Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Clown Car


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Well, the Democratic Party’s candidates for President — or at least 20 of them — got to get out of what has increasingly looked like a clown car and actually talk to voters on TV June 26 and 27 in Miami, Florida. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) co-sponsored the debate with three NBC-owned TV networks — NBC itself, MS-NBC and Telemundo — and set up the rules by which the candidates would have to demonstrate enough nationwide support, either by poll numbers or donations to their campaigns, to qualify for the events.
That’s two events because the DNC decided to have separate debates on each night, with 10 candidates on Wednesday, June 26 and 10 more Thursday, June 27. The apparent intent was to avoid what the Republicans did with a similarly packed clown-car’s worth of 17 candidates in 2016 — pick out the 10 leading candidates for the main-stage, prime-time debate and relegate the others to a kid’s-table undercard debate in the afternoon.
But when four of the five leading candidates — former vice-president Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg (pronounced “boot-a-judge,” by the way) — ended up on the second-night stage, the first debate on Wednesday started to look like merely the warmup act.
It gave especially short shrift to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) just when she was starting to rise in the polls from third place to second, behind Biden but ahead of Sanders. Though the DNC officials insisted that the assignments were “random,” it certainly seemed like the DNC, which in 2016 blatantly rigged the process against Sanders and in favor of Hillary Clinton, wanted to trash the chances of Warren, who’s just as progressive as Sanders but seems to know the political process a lot better and has done a lot more work to translate their shared left-of-center ideas into actual policy proposals.
Warren dominated the first hour of the first night’s debate but then barely got called on in the second half by moderators Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd — though she recovered long enough to give an eloquent closing statement calling for an America where the economic and political systems aren’t blatantly rigged by and for the already super-rich.
What mostly got reported out of Wednesday’s debate was an arcane argument between two of the lesser candidates, both from Texas (a state so deep-red Donald Trump would have to be caught on tape having an orgy with a seven-year-old boy and a goat to lose it), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and former Congressmember (and failed U.S. Senate candidate) Beto O’Rourke over whether immigrating into the U.S. without proper documents should continue to be a federal crime or whether it should be reduced to the civil offense it used to be.
And what mostly got reported out of Thursday’s debate was a carefully prepared assault on former V-P Biden by Kamala Harris, who comes from an African-American background but frankly doesn’t look like it. (The first time I heard of her and saw her photo, I assumed from her skin color, her very un-Black hair and nose, and the name “Kamala” that she was [East] Indian.)
One of Biden’s talking points has been that he’s the candidate who can do the most to preserve and extend the legacy of African-American civil rights activism. Not only was he the vice-president to the first African-American President in U.S. history, his poll standing among Black Democrats is 45 percent — over 10 percent higher than his support among Democrats as a whole.
But Harris, following Republican strategist Karl Rove’s tactic of attacking the opponent where he (or she) seems to be strongest, tore into Biden for having opposed the use of busing to integrate schools in the 1970’s. Harris said that she herself had been part of the second class bused from Berkeley’s low-income Black neighborhoods to schools in more affluent white communities, and added that she believed she got better opportunities from that education that enabled her to go to college, become an attorney and serve as district attorney in San Francisco, attorney general of California and ultimately a U.S. Senator.
I missed the first 45 minutes of Thursday’s debate — I was still on my way home from work when it was going on — but I got home in time to hear the Harris-Biden exchange. My heart sank. Frankly, in the argument between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden over busing, the real winner was … Donald Trump.
As an elementary-school student in the mid-1970’s, Harris may not be old enough to remember the hideous damage “busing” — both the word and the concept — did to the Democratic Party. But I do. It tore apart communities in cities as different as Los Angeles and Boston and led to former liberal and progressive allies not only rhetorically but sometimes physically attacking each other. “Busing” was one of the key racist code words by which the Republican Party was able in the 1960’s and 1970’s to break apart the New Deal coalition and win the white working class away from the Democrats and towards the Republicans.
As I’ve argued in these pages before, the Republicans put together a Right-wing coalition that has mostly, though not totally, dominated U.S. politics since 1968 by tapping white working-class prejudices about race and culture and saying the Democrats had sold out the white working class to protect racial minorities, feminists, hippies and Queers. Every Republican who has won a Presidential election since 1968 — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes and Donald Trump — has done so in part by manipulating white working-class anxieties with words like “busing,” “welfare queens,” “illegal immigrants” and the like.
In their attempt to unseat a President who managed to win largely by convincing working-class white voters — especially in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio that had particularly suffered from the deindustrialization of America and the mass export of jobs to lower-wage countries and low-paid “illegal” workers in this one — that he was on their side, the last thing the Democrats should be doing is dropping words like “busing” into their debates and thereby reminding white working-class voters why they stopped voting for Democrats and started voting for Republicans in the first place.

It’s 1896 All Over Again

One of the most bizarre things about modern-day U.S. political commentary is how every time there’s an open contest for the Democratic Presidential nomination, pundits and the chattering classes seem to “discover” all over again that there’s a conflict within the Democratic Party between moderate centrists and Left progressives. There’s a conflict, all right, but it’s nothing new.
It really began in 1896, when the Democratic Party was in the minority almost everywhere in the U.S. but the South, which was still essentially fighting the Civil War and saw the Democrats as their instrument for keeping African-Americans as close to slavery as they could. Elsewhere in the nation the Civil War’s victors, the Republicans, dominated politics so completely that between 1860 and 1892 the Republicans won seven Presidential elections to the Democrats’ two, and held Congressional majorities through most of that time as well.
In 1896 the incumbent President was Grover Cleveland, the Democrat who had won both the elections the Republicans had lost (as well as a third election, in 1888, in which he’d won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to Republican Benjamin Harrison — sound familiar?). It was a time in which national politics were controlled almost outright by the giant corporations that ran the economy in the new industrial age, came together to form monopolistic “trusts” and destroy potential competition, and treated the political system basically as a store in which they could “buy” favorable policies by donating to politicians’ campaigns and often by running for — and essentially purchasing — elective office themselves. It was also the era in which the U.S. Congress passed its first restrictions on immigration, including banning a whole country — China — from sending us immigrants.
Indeed, I’ve been arguing ever since Donald Trump emerged as the alligator who ate all the other Republican Presidential candidates in the swamp in 2016 that the answer to Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical question to him — just when does Trump think America was “great,” and to which he wants to return to “make America great again”? — is the 1880’s. At the time there were no restrictions on corporations’ ability to pollute the environment, low-ball workers’ wages and subject them to dangerous conditions, block workers from organizing unions, merge into giant trusts to keep anyone from competing with them, or pay politicians what amounted to outright bribes to maintain their “freedom” to exploit everyone else for their own gain.
Though the Democrats had gained a Congressional majority in 1874 and the Presidency in 1884 largely by exploiting public revulsion over the Republicans’ political corruption, once in office they behaved pretty much the same way. Like his Republican predecessors, President Cleveland called out the National Guard and other federal forces to break strikes. He ran an economic policy that focused on keeping inflation low instead of expanding economic opportunity by putting more money in circulation. The result was a nationwide “Panic” — 19th-century speak for “depression” — that hit in 1893 and lasted at least five years.
Americans who were getting hurt by these policies responded politically by forming the Populist Party in 1892 (which makes it especially ironic that a President like Trump who’s on the opposite side of all the major economic issues from the original Populists keeps being called a “populist” by political commentators who don’t know the term’s history). The Democrats of the 1890’s regarded the emergence of the Populists as an existential threat — could they annihilate the Democratic Party the way the Republicans had with the Whig Party in the 1850’s? — and they split over the question, beat them or co-opt them?
In 1896 the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination was between moderate Grover Cleveland and progressive William Jennings Bryan. Bryan has become one of the most misunderstood figures in American politics because late in life he embraced the cause of Fundamentalist Christianity and tried to block the teaching of evolution. But his 1896 campaign was a slashing attack on the power and privilege of giant corporations, and a call for coining silver in order to expand the money supply and therefore stimulate the economy.
Bryan’s religious conservatism informed and reinforced his political progressivism in ways that would seem inconceivable today. Running 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared that corporations were “persons” and therefore had political rights under the U.S. Constitution, Bryan argued that corporate personhood was literally blasphemy. If you believed, as the Declaration of Independence said, that people were “endowed by their Creator” with the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” it followed logically that only God-created persons — human beings — held those rights; not person-created “persons,” corporations.
Even Bryan’s opposition to evolution stemmed in large part from his political progressivism. In the 1880’s social theorists like Herbert Spencer argued that the human race was still evolving and that rich people were actually superior beings — the fact that they were rich, Spencer argued, demonstrated their superiority and therefore their entitlement to most of the wealth and income. Invoking Charles Darwin’s explanation of how evolution worked, Spencer said, “The millionaires are the product of natural selection” — and a horrified Bryan rejected not only Spencer’s gloss on evolution but the evolutionary theory itself.
When Bryan challenged Cleveland for the 1896 Democratic nomination, he won — but the Democrats ultimately lost to Republican William McKinley. The corporate bosses the Populists and Bryan’s Democrats were attacking fought back in the nastiest ways they could. Millions of American workers got notices in their pay packets saying, “Don’t come to work anymore if Bryan wins.” Between 1896 and 1928 the Democrats once again won only two out of nine Presidential elections, and Republicans actually increased the size and longevity of their Congressional majorities.

