the white skin privileges of the white worker is not the white worker, but the white worker’s masters” and the masters do this because it is “an indispensable necessity for their continued class rule.” He describes how “an all-pervasive system of racial privileges was conferred on laboring-class European-Americans, rural and urban, exploited and insecure though they themselves were” and how “its threads, woven into the fabric of every aspect of daily life, of family, church, and state, have constituted the main historical guarantee of the rule of the ‘Titans,’ damping down anti-capitalist pressures, by making ‘race, and not class, the distinction in social life.'” That, “more than any other factor,” he argues, “has shaped the contours of American history — from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to the Civil War, to the overthrow of Reconstruction, to the Populist Revolt of the 1890s, to the Great Depression, to the civil rights struggle and ‘white backlash’ of our own day.”
Allen also addressed the issue of strategy for social change. He emphasized, “The most vulnerable point at which a decisive blow can be struck against bourgeois rule in the United States is white supremacy.” He considered “white supremacy” to be “both the keystone and the Achilles heel of U.S. bourgeois democracy.” Based on this analysis Allen maintained, “the first main strategic blow must be aimed at the most vulnerable point at which a decisive blow can be struck, namely, white supremacism.” This, he argued, was the conclusion to be drawn from a study of three great social crises in U.S. history – “the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Populist Revolt of the 1890s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s.” In each of these cases “the prospects for a stable broad front against capital has foundered on the shoals of white supremacism, most specifically on the corruption of the European-American workers by racial privilege.”
Groundbreaking Analysis Continues to Grow in Importance
Ted Allen died on January 19, 2005, and a memorial service was held for him at the Brooklyn Public Library where he had worked. Then on October 8, 2005, his ashes, as per his request, were spread in the York River (near West Point, Virginia) close to its convergence with the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers – the location where the final armed holdouts, “Eighty Negroes and Twenty English,” refused to surrender in the last stages of Bacon’s Rebellion.
Allen’s historical work has profound implications for American History, African-American History, Labor History, Left History, American Studies, and “Whiteness” Studies and it offers important insights in the areas of Caribbean History, Irish History, and African Diaspora Studies. With its meticulous primary research, equalitarian motif, emphasis on the class struggle dimension of history, and groundbreaking analysis his work continues to grow in influence and importance.
Those interested in learning more of the work of Theodore W. Allen can see: 1) writings, audios, and videos by and about Theodore W. Allen; 2) comments from scholars and activists and Table of Contents for “The Invention of the White Race Vol. I: Racial Oppression and Social Control”; 3) comments from scholars and activists and Table of Contents on “The Invention of the White Race Vol. II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America” [Verso Books]; and “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy.”