Quantcast

Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

  •  
Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Pardoning the Scottsboro Boys, Eighty Years Too Late

The Scottsboro boys dancing and singing in an Alabama prison in 1937. (AP Photo)

The Scottsboro boys dancing and singing in an Alabama prison in 1937. (AP Photo)

Eighty-two years after being pulled off a Memphis-bound freight train, accused of raping two white women, threatened with lynching and subjected to years of blatant miscarriages of justice, the three Scottsboro Boys who had not yet been acquitted or pardoned were cleared by the state of Alabama on November 21. “Today is a reminder that it is never too late to right a wrong,” said State Senator Arthur Orr, who sponsored a bill to create a legal framework for the pardon. But however important as a symbolic gesture, the overdue action only underscored the fact that justice delayed is by definition justice denied: Clarence Norris, the last of the Scottsboro Boys, died in 1989.

Edited and published at the time by NAACP co-founder Oswald Garrison Villard, The Nation immediately recognized Scottsboro as a vital front in the battle for civil rights and dispatched associate editor Dorothy Van Doren to Alabama to report on the case. Eight of the nine boys arrested had been charged in a snap trial lasting less than two weeks and were scheduled to hang in June 1931, but that date was postponed as a motion for a new trial was granted. They would remain in legal limbo, enduring numerous retrials and new convictions at the hands of all-white juries—even after one of the accusers admitted her allegation was a lie—for years.

In “Eight Who Must Not Die” (June 3, 1931), Van Doren wrote that precisely what made the accused such ripe targets for a racist and bloodthirsty Alabama judicial system was precisely what made their exoneration—if, as seemed clear to Van Doren and most observers, they were innocent—all the more necessary. In words sure to make twenty-first-century progressives uncomfortable, she wrote of the defendants:

None of them can read or write. All have unsavory reputations. They have been accused of various petty crimes—gambling, thieving, more or less harmful mischief in general. They are not noble characters; it is a safe guess that not one of them will ever amount to much. They are the products of ignorance, of the most wretched and extreme poverty, of dirt, disorder, and race oppression. Yet there is no reason in the world why they should not have every legal right accorded to the finest and most cultivated person in the land. They are poor and ignorant and irresponsible. All the more should the state protect them, all the more should every device of the courts and every safeguard of the law be invoked to the end that justice be served.

Two years later, as the proceedings were moved from Scottsboro to Decatur—“from all reports just a larger Scottsboro”—The Nation wrote in an editorial: “The Scottsboro boys are now more than ever in mortal danger. It is likely that only the pressure of public opinion upon the State of Alabama can save their lives. We hope that that pressure will be increasingly applied, by letter, by telegram, and by widespread publicity.”

In 1936, the great journalist Carleton Beals—who otherwise mostly wrote for The Nation on South and Central American politics—traveled to Alabama to interview Ozie Powell, the Scottsboro defendant who told a judge he had only three months of schooling and who, earlier that year, had been shot in the head by a police officer after pulling out a knife. Beals wrote in his article not only about the accused, but also about their accusers—the Alabaman whites looking for scapegoats:

As one rides through the countryside and sees the shacks in which they live, the boards warped and rotting, the windows broken and stuffed with rags, as one looks at the stony hillsides and the pine trees standing in swampy pools, one realizes that many of these people in America in the twentieth century live worse than most peasants in the Balkans and certainly have fewer cultural attainments. They fear the Negroes. It is an economic fear. It is a physical fear. It is a cultural fear. It is a blind fear.

In 1937, four of the Scottsboro Boys were acquitted of all charges, while the remaining four—Haywood Patterson, Andrew Wright, Charlie Weems and Clarence Norris—were convicted of rape and sentenced to seventy-five years, ninety-nine years, 105 years and death (later commuted to life), respectively. The peculiar and uneven conclusion to the case perplexed outside observers and prompted Morris Shapiro, secretary of the Scottsboro Defense Committee, to write in The Nation: “Alabama justice has yielded to expediency in the Scottsboro case. No other explanation is possible for the farcical finale which left the state in the anomalous position of providing only 50 per cent protection for the ‘flower of Southern womanhood.’”