The Struggle Continues for the Democrats’ Soul

As the Republican Party controlled the U.S. government for most of the first three decades of the 20th century, the battle within the Democratic Party over how to respond continued. In 1912 the Democrats finally elected their first President since Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, born in Virginia but a resident of New Jersey when he ran, largely because that year it was the Republican Party that split between progressive former President Theodore Roosevelt and conservative incumbent William Howard Taft. Wilson squeaked out a re-election in 1916 but his involvement of the U.S. in World War I and his desire that this country remain a player in foreign politics after the war helped Republican Warren Harding win in 1920 by promising a “return to normalcy.”
In 1924, after Harding died in office, scandals engulfed his Cabinet and vice-president Calvin Coolidge took over the presidency, the Democratic convention deadlocked between conservative William Gibbs McAdoo, another transplanted Southerner (born in Tennessee but a resident of California) who had been Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury; and progressive New York Governor Al Smith. The convention went to 103 ballots before finally nominating John W. Davis, a Wall Street attorney whose final public action 30 years later would be arguing the racist side before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Coolidge beat Davis in a landslide, and four years later the Democrats nominated Al Smith but split over Smith’s religion — Roman Catholicism — and his support of repealing Prohibition. Republican Herbert Hoover won an easy victory, largely on the strength of an expanding economy — only the expansion suddenly came to a halt in late 1929 with the stock market crash and the resulting Great Depression. The Depression and World War II would make the Democrats the U.S. majority party from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, and would tamp down the continuing controversy between the party’s moderates and its progressives.
But the struggle for the Democratic Party’s soul would erupt again in the 1960’s. Northern Democratic Presidents and Congressmembers took the lead in fighting for African-American civil rights and ultimately broke the power of the Southern Democrats — leading to an historic reversal of the two parties’ historical positions on civil rights. The Democrats, who’d been the party of slavery, secession, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 (with crucial support from moderate Northern Republicans) and established themselves as the party of civil rights in general and African-American rights in particular.
The Republicans responded with the so-called “Southern Strategy” of Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond — the fiercely racist Senator from South Carolina who began as a Democrat, ran for President in 1948 as an independent and later became a Republican. The essence of the “Southern Strategy” was that, now that the Democrats had laid down the banner of Southern racism, the Republicans would pick it up. The “Party of Lincoln” thus became the party of racist reaction — and not just in the South. Northern working-class whites, horrified by the gains African-Americans were making (and convinced they were coming at their expense) and also by the 1960’s counterculture, began abandoning the Democratic Party and voting for Republicans.
Nixon’s victory in the 1968 election — and the emergence of a Right-wing voting bloc that got 57 percent of the vote that year (between Nixon’s 43 percent and racist independent candidate George Wallace’s 14 percent) to the Democrats’ 43 percent — reignited the internal conflict within the Democratic Party: move to the center to win back the white voters they’d lost over race and culture, or embrace the Left? In 1968 they chose the former, nominating Hubert Humphrey in Chicago while police in a city with a Democratic mayor beat protesters to bloody pulps — and Humphrey lost by a margin that, when Nixon’s and Wallace’s votes are added together, indicated a broad rejection of liberal politics in general and the Democrats in particular.
In 1972 the Democrats nominated progressive South Dakota Senator George McGovern after the most promising moderate, Maine Senator Ed Muskie (Humphrey’s running mate in 1968) was knocked out of the campaign by Nixon’s dirty-tricks operation. McGovern lost in a landslide, with just 39 percent of the vote to Nixon’s 61 percent, and the Democratic Party responded quite differently from the way the Republicans had when Right-winger Barry Goldwater had lost to Lyndon Johnson by a similar margin in 1964.
The Republicans decided after the Goldwater loss that the problem hadn’t been with their policies, but with him as a spokesperson for them. Instead of retreating from the extreme Right-wing positions of Goldwater, they embraced them and in 1980 won the Presidency with Ronald Reagan running on what was essentially Goldwater’s program. By contrast, after 1972 the Democrats decided that the problem was McGovern’s policies, and the people running the Democratic Party decided to rig the rules to make sure nobody that progressive could get nominated again.
Among the devices they used to do that was the so-called “superdelegates,” party leaders who would be guaranteed slots at the convention and would form a powerful voting bloc against anyone they perceived as too progressive. The Democratic establishment was able to beat back progressive challenges from Senator Edward Kennedy in 1980 and Senator Gary Hart and Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 largely through their control of the delegate selection process. But the bland centrists they ran against Reagan in 1984 (Walter Mondale) and George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice-president and anointed successor, in 1988 (Michael Dukakis), also went down to humiliating defeats.

What’s a Party to Do?

While the Democrats were for the most part abandoning or compromising their most hard-core progressive supporters to appeal to “the center,” the Republicans were doing the exact opposite. During the 1990’s the Republican Party, its corporate funders and a Right-wing media complex they were able to create largely due to Reagan’s deregulation of broadcasting became a devastatingly effective propaganda machine designed not only to keep winning elections for the Republicans but to build a hard core of public support from people who relied on Right-wing media — particularly AM talk radio and Fox News — to tell them how to think about politics and whom to vote for.
So Democrats in general, and progressive Democrats in particular, have waited with frustration while Republicans have managed to push the terms of U.S. political debate further and further Right. Ideas like privatizing Social Security, which were considered totally beyond the political pale when Barry Goldwater proposed it in 1964, have become serious threats. Republicans haven’t won every Presidential or Congressional election since 1968 — far from it — but they’ve adopted a policy of waiting out every Democratic President or Congress and using the anti-democratic features built into the U.S. government by the Constitution to block the Democrats from advancing a progressive or even a liberal agenda very far.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. When I was in grade school, high school, and college (where I majored in political science), the conventional wisdom was that the American political system punished parties that tried to be too ideological. If either the Republicans or the Democrats went too far to the extreme — the Republicans too far Right or the Democrats too far Left — the voters would punish them by removing them from office, thereby bringing the overall political system back to the center.
That hasn’t happened partly because the Republicans have built up a political-media complex that has kept their base mobilized, energized and committed. Also, the Republicans have cunningly exploited the anti-democratic features of the U.S. Constitution — the Electoral College, the equal representation of each state in the Senate, and the near-total control of election laws by state government (including the absolute right, recently endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court, to draw blatantly rigged and uncompetitive political districts so Republicans can stay in power even when overwhelming majorities of voters cast their ballots for Democrats) — to become and remain what historian Leonard Schapiro, writing about the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, called “a minority determined to rule alone.”
Donald Trump is not, as Joe Biden has called him, an “aberration” in American politics. He is the culmination of over 50 years of Republican political strategizing aimed at imposing an orthodoxy on American politics consisting of Libertarian economic policies (an end to government regulation of corporations, including laws protecting workers’ health and safety; an end to environmental protection; an end to all attempts to restrict campaign contributions and all restrictions on rich politicians personally profiting from their offices) and a highly interventionist “big government” upholding “traditional family values” and the tenets of Right-wing Christianity by controlling people’s personal lives in general and their sex lives in particular.
The Democratic voices we heard at the debates are deeply committed to combating this agenda but equally deeply split on how to do so. One of the impressions I got from the debates, particularly Wednesday’s, was that as many differences as there were between the candidates, their similarities more than outweighed them. As Virginia Heffernan put it in the June 30 Los Angeles Times (, “No one attacked FISA judges, Peter Strzok, the corrupt FBI, crisis actors, the satanic media, Sasquatch or the women President Trump doesn’t consider attractive enough to rape.
“No one called the climate crisis a hoax,” Heffernan continued. “No one dismissed the Fourth Estate as fakery. No one used daft playground nicknames that wouldn’t pass muster with Nelson from The Simpsons. Instead, we heard insight and resolve about the humanitarian crisis in Trump’s border camps, about Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, about gun violence and income inequality as clear and present dangers.”
The Democratic debates indicated that America really is two different countries — as the late columnist Murray Kempton noted as early as November 1968 when he commented on the Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace election and called Nixon “the president of every community in America that doesn’t have a bookstore.” Not only do Republicans and Democrats have different positions on issues, they have different sets of values and different ideas of what constitutes “truth” and where you go to find it. Democrats see climate change, income inequality, lack of access to health care, gun violence and authoritarian countries like Russia and China as threats.
Republicans, with Trump as their spokesperson, see the real threats as immigrants, Muslims, people of color and those pesky countries in Western Europe that insist on clinging to the values of liberal democracy. If Trump were a strategic thinker — which he isn’t — he would not only be fêting the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea but working with them to organize a “Black International” to crush the whole idea of representative government once and for all and organize the world on the basis of personality-driven dictatorships.
Trump isn’t that sort of thinker. He’s not Adolf Hitler, who not only wanted to wipe democracy (as well as Jews, Communists, Gypsies and Queers) from the face of the earth but came chillingly close to doing so. But he’s a reflection of an American id that Republican politicians have been appealing to and building as their political base for over 50 years. Anyone who’s listened to Right-wing talk radio heard the “Trump voice” long before Trump himself was anything more than a minor-league developer in the outer boroughs of New York City.
From Joe Pyne and Pat Michaels in the 1960’s to Morton Downey, Jr. in the 1980’s and Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Mark Levin and Roger Hedgecock in the 1990’s and since, talk-radio hosts not only follow the same scripts but speak in the same tones, denouncing their opponents with snippy nicknames and proclaiming that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is an idiot and deserves no consideration whatsoever. Trump won the election at least in part because he was the first Presidential candidate who talked like a Right-wing talk-radio host — and talk radio and Fox News remain powerful propaganda channels and motivators for the Right-wing base.
The threat is that the Democrats will blow the 2020 elections by refighting their old ideological battles and splintering even in the face of the existential threat Trump’s re-election poses not only to the Democratic Party but American democracy itself. This happened in 2016, when all too many of the Democratic base’s voters either threw their votes away on third-party candidates or just stayed home. The Russians didn’t elect Donald Trump — though their online efforts did pour some extra gasoline on the fires already consuming the Democratic Party. The Democrats did, through overconfidence and inaction.
The worst thing that could happen in 2020 is that the Democratic primary campaign goes on so long and becomes so bitter that the eventual nominee can’t unite the party and appeal to the country. It’s entirely possible that Trump could win in 2020 the way he did in 2016 — with a laser-like focus on voters who still feel disaffected by the Democrats and respond to racial and cultural attacks in enough states to get him an Electoral College victory even if he loses the popular vote (again).
In the same issue of the Los Angeles Times in which Virginia Heffernan published her paean to the sense of normality she got from the Democratic debate, Doyle McManus published the sort of article we should get used to seeing in the remaining 16 months of the campaign ( one tsk-tsking the Democratic candidates in general, and the more progressive ones like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in particular, for allegedly getting too far ahead of the American people by advocating Medicare for all, health coverage for undocumented immigrants and a $15 per hour minimum wage.
In 1964 Phyllis Schlafly published a book called A Choice, Not an Echo in which she said that if the Republicans rejected the moderate New Deal consensus at the time and nominated a hard-line Right-wing candidate, they would win in a landslide and fundamentally reshape American politics. She was wrong about the immediate battle — Barry Goldwater lost big-time — but right about the overall war.
There is a struggle for the soul of America between the Right’s exaltation of wealth and privilege, corporate power, whites over people of color, men over women, straights over Queers and short-term profits over environmental protection, and the Left’s desire to break down the walls of power and privilege, preserve the environment, use government to safeguard the physical and economic health and safety of the overwhelming majority of people who don’t own the means of production, and make society more equal economically, racially and sexually.
It’s a struggle in which the Left has achieved some small victories but the Right is far ahead in the overall war — so much so that a second term for Trump, especially if the Republicans also regain control of the House of Representatives (which became far more likely after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week giving states the right to gerrymander without fear of being held to account by the courts), will probably end the few gains we’ve won and return women, people of color and Queers to second-class citizenship (or worse).

Which way the Democratic Party goes in this year’s struggle — whether it tries to be “centrist,” compromising, appeasing the forces of reaction; or whether it stands firm but also stands smart and avoids getting sucked into the race-baiting of the past — is key not only to whether they can win next year’s elections but whether they, the American people and, indeed, the whole human race have a future.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Lavender Scare (Full Exposure Films, PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, as part of their celebration of Queer Pride, PBS showed a fascinating documentary called The Lavender Scare, produced and directed by Josh Howard and with some familiar names to me (including former Zenger’s cover boy Kevin Jennings of GLAAD and Andrew Tobias, multi-millionaire financier and author of The Best Little Boy in the World, a memoir of growing up Gay which he signed with the name “John Reid”) on his production staff, based on a book of the same title by David Johnson which would be worth reading. The film apparently premiered in a theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 7, 2019 (in a 77-minute version, longer than the one we got on TV), but according to was actually made two years earlier.
The story really begins in the 1930’s, when under the Franklin Roosevelt administration and its New Deal response to the 1929 Depression, the size of the federal government zoomed upward and Washington, D.C. attracted a lot of America’s best and brightest with the promise of making good livings and serving the public good. A lot of those people were Gay, Lesbian or whatever in the ridiculous alphabet-soup identifier our community now goes by (I’ve seen “LGBT,” “LGBTQ,” “LGBTQ+” and even “LGBTQQIAA” — the last came from the Queer student group at UCSD and means “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and Allies” — the last being the current term of art for straight people who support Queer rights), and freed from the social and sexual constraints of their small towns and adrift in the big city, they found out that there were others like them, met, hooked up, formed relationships and did the other things adult humans do together regardless of their sexuality.
Then in 1941 the U.S. got involved in World War II and a lot of people who hadn’t necessarily known they were Queer before ended up in military service, rigidly segregated by sex, and being in single-sex environments brought out their natural inclinations and they started to act on them. (As late as the 1980’s and 1990’s Queers in the U.S. military were telling me when I interviewed them that they hadn’t realized they were Queer until they were in the single-sex environment of the military — the obvious comeback to the homophobes who asked people in the days of the military ban and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which followed, “Why did you join the military when you knew we wouldn’t accept you?”)
But these advances were threatened and ultimately stopped by the highly repressive political, social and sexual climate of the Cold War and the so-called McCarthy era, which began an era of witchhunts not only against actual or suspected Communists (or liberals who could be framed as Communists, since part of the Right’s objective in the McCarthy era, as now, was to ensure themselves permanent dominance of American politics by demonizing their opponents and putting them “beyond the pale” of acceptable political discourse) but against Queers as well. In 1953 newly elected Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order banning all “homosexuals” from federal employment — no exceptions, no ifs, ands or buts.
Josh Howard’s narration, delivered by actress Glenn Close, is undecided as to whether President Eisenhower issued this order out of genuine conviction that Queer people constituted a security risk or to provide political cover to the Right of his party. But an earlier PBS documentary mentioned that when Eisenhower was supreme Allied military commander during World War II he had tried to issue a similar order to fire all Gay and Lesbian members of his immediate staff — and, in a rare display of courage, the woman he told to compile the list of Queers on his staff for him to fire said to him, “If you order me to make that list, my name will be the first on it.”

The Cultural Context

In 1953, sex between two partners of the same gender was illegal in every U.S. state. Homosexuality was defined as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the official guide of the psychiatric profession as to what constituted diseases of the mind. The very term “homosexual” had been coined by a Hungarian researcher in 1865 as a definition of a mental illness, and that had been considered a step forward since previously homosexuality had been defined as a sin against God that deserved the death penalty. Anyone caught having Gay sex or declaring him- or herself Gay risked not only imprisonment but social disgrace and unemployability. Anyone growing up and realizing their sexual attractions ran towards people of their own sex would hear nothing but a chorus of condemnation; the church would say they were immoral, science would say they were “sick,” the economy would say they shouldn’t be allowed to work and the law would say they were criminals.
And yet Queer people and their straight allies actually stuck their toes into the pool of activism in ways sometimes subtle and sometimes surprisingly bold. At the end of the 19th century German physician and sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld organized a group called the Scientific Humanitarian Committee and started a petition calling on the German government to repeal its laws against Gay sex. The first Queer rights group in the U.S., the Society for Human Rights, was founded in Chicago in 1924 by Henry Gerber, a German immigrant inspired by Hirschfeld’s example. “I had always bitterly felt the injustice with which my own American society accused the homosexual of ‘immoral acts,’” Gerber wrote. His organization lasted less than two years.
The continuous history of Queer rights activism in the U.S. began in 1950, when Harry Hay — who, more than any other single person, deserves the title of founder of the movement — and four of his friends held a private meeting in Los Angeles. The group they founded was called the Mattachine Society, after a tribe of traveling jesters in medieval Italy whom Hay had discovered in his researches and believed had been Gay. Hay and some of the other Mattachine founders had been members of the Communist Party and the Progressive Party, which ran former vice-president Henry A. Wallace for president in 1948 under a platform of reconciliation with the Soviet Union and an end to the Cold War. Hay adopted a secretive cell-like structure for Mattachine and scored an early victory when one of its founders, Dale Jennings, was arrested for crusing an undercover police officer in a restroom. Jennings challenged the charges in court and was acquitted.
Like much of the “official” history of America’s Queer rights movement, The Lavender Scare gives short shrift to Mattachine and denounces it as accommodationist and not radical enough. Part of that reputation was earned; in 1953, Hay and the founders were purged in a sort of internalized version of the Cold War, and the people who took over at the time largely adopted the mainstream psychiatric view that homosexuality was a mental illness. They pleaded for legalization and equal rights on the ground that Queer people, like people with physical disabilities, shouldn’t be discriminated against because they were sick. But, as John D’Emilio (who’s briefly interviewed in The Lavender Scare) pointed out in his book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, his 1983 history of the pre-Stonewall Queer rights movement, visibility was a two-edged sword for the early Queer movement. Queer activists in the 1950’s realized they needed to be visible to overcome the prejudice against them — but that very visibility meant they risked being targeted for being arrested, fired and disgraced.