All of the defendants were out of prison by 1950. Norris had jumped parole and wasn’t found until 1976, in Brooklyn; George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, pardoned him. Many of the others had found life extraordinarily difficult after the hardships they endured: Patterson died in prison after being convicted of manslaughter; Wright, living in Albany, New York, was again falsely accused of rape and later stabbed his wife; his little brother, Roy, just 13 at the time of his arrest, shot his wife and then himself in 1959.

As early as June 1931, Dorothy Van Doren had predicted that even if exonerated the Scottsboro Boys would not have easy lives. This was not so much because of the trauma of their recent ordeal, she wrote, as because of the overwhelmingly hostile and racist world into which they had been born. It was worthwhile, Van Doren wrote,

to consider for a moment to what sort of world they will get out, if they get out. Earnest persons who want to help somewhere and do not quite know how might ponder this point. They will reenter a world of poverty, ignorance, and race repression. Their chances of being in it a credit either to themselves or to their country are not large. Their chances even of living out their lives peaceably and dying in their beds are not large. They are the children of violence, and it is altogether likely that violence will overtake them in the end.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

The Impoverished Republican Poverty Agenda

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2008. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2008 (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

What are Republicans for? We know they are against healthcare reform. They voted en masse against it, shut down the government to stop it and have voted nearly fifty times to defund it. We know they are against government spending. They’ve voted for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s draconian budgets, which would slash spending so deeply that even some Republicans are in increasingly open revolt. But those budgets don’t go anywhere. So what do Republicans propose that actually addresses the challenges facing the nation or its people?

Republican leaders are clearly concerned that their policy house is largely vacant. In his dissection of the lost 2012 campaign, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus noted that Republicans suffer a “major deficiency”—the “perception that the GOP does not care about people.” He urged a renewed effort to become “the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder.”

All that advice was lost in the anti-Obama venom that unifies Republicans. But after the government shutdown sent Republican poll numbers plummeting to new depths, a new effort—or at least a new public relations push—has been launched. The early reports make the administration’s botched health-care takeoff look smooth by comparison.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Politico noted that Republicans trooping into House majority leader Eric Cantor’s office received a paper titled “Agenda 2014.” The paper was blank. As of now, Politico reported, details are scant, but Republicans seem to be focused more on identifying the problems than the solutions. “The beginning should always be what are the problems we’re trying to fix,” said Republican policy chair James Lankford (Okla.). Or as a GOP aide involved in the planning sessions was quoted: “Cantor wants to take us in a new direction, which is good. The problem is that we don’t know where we are headed, and we don’t know what we can sell to our members.”

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Tantalizing Mockery of Thanksgiving, 1931

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover's 1931 Thanksgiving address was insulting to poor and unemployed US citizens. (Library of Congress)

The Nation’s first regular column was introduced in 1918 under the headline, “In the Driftway.” Some have identified the writer as Carl Van Doren, literary editor from 1919–22, but it is more likely the “Drifter” persona—who always wrote of himself in the third person—was a composite of several contributors writing under that name during the column’s seventeen-year run.

In 1931, the Drifter, describing himself as “usually suspicious a priori of all traditions, hallowed or otherwise,” wrote that it was his “sad duty to report certain misgivings” about President Herbert Hoover’s proclamation for Thanksgiving that year.

With the third winter of widespread unemployment nearly upon us, in all its ugliness, want, and distress, Thanksgiving Day has not a genuine ring. Somehow it sounds ill-suited to the times. The President’s counsel that ‘our people rest from their daily labors’ brings to the Drifter’s mind some ten million jobless to whom that advice will seem more than slightly ironical. And he wonders how many of that army stopped work on Thanksgiving Day in 1929, not realizing that they would still be resting two years later. Will they be duly appreciative, as the President is, that ‘the passing adversity which has come upon us’ is a ‘spiritual’ blessing?