Kangaroo Courts and Gay Inquisitors

So when Eisenhower declared his intention to fire every last homosexual from the federal government, there was virtually no public opposition. The witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) is shown here in film clips joining the public denunciation of “perverts” and calling for their total elimination for federal employment. Eisenhower gave the task of ferreting them out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and people interviewed in The Lavender Scare recalled the kangaroo-court nature of these “investigations.”
Pairs of FBI agents just showed up at their offices and called them in for interrogation on the spot. They were not allowed legal counsel or any sort of due process. They weren’t allowed even to know what information was being used as the basis of firing them, much less the chance to confront their accusers. Also, like witch-hunters everywhere, they hounded the people they targeted to give them more names and keep the witch-hunt going. Navy Captain Joan Cassidy recalled, “They said, ‘We have your friend in the next room, she’s already told us you are Gay. You give us the names of others and we’ll go easier on you.’” 
Ironically — and, oddly, unmentioned in The Lavender Scare — some of the officials carrying out the anti-Gay witchhunt in the federal government were Gay themselves. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant, Clyde Tolson, were a deeply closeted Gay couple who lived together. Joe McCarthy’s chief of staff, Roy Cohn, was also a closeted Gay man who, after McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate in 1954 and died in 1957, became a legendary attorney in private practice in New York City. One of Cohn’s clients was a young real-estate developer named Donald Trump who had inherited a business building and renting properties in the outer boroughs of New York.
Cohn masterminded Trump’s ascension to Manhattan and became so important, powerful and influential that after his death from AIDS complications in 1987 — just months after the New York State Bar had disbarred him for ethics violations — that ever since Trump, frustrated when his later attorneys were either too incompetent or too ethical, has often asked rhetorically, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” So when Trump accuses Robert Mueller, his investigators and the Democrats on the House Judiciary, Intelligence and Oversight Committee of using “McCarthyite tactics” against him, bear in mind that it’s Trump who has the direct one-degree-of-separation connection to McCarthy himself.

Dr. Kameny Fights Back

Most of the government workers who were targeted by the Lavender Scare left government service in shame and tried as best they could to rebuild their lives. Some, including one diplomat profiled in The Lavender Scare, committed suicide. A few managed to keep their jobs. San Francisco postal worker Carl Rizzi, who performed part-time as a drag entertainer in a Gay bar, wasn’t fired because his supervisor stuck his own neck out and told the inquisitors that he knew Rizzi was Gay, but he was doing his job properly, so what was the problem? Captain Cassidy was able to stay in the service but decided to maintain a low profile and not apply for the promotions she probably deserved.
The man who stood out and not only organized a resistance to his own firing but began a movement against the policy was Dr. Franklin Kameny. Born in New York City, the son of Jewish immigrants, he decided at an early age to make astronomy his life’s work. After the war, he studied at Harvard University, where he earned a Master’s degree in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1956. He got a teaching job at Georgetown University for a year and was then hired by the U.S. government. But Kameny’s government job lasted only a few months before he fell victim to the anti-Gay witchhunt; investigators dredged up an old case in San Francisco and used it as the pretext to fire him.
Rather than go gently into the not-good night of depression and disgrace, Kameny fought back. First he sued the government and lost when, after a three-year legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case. Then he started a Mattachine Society chapter in Washington, D.C. and made the group’s top priority to support other victims of the federal government’s anti-Queer policy. Along with his colleague Jack Nichols, Lesbian activist Barbara Gittings, and a few others, Kameny tried to move Mattachine back to a more confrontational stand. In 1963 the group began a drive to repeal Washington, D.C.’s anti-sodomy law — which finally passed in 1993, 30 years later.
In 1965 Kameny did something even more radical. He decided to mount public protests against the anti-Gay policy, picketing the White House on April 17, 1965. At first he was only able to recruit 12 people for his pickets, but the demonstrations eventually grew to about 100 — remember, at a time when being Gay or Lesbian was itself illegal. Kameny imposed a strict dress code on the protesters; the men on his picket line had to wear suits and ties, and the women had to wear dresses, pump shoes and makeup. Kameny’s logic was that to demand the right to work for the federal government, his activists had to look employable. One Lesbian who marched with him recalled on The Lavender Scare that she’d never before worn pumps in her life.
Kameny’s powerful story was told in The Lavender Scare mostly in his own words. He was extensively interviewed for various documentaries on the Queer rights movement and was ultimately invited to the White House by President Barack Obama. In 2010, a year before Kameny’s death, a short stretch of street in Washington, D.C. was named for him; The Lavender Scare contains footage of the renaming ceremony.
Josh Howard’s script for The Lavender Scare dates the end of the federal government’s anti-Queer witchhunt as 1995. Though president Jimmy Carter had issued an executive order as early as 1977 ending discrimination in federal hiring on the basis of sexual orientation, there was an important loophole in it. It did not end discrimination in the granting of security clearances.
Part of the justification for Eisenhower’s original order had been the possibility that Queer people in the government would be subject to blackmail by hostile foreign powers if their sexual orientation was revealed. No one in the social climate of 1953 was about to make the obvious (to us today) counter-argument that if you eliminated the legal penalties and social opprobrium attached to being Gay or Lesbian, that would also eliminate the potential for blackmail.
So, though after 1977 Queer people could still work in branches of the federal government that didn’t require clearance, it was not until 1995 that President Bill Clinton signed an executive order banning discrimination against Queer people in granting or maintaining security clearances. And, of course, the ban on Queer people serving in the U.S. military was not finally lifted until 2010, when a Democratic Congress passed, and Democratic President Barack Obama signed, the law repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy Clinton had been forced to settle on in 1993 when he tried to end anti-Queer discrimination in the U.S. military by executive order.

Vote for Democrats!

One important object lesson of The Lavender Scare is that, contrary to the ridiculous and factually unsustainable position of people in what I call the “alt-Left” — the ones who proclaim that “there’s no difference between the Republican and Democratic parties” — there are deep and profound differences between them, especially on Queer rights. It was a Republican President, Eisenhower, who imposed the ban on Queer people in the federal government in the first place, while Democratic Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama took it down step by step.
When the final credits of The Lavender Scare flashed that Dr. Frank Kameny had died on October 11, 2011, my immediate thought was, “At least he has been spared President Trump.” Under Trump and the Republicans in his administration, particularly his evangelical Christian vice-president Mike Pence, Obama’s executive orders protecting the rights of Transgender people have been reversed, as have been Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations banning anti-Queer discrimination in federal housing projects. Trump has also banned Transgender servicemembers from the U.S. military. One New Yorker report on the Presidential transition said that Mike Pence actually lobbied Trump to repeal the executive orders Carter and Clinton had issued ending discrimination against Queer people in federal employment, though thank goodness for small mercies that Trump hasn’t — not yet, anyway — gone that far.
So one lesson from The Lavender Scare is that it’s crucial that Queer people and their straight allies in the U.S. need to vote for Democrats and not waste their votes on at best powerless and at worst counterproductive alternative parties. The Democrats haven’t always been our friends, but the Republicans — especially today, with their heavy reliance on the votes of Right-wing evangelical Christians and moral reactionaries in general — are our relentless and implacable enemies.

Frontline, June 18, 2019 (originally aired November 20, 2018): “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis” (WGBH/PBS, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Lavender Scare KPBS ran a Frontine episode called “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis,” a follow-up to a 2018 special produced by Richard Rowley and written and reported by A. C. Thompson on neo-Nazi activists in the U.S. in general and one particularly nasty group in particular: the “Atomwaffen” (German for “nuclear weapons”), a Florida-based group of about 60 “made” members (like the Mafia, the Atomwaffen requires you to commit some sort of crime — the more brutal, the better) and a few hundred “initiates” who claim some sort of affiliation with the group, keep up with it via its Internet presence, and are ready and willing to commit terrorism to promote the group’s goal of an all-white America.
“New American Nazis” was made by Rowley and Thompson as a follow-up to their earlier Frontline show about the 2017 confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia between white supremacist demonstrators and anti-racist counter-protesters, one of whom was killed when a driver from the white supremacist camp deliberately ran her down with his car. This was the incident of which President Trump famously said “there were good people on both sides — on both sides,” and this, along with his opposition to immigrants and proclamation of a “new American nationalism,” has made Trump an unlikely hero to America’s white supremacists despite his Jewish son-in-law and friendship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The organizers of Atomwaffen had a very different idea of how to run a white supremacist movement from the people who staged the protests at Charlottesville. According to “John,” a former affiliate of Atomwaffen Thompson interviewed, the Charlottesville actions led to a rise in the number of people expressing interest in joining Atomwaffen. “C-ville had a huge part in that, of the influx, applying in, asking in because they're like, ‘Oh, C-ville, wow, this didn’t work. Huge rallies don't work.’ All that happens is people get arrested, people lose jobs, and you get put on some FBI watch list.” According to “John,” Atomwaffen’s alternative strategy was to “go underground” and organize individuals to commit acts of terrorism.
Atomwaffen’s inspiration came from a white supremacist author and editor named James Mason — not to be confused with the late British actor whose closest connection with Nazism was playing Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in a 1952 biopic, The Desert Fox. The American James Mason edited a neo-Nazi newsletter called Siege in the 1980’s and the members of Atomwaffen followed his strategic guidelines. “There's a huge passage in Siege about terrorism — dropping out of the system so that you can conduct lone-wolf activity,” the pseudonymous “John” explained. “The group followed James Mason’s Siege like a Bible. It was like a Bible to them. It’s the handbook on how to operate.”
What Mason came up with for a strategic and tactical guideline is the so-called “leaderless cell” model of organization. It’s a system that has been used by other groups, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Al-Qaeda adopted it after the U.S. toppled their allies, the Taliban, from power in Afghanistan. ISIS used it from the start, though it also relied on a more conventional guerrilla-war strategy. It’s also been used by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) in the U.S. to advance environmentalism and animal rights, though strictly speaking those groups are saboteurs rather than terrorists. They destroy property but, unlike white supremacists or Muslim radicals, carefully plan their actions to avoid taking human or animal life.
Though the leaderless-cell model of organization predates the Internet, the Internet’s existence has facilitated it. Many of the actions attributed to ISIS have been carried out by people totally unknown to the group’s leaders in Iraq and Syria. They simply post onto the group’s Web site, proclaim their allegiance to it, and announce what they’re going to do and how it fits into ISIS’s ideology. Likewise, ELF and ALF function as Web sites to which people can post, attribute their actions, and explain how they advance the causes of environmentalism or animal rights. Atomwaffen appears to be a bit more centralized than that, but it still draws the distinction between “members” who take orders from a central authority and “initiates” who mount free-lance actions on behalf of the group and its white supremacist ideology.
Atomwaffen first registered on law enforcement’s radar in 2015 when police in Tampa, Florida arrested 18-year-old Devon Arthurs for killing two of his three roommates, 22-year-old Jeremy Himmelman and 18-year-old Andrew Oneschuck. Arthurs told police that he and his victims had been part of a new neo-Nazi terror group organized by their fourth roommate, Brandon Russell. Arthurs demanded to talk to an FBI agent and explain what Russell was up to. The four met as teenagers in Junior ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) classes in school — establishing a running theme through the show: how neo-Nazis and other white supremacists are infiltrating the U.S. armed forces and essentially letting the federal government train them in how to fight the U.S. government.
Devon Arthurs told police he had killed Himmelman and Oneschuck because, though he shared their white supremacist beliefs, what they and Russell were planning was too much for him. “Atomwaffen Division is a, is a terrorist organization,” Arthurs explained to the Tampa police who’d arrested him. “It's a neo-Nazi organization that I was a part of. But the things that they were planning were horrible. They were planning bombings and stuff like that on, on countless people. They were planning to kill civilian life.” Arthurs said the specific targets the Atomwaffen members discussed were “power lines, nuclear reactors [and] synagogues.”
Indeed, Thompson began and ended his program with coverage of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. Though there’s no evidence that the alleged shooter in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers, was a member or affiliate of Atomwaffen, he left behind a manifesto explaining his actions in similar white-supremacist terms. Among Atomwaffen’s other heroes are Charles Manson (the show describes the group making a sort of pilgrimage to the cave in Death Valley where Manson told his followers they would wait out the apocalyptic race war he allegedly committed his murders to spark), Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black parishioners at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. “There could be another Dylann Roof in Atomwaffen,” defector “John” warned Thompson.
“It’s unclear what the authorities did in response to Arthurs’ plea to investigate Atomwaffen,” Thompson said — though the FBI did arrest Russell and he’s currently in prison. “The FBI won’t talk to me about its handling of the case. But here’s what I do know: Atomwaffen continued to operate and its violence didn’t end. Seven months later in Virginia, Atomwaffen follower Nick Giampa allegedly killed his ex-girlfriend’s parents. They had objected to his Nazi views. Giampa has yet to stand trial. But the 17-year-old appeared to be fascinated with Atomwaffen. His social media accounts were full of its propaganda.
“Weeks later, in California, Sam Woodward was arrested for allegedly killing Blaze Bernstein, a Gay Jewish college student. Shortly after the arrest, I published a story identifying Woodward as a member of Atomwaffen. Woodward has pleaded not guilty. But in a cache of confidential chat logs I obtained, Atomwaffen celebrated the slaying. They referred to Woodward as a ‘one-man Gay Jew wrecking crew.’”
Arthurs also told authorities that Atomwaffen and similar white supremacist groups have infiltrated the U.S. military and enlisted more than once in order to learn military strategies and tactics. They’ve also helped themselves to weapons, explosives and other service materials in order to wage their own private war. And, in a frightening possibility even Thompson and Rowley didn’t explore, the ability of Atomwaffen and other white supremacists to infiltrate the U.S. military — and what the reporters describe as the military’s slipshot and desultory policy towards getting rid of them — raises the possibility that they could stage a military coup, especially if a U.S. President who’s either a white supremacist himself or a sympathizer wants to set aside the Constitution and make himself a fascist dictator.
What’s more, many white supremacists believe that in Donald Trump they have exactly that sort of President. After 15 years of public silence, James Mason, Atomwaffen’s guru, agreed to give an interview to Thompson in which he said, “With Trump winning that election by surprise, and it was a surprise, I now believe anything could be possible.” After decades of attacking the U.S. as run by what they called a “Zionist-Occupied Government,” America’s white-supremacist whites see Trump as a new hope. Mason cited Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and added, “In order to make America great again, you’d have to make America white again.” (Ironically, that echoed the criticism by Trump’s Democratic opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton, who said “Make America Great Again” was code for “Make America White Again.”)
The result of white supremacist violence, as well as mass shootings committed by others, is that America is slowly turning into an armed camp. The Frontline episode ends with Brad Orsini, an ex-FBI agent hired by the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh as their security director in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre, describing preparations for their weekly services similar to those a military unit undertakes before a battle: “We have put casualty bags in each one of our synagogues and schools. There's tourniquets. There are compression pads. There's wound-packing material.”
It’s somewhat ironic that San Diego’s PBS affiliate, KPBS, ran the Frontline episode “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis” right after the film The Lavender Scare. Both are, in a sense, about small, tight-knit groups of people who came together to fight what they consider evil and injustice. The difference is that the people who stuck their necks out for the rights of Queer people to work in the federal government were seeking to expand the rights of Americans as citizens and human beings, while the white supremacists profiled in “New American Nazis” are seeking to contract rights and remake the U.S. as either an all-white country or one in which Jews, people of color, Queers and others on their hate list are treated as what Adolf Hitler called Untermenschen — literally “below human.”
Organization and commitment are value-neutral: the same tactics people like Frank Kameny used to break the power of homophobia over American society in general and the federal government in particular can be used by people like Brandon Russell to carry out a hate-filled agenda in which only people like him are regarded as “real Americans.” With the U.S. military now a volunteer service that directly involves only about 1 percent of the American population, the real danger of people like Russell and Atomwaffen is the possibility that they might build a secret center of power within the U.S. military and ultimately turn it from an institution protecting the U.S. Constitution to one really out to destroy it and install a white-supremacist dictatorship in its place.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Another highly powerful e-mail from Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect magazine. Donald Trump has basically proclaimed himself above all Constitutional checks and balances. “No one can indict me, no one can sue me, no one can even investigate me because I won’t let them,” is essentially what he’s saying to Congress. Clearly he’s counting on his five Right-wing toadies on the U.S. Supreme Court to say that whatever he wants to do is legal, no matter how many historical precedents they have to overturn to do so. American democracy is already on life support, if not entirely doomed.

May 20, 2019

Kuttner on TAP

Impunity: Understanding Trump's Coup d'État. Trump’s categorical denial of any wrongdoing and his wall-to-wall efforts to block all investigations, whether by Congress or in other investigations such as the Deutsche Bank case, adds up to a blanket claim of impunity As Richard Nixon claimed, if the president does it, it’s legal.

Nixon’s contention, of course, was ridiculed and not allowed to stand. But that was in a different era—with independent courts, a Democratic majority in Congress, and even some principled Republicans. None of those obtain today.

If the president, as Trump claims, is literally above the law, and by definition cannot be investigated in any legal venue, then this has ceased to be a democracy. We are not quite there yet, but we are close.

Congress, as Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland has proposed, could impeach Trump on the narrow ground of contempt of Congress, one of the counts in the Nixon impeachment. If ever there were an open and shut case, it’s this one. Trump has made it all too clear that he and his associates will resist any congressional demand, no matter how legitimate.

It’s also possible that highly damaging information, against Trump, his enterprises, or his family, will emerge from one of the other investigations, such as the Deutsche Bank case, where both Congress and the New York state attorney general have ongoing investigations of possible corruption in the bank’s extensive financing of the Trump organization. Trump has sued Deutsche Bank in an effort to block the bank’s cooperation with prosecutors’ demands for documents. The bank’s loyalty to customer Trump is at odds with its health as a government-regulated institution.

At bottom, there is a race between several investigations and the Republican takeover of the courts, which is not yet quite complete. There is still some judicial independence. But if we lose this race, and Trump manages to place himself above the law by definition, then his coup is complete.

The idea that we must choose tactically between going forward with impeachment and winning the 2020 election is preposterous. If Trump is above the law, then he can steal the election in several key states. 

Those of us who want American democracy to survive and thrive need to be waging this battle on every available front. ~ ROBERT KUTTNER

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

PBS’s “Frontline”'s Timely Exploration of U.S.-China Trade War

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was a spectacularly well-timed documentary on PBS’s long-running Frontline show, “Trump’s Trade War,” focusing mostly on Trump’s trade war with China in particular — which just heated up again when, on the eve of negotiations between the two countries (their trade representatives had been meeting in Beijing and were scheduled to continue their talks in Washington, D.C.) Trump sent out a tweet last weekend announcing that because the U.S. economy is doing so well, he’s raising the 10 percent tariff he unilaterally imposed on a wide range of Chinese goods to 25 percent: “For 10 months, China has been paying Tariffs to the USA of 25% on 50 Billion Dollars of High Tech, and 10% on 200 Billion Dollars of other goods. These payments are partially responsible for our great economic results. The 10% will go up to 25% on Friday. 325 Billions Dollars of additional goods sent to us by China remain untaxed, but will be shortly, at a rate of 25%.” He seems to be saying that his hard line on Chinese trade is actually boosting the economy, while other, more rational capitalists are responding by bidding down the stock market, which suffered one of its biggest one-day losses ever yesterday. The Frontline show was, of course, filmed before this latest development in the U.S.-China trade relationship, but it had a number of interesting themes, including Steve Bannon (dressed as shabbily as we remember) boasting that what he hopes to achieve with a hard line against China on trade is a shift in power within China’s (nominally) Communist regime. The show also featured interviews with Chinese officials and industrialists, one of whom made the intriguing comment that China has chosen to develop their automobile industry not only because that offers direct competition with the U.S. but because modern-day cars, with their heavy reliance on computer technology and the increasing use of composite materials rather than metals to make them, are sort of an acid test for a modern economy: if you can make a state-of-the-art car, you can make just about anything. There was a brief reference to the increasing automation of manufacturing — one U.S. interviewee pointed out that American manufacturing may be shrinking in terms of its total percentage of the U.S. labor force, but it’s increasing in total output — though, as I pointed out during the 2016 campaign, it’s cold comfort to the displaced American worker whether he (or she) lost his (or her) job to a Mexican, a Chinese, or a computer.

The show also chronicled Trump’s never-evolving views on trade — in the late 1980’s he bought into the consensus view at the time that the biggest threat to U.S. economic hegemony was Japan (as did the late professor Chalmers Johnson — I went to a couple of his book events and embarrassed him by reminding him of that), and when the Japanese economy collapsed in the early 1990’s he simply shifted his animus to China. The show also mentioned that one Leitmotif of Trump’s talks about trade is his insistence that other countries are “laughing at us” over our misbegotten trade policies and our willingness to cave in to them out of some abstract commitment to “free markets.” As he told Playboy in a fascinating interview, published in March 1990, that’s probably the best expression of Trump’s world view from the man himself, “We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing a hundred and fifty billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about fifteen minutes if it weren’t for us. Our ‘allies’ are making billions screwing us.” The Frontline show mentions the endless and unresolved “trade meetings” Trump used to hold with his advisors, and one of the interviewees, former assistant treasury secretary Gary Cole, recalled trying to explain to Trump that a “trade deficit” doesn’t actually mean we owe X amount of dollars to some other country that they can sue us to collect. Cole told Bob Woodward for the book Fear: Trump in the White House that at one point he actually tried to challenge Trump by asking him on what information he based his ideas about trade — and Trump couldn’t come up with anything. Instead he told Cole, “I don’t know why I believe those things, but I’ve believed them for 30 years.” 

Aspects of the U.S.-China relationship that did not get discussed on Frontline include China’s continuing and growing investment in renewable energy technologies — while the U.S. under Trump has virtually stopped investing in renewable energy, leading to a possible future in which in order to get ourselves off fossil fuels at long last we will have to buy the technology to do so from China — and the uncomfortable fact that the Chinese government-industrial complex (though they’ve strayed incredibly far from the original ideals of socialism and communism, the Chinese have kept a connection between the state and the private economy so much that it’s hard to draw a strict dividing line between the two — as witness the interview in the Frontline program with a Silicon Valley banker who noted that Chinese investors were coming to him with billions of dollars with which to buy U.S. high-tech companies, amounts of money only the Chinese government could be supplying even though the buyers were supposedly representing “private” Chinese companies) is also the world’s largest holder of the U.S. national debt. I’ve mused in these pages before that some day we might find that China has simply foreclosed on us, and in line with the practice of China in their imperial days they might well make demands on us that amount to “suzerainty and tribute” — i.e., they will let us run our country pretty much the way we want but we’d have to acknowledge that the Chinese were in ultimate control of our destiny, and especially our foreign policy (“suzerainty”), and we’d also have to pay them large amounts of money (“tribute”) to be part of the overall Chinese protectorate. 

This show, written and directed by Rick Young, would have been even stronger if it had explored the debt issue (and particularly the extent to which, while talking tough on China in other respects, the Trump administration gave China more leverage over us by funding their huge tax cut for the American rich via more borrowing from China) and the extent to which, by planning their economy for the next 10, 20 and even 50 years, China is poised to catch up with and overtake us in technology after technology. The show mentioned China’s practice of allowing foreign companies to invest in China only via co-ventures with Chinese companies, on terms that require the U.S. partners to give their Chinese co-venturers all their technological secrets (one of the big sticking points in the U.S.-China trade negotiations), but did not mention the equally important fact that the Chinese are sending their brightest students to study in the U.S. and learn our technological secrets from the source, then return with them to China and put their knowledge at the service of Chinese industry and technology to beat us at what used to be our own game. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that “industrial policy” — a measure of planning ahead for a country’s economic future, deciding which are going to be the next important sectors and guiding investments accordingly — is a much better way to run an economy than the lassiez-faire way we’ve historically done it, in which the very idea of an industrial policy routinely gets rejected as “socialistic.” The Chinese will probably beat us eventually, and self-destructive policies like Trump’s tariffs will only hasten the day when China becomes the world’s economic leader because protectionism cuts both ways: we may be shielding our companies from their competition, but we’re also forcing them to put their own resources into duplicating our achievements and ultimately surpassing them — especially since we will be facing an economic future in which the U.S. owes China tons of money we have no realistic way of paying back!

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Harold Meyerson on the Supreme Court as Trump’s Lackeys

I just got another e-mail from Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect magazine on how the U.S. Supreme Court, or at least its five-member Right-wing majority, has lost all judicial objectivity and will vote to uphold just about every racist, sexist, anti-Queer thing Donald Trump and his Administration wants to do. Meyerson’s specific target in this e-mail is the Trump Administration's determination to include the question, “Are you a U.S. citizen?,” on the 2020 census form despite warnings from the U.S. Census Bureau that this could cause an undercount of over 5 percent among communities of color in general and Latinos in particular. Of course, to the Trumpites undercounting people of color isn’t a glitch, it’s a feature! This also explains Trump’s attitude towards the Department of Homeland Security — particularly his orders to its personnel to go ahead and break the law, because he will pardon them. Trump obviously thinks he OWNS the Supreme Court, and therefore he can do anything he wants, including making it impossible for Congress to investigate his administration by barring all past and present staff members from speaking to Congressional committees, because he’s confident that, whatever the legal precedents, his five pet Justices will rule however he wants them to rule.

APRIL 23, 2019

Meyerson on TAP

The GOP Justices: Republicans First, White Guys Second, Constitutionalists Third. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today on the constitutionality of President Trump’s Commerce Department adding a question on citizenship status to the 2020 census, and it looked like the five Republican pooh-bahs (Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh) are poised to give it a thumbs-up.

What this means is that the census—for which the Constitution mandates “counting the whole number of persons in each state”—will likely produce what the Census Bureau calculated to be a 5.1 percent undercount of noncitizen households, as respondents understandably spooked by Trump’s war on immigrants decide not to return their forms. And what that means, of course, is an undercount of immigrants—disproportionately Latino, Asian, or African, and thus disproportionately Democrat—and an overrepresentation of whites, disproportionately Republican.

Opponents of adding the question have argued that it would violate the Constitution’s mandate by leading to that undercount, and that it also would violate the federal law requiring the commerce secretary (in whose department the Census Bureau is housed) to report all additional questions to Congress three years before the date of the census, which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross clearly didn’t do.

Three of the Republican stalwarts—Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch—had already made clear in earlier actions that they favored including the question on the census. In today’s hearing, Kavanaugh made that clear as well, and Roberts, the only potential swing voter on the Court, also indicated by his questioning that he’s inclined to back the question’s inclusion.

If Roberts does indeed side with his four Republican colleagues, the ruling would be the third in a series of landmark 5-to-4 Roberts Court decisions whose chief purpose is to cement Republican control of federal and state governments. The first such ruling, the 2013 Shelby County decision, effectively neutered the 1965 Voting Rights Act, thereby permitting Republican state governments to toss minority voters off the rolls and make it difficult for them to register. Absent Shelby County, Democrat Stacey Abrams, not Republican Brian Kemp, would almost surely be the governor of Georgia today.

The second such decision was the 5-to-4 ruling in last year’s Janus case, in which the five GOP justices decreed that employees in a unionized public-sector workplace didn’t have to pay dues to the union, though the union was still required to represent and advocate for them in collective bargaining and any grievances they had with their employer. The ruling was expected to produce a sharp drop in the membership and thus the financial and people-power resources of public-employee unions, though at least the big four public unions—AFSCME, AFT, NEA, and SEIU—have seen no such drops because their members chose to stick with them, and because they also have since recruited new members. Nonetheless, as the Republican justices were acutely aware, the public-sector unions register and mobilize more potential voters—particularly in Black and Latino communities—than any other organizations, and thus play a major role in building Election Day support for Democratic candidates.

Should the Court now rule in favor of Ross’s citizenship question, that would add one more landmark ruling plainly intended to bolster Republican electoral prospects. And should the Court rule in a future case that it must keep its hands off deliberate Republican gerrymandering of districts, that would add yet one further ruling designed to enable Republicans to continue to hold power even if a majority of voters in a state or the nation vote (or try to vote) for Democrats.

If you were wondering why Trump and Mitch McConnell are determined to pack the courts, and the Court, with Republican hacks, wonder no longer. ~ HAROLD MEYERSON

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Stony the Road: The Second Half of Henry Louis Gates’ “Reconstruction”


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

At 9 p.m. yesterday I watched the remaining two hours of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS mini-series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. The first two hours, shown last week, dealt with the Reconstruction period itself (1865-1877), when for much of the time the South was literally occupied by the U.S. military and, under the rule of a Republican Congress whose leaders took the rights of African-Americans seriously and used federal troops to enforce them, Black Americans became landowners, businesspeople and even elected officials.
Alas, the brave dream of achieving racial equality in America as an aftermath of the Civil War faded quickly under the lash of Southern terror — the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations were founded, often by former Confederate Army officers, and their purpose was to destroy Black-owned property and intimidate Black people into abandoning their dreams of equality and accepting a perpetual state of servitude almost indistinguishable from slavery — and Northern war-weariness.
By the 1890’s Blacks had been driven from power and fortune through a series of increasingly restrictive measures, including voter suppression through poll taxes, literacy tests and bizarre qualifications (dramatized in the opening scene of the movie Selma in which a would-be Black voter, played in a cameo by Oprah Winfrey, is obliged to guess correctly how many jellybeans are in a large jar of them) that had the side effect of disenfranchising a lot of poor white people as well, along with outright terror — including an infamous massacre of Black officeholders and their supporters in Wilmington, North Carolina (the last redoubt of Black political power in the South at the end of the 19th century) that left 600 people dead and the Cape Fear River literally running red with blood.
Gates makes powerful points about the persistence and unscrupulousness of white supremacists in the South and how they’re still operating today — including the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia two years ago in which gangs of neo-Nazi and neo-Klan activists tried to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee against the efforts of a multiracial city government to have it taken down. Gates also discusses the history of these Confederate monuments in the first place, saying that they were part of a Southern propaganda campaign to rewrite the history of the Civil War as a noble “Lost Cause” in what paternal whites enslaved Blacks with deep kindness and humility and for their own good because these people simply weren’t as good as us. (Barf.)
The combination of racist propaganda, spread throughout the country via books, plays, posters, cartoons, and ultimately movies — including D. W. Griffith’s 1915 masterpiece The Birth of a Nation, both a landmark in the history of cinema as an art form and a bizarre piece of racist propaganda (Gates shows the infamous scene in which Mae Marsh, as the film’s second white female lead, jumps off a cliff to her death rather than allow herself the Fate Worse than Death of being raped by a Black man — played by a white actor in preposterously unconvincing blackface; for once Griffith’s racism overpowered his filmmaking acumen) which won the endorsement of President Woodrow Wilson and became the most popular movie of the entire silent era.
The racist propaganda campaign also extended into the halls of academe; not only did history departments rewrite the history of Reconstruction according to the Southern propaganda blueprint (as I’ve noted before, if anyone in 1915 had seen The Birth of a Nation or read about the controversy surrounding it and gone to a library to research whether the film was historically accurate, the books they would have found would have said it was), biologists and anthropologists published elaborate racial typographies to indicate that Blacks were a lower order of humanity, not fully human but simply intermediate stages on our evolution from apes. (I remember being startled, though not really surprised, to read reports at a recent Right-wing convention that they were presenting speakers denouncing the early 20th-century anthropologist Franz Boas, the first scientist to take on the scientific racists and debunk their ridiculous theories.)
Fortunately, Gates’s Reconstruction is not all gloom and doom; he also dramatizes the people in the Black community who fought back, including journalist Ida B. Wells, who traveled the country collecting stories of lynchings and wrote for a Black paper, the New York Age, after she was driven out of Memphis, Tennessee, her home town (I encountered her in an earlier PBS documentary on the Black press and said her story would make a great feature film — I even named Halle Berry as the actress who should play her) and W. E. B. Du Bois, a professor of such giant intellect it’s hard to categorize him into any one discipline, who published sociological studies of Black communities in Northern cities and “made his bones” in 1903 with a collection of essays called The Souls of Black Folk that directly challenged the leading African-American leader of his time, Booker T. Washington.
Washington (a name he chose for himself; the “T.” stood for the name of his former slavemaster, Taliaferro, pronounced “Tolliver”) had become a media superstar in 1895 through a speech he’d made at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition in which he basically said that Blacks should be content to be farmers and manual laborers, and Black schools should train them for these sorts of jobs and to be teachers in Black-only schools, and forget about voting or political power or building businesses or pursuing intellectual careers. Nuts to that, said Du Bois; he thought the Black community should not only aspire to anything whites could do, but should develop what he called a “Talented Tenth” — an intellectual elite who would not only lead the struggle for racial equality but would serve, by their own examples, as a response to the racist arguments about what Blacks were and weren’t capable of doing.
Du Bois also wrote the first major book by a qualified historian challenging the Southern white-supremacist version of Reconstruction, Black Reconstruction in America (1935) — a quarter-century before white historians like Erle McKitrick, Kenneth Stampp and Eric Foner (the last of whom is still alive and was interviewed for this program, one of the few white people Gates and the filmmakers cited as a source — in using mostly Black experts for his talking heads Gates was clearly doing a little Talented Tenthing of his own) — though by then he had become a member of the Communist Party, U.S.A. and he had adopted a Marxist analysis of Reconstruction for which Adam Gopnik, reviewing the Reconstruction film and Gates’s book Stony the Road, published in conjunction with the documentary, for the New Yorker (, rather oddly faults him:

Du Bois tries strenuously to fit the story of the end of Reconstruction into a Marxist framework: the Southern capitalists were forcing serfdom upon their agricultural laborers in parallel to the way that the Northern ones were forcing it on their industrial workers. His effort is still echoed in some contemporary scholarship. But an agricultural class reduced to serfdom is exactly the kind of stagnant arrangement that capitalism chafes against. Sharecropping is not shareholding.

Not surprisingly, I think Du Bois got it right and Gopnik got it wrong. The Northern industrialists, financiers and other capitalists who dominated the Republican Party in the last third of the 19th century wanted the South as a largely dispossessed area, a sort of American latifundia that would produce cheap cotton to feed the North’s highly developed textile industry and would also provide a source of cheap industrial labor in case Northern white workers got too uppity and started demanding things like decent wages, limited hours, health and safety regulations and the right to form unions. That’s why there were huge steel mills in Birmingham, Alabama (actually in Bessemer, a suburb created especially to house them and named after one of the inventors of modern steel-making) by the end of the 19th century.
Nothing sums up the change in the attitudes of Northern Republicans like the two statements by Ohio Congressmember John Bingham, the principal author of the Fourteenth Amendment, who in 1871 said he had definitively intended the Amendment to protect the rights of African-Americans — and in 1881 said equally definitively that he had intended it to protect the rights of corporations. In the last fourth of the 19th Century the U.S. Supreme Court swung hard Right on both economic and racial issues: it was in 1886 that the Court declared that corporations were “persons” and therefore protected by the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment — a doctrine that for the next 50 years would be used as a cudgel to strike down virtually any attempt to regulate giant corporations to protect workers, consumers or the environment.
It led to a concept called “substantive due process” which took the idea of “due process” beyond its surface meaning — that if you are going to be prosecuted or regulated, it has to be done within a legal process with certain safeguards to make it fair — and which ruled entire areas of potential government action, including minimum-wage legislation, health and safety regulation, and limits on the development and industrial exploitation of public lands, presumptively unconstitutional as a violation of the “substantive due process” rights of corporate “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment.
It was also in 1883 that the Supreme Court, in a series of consolidated actions called the Civil Rights Cases, ruled that the 1875 Civil Rights Act, passed by a lame-duck Republican Congress after Democrats swept the 1874 midterms and which was virtually identical to the landmark bill of the same title passed in 1964, was unconstitutional because government had no business telling private business owners whom they may or may not serve. This argument is still heard today; Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said during his campaign that if he’d been in Congress he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act for that reason.
It was also the argument Barry Goldwater made when he did vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a key step in the historic “flip” of America’s two main political parties on civil rights that started in the ’teens but became final in the 1960’s. The Democrats, the party of slavery, segregation and the Klan, became the party of equal rights for African-Americans and, later, other oppressed groups; while the Republicans became the party of white supremacy and racism, still calling themselves the “Party of Lincoln” but losing all connection to what Lincoln and the other Republican Unionists had actually been fighting for in the Civil War and ending up on the other side.

Why Jazz Was Born in New Orleans

The famous test case of Plessy v. Ferguson followed 13 years later and basically enshrined racial segregation into American law. What Gates deserves credit for pointing out in the program is that Plessy v. Ferguson was actually a test case, initiated in 1892 to challenge a law in Louisiana that required separate railroad cars for white and Black passengers. The significance of the case originating in Louisiana and the plaintiff, Homer Adolph Plessy, having a French-sounding last name is that Plessy wasn’t visibly Black at all: he was one of the mixed-race New Orleans Creoles who, like the mixed-race “Coloreds” in South Africa during apartheid, had an ambiguous social position, lower than whites but higher than Blacks.
As the only part of the United States that had originally been settled by the French, who had at least a somewhat gentler attitude towards racial mixing and interracial people than the Anglos who had settled the first 13 colonies that formed the United States, Louisiana had given birth to a class of Creoles that identified with white Western culture, specifically French culture, and regarded France, not Africa, as their true homeland.
Plessy was selected for the test case, brought by the railroads who didn’t want the extra expense of having to maintain segregated cars, because he was a New Orleans Creole who was only one-sixteenth Black, and in order to get himself arrested so he could start the test case he had to cross over from a Black to a white car and announce to a train steward that he was Black and was refusing to leave the white car, so the steward would have him arrested. Plessy v. Ferguson was decided in 1896 and ruled that the equal protection clause did not bar segregation as long as the facilities were “separate but equal” — which, not surprisingly, they never were; the film contains plenty of photographs of separate white and Black facilities that show, better than any narration or talking-heads could, how decidedly unequal the Black facilities were to the white ones.
Gates doesn’t mention the cultural dynamics created by the segregation laws, especially in Louisiana — though his book (albeit not the show itself) argues that, instead of the elaborate literary and scholarly books published by African-American intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but popular music in general and jazz in particular: “There was, in fact, a genuine renaissance occurring during the Harlem literary renaissance, but it wasn’t among the writers. The renaissance was occurring among those great geniuses of Black vernacular culture, the musicians who created the world’s greatest art form in the twentieth century—jazz.”
What this ignores is that the creation of jazz was itself a direct result of racial segregation, and in particular its imposition in Louisiana, where the proud Creoles were thrown down from their perch midway up the racial hierarchy from Blacks to whites and forced into the same category as the Blacks. That, I’ve long believed, is why jazz was born when (the 1890’s) and where (New Orleans) it was: the Creoles brought their European conservatory training and command of the Western musical instruments to the mix, while the Blacks brought their folk traditions and in particular the spirit of gospel music and the blues.
Had segregation not jammed the Creoles and the Blacks of New Orleans into the same bands and the same venues, I suspect African-American popular music would have bifurcated into the sophisticated ragtime of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries on one hand, and the rough-hewn folk blues of the Black working class on the other — just as white American pop music split between the relative sophistication of Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway (and, later, Hollywood) musical scores that have become known as the “Great American Songbook” on one hand, and the folk traditions of bluegrass, hillbilly and Western music that became the basis of country music on the other.
Tbe extent to which the origin of jazz came from a fusion between the Creole and Black cultures of New Orleans is illustrated by the personnel listings of early jazz bands, which are full of both Anglo (Black) and French (Creole) names. One can hear the tension between the great Creole genius Sidney Bechet and the great Black genius Louis Armstrong on the records they made together with Clarence Williams’ Blue Five and the Red Onion Jazz Babies in 1924.

Minstrelsy and Ethnic Humor in General

Gates’s discussion of Blacks in popular culture in the early 20th century is the one that’s become typical, presenting the whole minstrelsy tradition as racist propaganda and denying that the vaudeville and revue stages of the first 20 years of the 20th century contained equally insulting and stereotypical presentations of white ethnics. As I wrote in my article on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the demands by fellow Democrats for his resignation because he had posed in blackface during his college years:

One of the key elements of the Left-wing McCarthyist attack on Ralph Northam is an hysterical, ahistorical condemnation of the whole idea of blackface. Northam’s critics are speaking and acting as if Northam actually joined the Ku Klux Klan or led a lynch mob. To understand what blackface really means you have to look at it in historical context. It was part of a wide variety of ethnic stereotypes comedians and entertainers in the U.S. trafficked in from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. Look at the products of classic Hollywood and you will see comedians who specialized in playing stereotyped Germans, stereotyped Swedes, stereotyped Irishmen, stereotyped Jews and stereotyped Blacks.
The Marx Brothers began their careers playing ethnic stereotypes: Groucho was the “comic Jew,” Chico the “comic Italian” and Harpo, until he gradually got fewer and fewer lines of dialogue until he stopped speaking on stage at all, was “Patsy Brannigan,” the “comic Irishman.” Since the Marx Brothers actually were Jewish, modern audiences watching their movies tend to regard Groucho as the most “authentic” of them — but the people who went to their vaudeville appearances, their Broadway musicals and the initial releases of their movies saw Groucho as just another ethnic comedian playing a Jew.
There’s evidence that at least some blackface performers regarded their work as a genuine, heartfelt tribute to authentic Black music and culture. One of the most interesting documents of this is the 1934 film Wonder Bar, in which Al Jolson — whose star power and status as the first person who played the lead in a successful sound film kept blackface and the minstrel-show tradition it sprang out of going for about two generations after it would have otherwise died out — has two large production numbers.
On his whiteface number, “Vive la France” (the film is set in Paris and casts Jolson as an American entertainer who owns a nightclub there), Jolson sings in a high, rather whiny tenor with a fast, irritating vibrato. On his blackface number, “Going to Heaven on a Mule,” he drops his register, sings from the chest instead of the throat, slows his vibrato and achieves a sound surprisingly like that of the genuinely African-American concert singers and Broadway performers of the time. The number itself, directed by Busby Berkeley, is a conglomeration of just about every racist stereotype you can imagine (which probably kept this film from being revived in the early 1970’s with Berkeley’s other major films), but Jolson’s sincerity and soul transcend the minstrelsy conventions and are genuinely moving.

Indeed, one of the most annoying aspects of the critique of blackface as ipso facto racism is it ignores the fact that many of the most prominent blackface performers, as well as the songwriters who supplied them material, were themselves members of a persecuted minority: they were Jews. That includes not only performers like Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker (whose star-making hit, “Some of These Days,” was written by Black songwriter Shelton Brooks and who, though she didn’t perform in blackface, was advertised as a “coon shouter” — i.e., a white singer who could sound Black) but songwriters like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, as well as producers like Florenz Ziegfeld.
When PBS ran the three-part series Broadway: The American Musical I argued that the entire Broadway musical tradition was a fusion of Black and Jewish culture, to the point where Broadway show creators who weren’t either Black or Jewish consciously tried to emulate those who were. Cole Porter once said that the reason he became a successful songwriter in the late 1920’s after a decade of disappointments was “I learned to write Jewish,” and Jerome Kern’s biggest hit was the faux-spiritual “Ol’ Man River.”
That’s why I got annoyed with the 2008 film Cadillac Records, in which Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), real-life co-owner (with his brother) of a record label which marketed Black music to Black (and, later, white) audiences, is portrayed as so naïve about racism his Black artists have to explain it to him. Had I been writing the script, I would have had Chess respond, “Look, I know all about prejudice! I’m Jewish, and a lot of the people who don’t like you don’t like us, either!”
But then one of my problems with a lot of modern-day social criticism from African-Americans and their white supporters is they tend to lump everyone with fairer skin into an amorphous “white” category and ignore the often fierce ethnic and social prejudices between Euro-Americans depending on which part of Europe they came from. I was grimly amused when many of the white supremacists who protested in Charlottesville in 2017 had names that sounded Italian, Slavic or Celtic — i.e., they were people who wouldn’t have been considered “white” by previous generations of white supremacists in the 1890’s, the 1930’s or even the 1960’s.
One good thing Gates’s Reconstruction program did on the cultural front was mount a fairly long segment on the Black minstrel performer Bert Williams, who started out in a comedy team with George Walker and became a huge star on his own — he was the first Black performer featured in a Broadway musical and he joined the Ziegfeld Follies (where W. C. Fields met him and called him “the funniest man I’ve ever seen on stage — and the saddest man I’ve ever seen off stage”).
Gates argues that Williams was the pioneer of the “double act” a lot of Black performers trying to cross over to white audiences have done: played up to the stereotypes of the white audience while also giving his Black fans what Gates called “the wink,” the acknowledgment that he knew he was playing a stereotype that didn’t reflect what Blacks were really like, but he was also making fun of the stereotype and the whites who believed it was what Blacks were really like.
Williams took on the insulting designation of many Black performers, and characters in songs about Blacks, as “coons” and turned it on its head by advertising himself and Walker as “The Two Real Coons” — driving white minstrelsy performers up the wall with their bold claim that essentially said, “Don’t watch them pretending to be us. Watch the real deal!”
Gates compared them to the rap group N.W.A. (whose name stood for “Niggers with Attitude”), though I loathe rap — especially the so-called “gangsta rap” N.W.A. pioneered and personified, with its relentless glorification of murder, rape, crime in general and acquisition of material goods (including the horribly tasteless jewelry known as “bling”) — so much I get cold chills at any documentary that has anything nice to say about it. Still, the point is that Williams paved the way for a lot of Black performers (including Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Richard Pryor) who built huge white followings by at once superficially depicting and actually lampooning racist stereotypes.

Reconstruction: The Sequel(s)

Gates races through the last parts of his story — perhaps someday he will be able to do a follow-up about African-American civil-rights activism in the first half of the 20th century, both the relatively sedate legal kind practiced by the NAACP (whose founding is depicted here as part of the segment on Du Bois, who moved from the Black-led Niagara Movement — so called because it had its inaugural convention at Niagara Falls — to the largely white-led National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909 and of which Du Bois was the only Black member of the founding board; instead of taking the group’s presidency he picked the role of what was essentially its information minister, editing and writing a great deal of its flagship magazine, The Crisis) and more upfront activism that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision invalidating racial segregation in education in 1954 and creating what I’ve argued elsewhere was a sort of “hunting license” to the African-American community.

Brown didn’t grant civil rights immediately but did spark the most intensive decade of African-American activism in U.S. history — even though, as I said when I wrote about the first half of this program, we shouldn’t make the easy assumption that Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” One could read the reaction of America under President Trump and the resurgence of white supremacism and ethnic nationalism in general not only in this country but through much of the world as a temporary setback in the arc of history bending towards justice — or one could read the possibility that the gains of the 1960’s civil rights movement, which then and since has often been called “The Second Reconstruction,” will turn out to be as evanescent as the first, as the forces of white supremacism regain control of both America’s politics (which they’ve come close to achieving) and its culture (from which they’re a lot farther away) and make the idea that there ever was an African-American U.S. President as inconceivable as it was 100 years ago that there had ever been an African-American U.S. Senator.