The height of irony, the Drifter felt, was in Hoover’s statement that the country had been “widely blessed with abundant harvests.” The truth was that the 1931 harvest had been so bountiful that crop prices were depressed even further. As one local politician wrote to the governor of Kansas, bemoaning bottomed-out wheat prices, “This is the first time I have ever seen a bumper crop year leave farmers more discouraged than if they had a complete failure.”

“Under our topsy-turvy economics,” the Drifter wrote, “abundant harvests assure us nothing. They are a dubious blessing indeed when rich surpluses leave the farmer poor and the destitute hungry. It were better had the harvest been lean. The well-stocked storehouses would not then present a tantalizing mockery of the knowledge that has multiplied.”

The Drifter then suggested renaming the holiday to “Fact-facing Day,” to reflect “a more realistic purpose.”

Instead of offering spiritual consolation to the needy and expressing pious hopes that by another year the Almighty might have matters adjusted to normal, the nation would unite in facing the facts of our adversity. The Drifter believes this might lead to action which would make abundant harvests mean abundance for all. And should that happen, you would see an ardent campaign to change the name of Fact-facing Day back to Thanksgiving Day.

Presumably the Drifter was more satisfied by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Thanksgiving proclamation in November 1933:

May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Oklahoma Is Schooling the Nation on Early Education

(AP Photo/Douglas Healey)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

In the richest country in the world, the poorest among us are children.

16 million children living in poverty suffer worse education, health and job outcomes, making it even harder for them and their families to break out of their circumstances.

In New York City, where nearly one-third of children live below the poverty line, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has pledged to tackle the pernicious problems of poverty and income inequality, and the centerpiece of his plan—to expand preschool to more low-income four-year-olds—is just plain common sense.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Studies demonstrate that kids who attend high-quality preschool achieve higher test scores, are less likely to go to jail and are more likely to secure good jobs with higher wages. Low-income kids of color, who are the least likely to have access to great preschools, benefit the most.

To stand idle in the face of these facts is to allow millions of children to fall behind in school before they even start. We can do better—and Oklahoma can show us how.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Eight Decades of Hannah Arendt and Her Critics

Hannah Arendt in 1969. (AP Photo)

Searching for more information on a New York–based journalist named “Albert Canus”—who the State Department had singled out to the FBI as a habitual filer of “inaccurate reports which are unfavorable to the public interest of this country”—J. Edgar Hoover closely studied Hannah Arendt’s essay “French Existentialism” in the February 23, 1946, issue of The Nation—one of the first descriptions in the American press of the philosophical phenomenon then sweeping through Europe. It would be interesting to know what Hoover made of such passages as the one where Arendt explained the existentialists’ objections to bourgeois notions of “respectability”:

The “serious” man is one who thinks of himself as president of his business, as a member of the Legion of Honor, as a member of the faculty, but also as father, as husband, or as any other half-natural, half-social function. For by doing so he agrees to the identification of himself with an arbitrary function which society has bestowed. L’esprit sérieux is the very negation of freedom, because it leads man to agree to and accept the necessary deformation which every human being must undergo when he is fitted into society.

“Deformation,” Hoover may have whispered to himself, gazing out the window. “Deformation.”

On the next page he would have read Arendt’s description of the existentialists’ “insistence upon the basic homelessness of man in the world.”

For Camus man is essentially the stranger because the world in general and man as man are not fitted for each other; that they are together in existence makes the human condition an absurdity. Man is the only “thing” in the world which obviously does not belong in it, for only man does not exist simply as a man among men in the way animals exist among animals and trees among trees—all of which necessarily exist, so to speak, in the plural. Man is basically alone with his “revolt” and his “clairvoyance,” that is, with his reasoning, which makes him ridiculous because the gift of reason was bestowed upon him in a world “where everything is given and nothing ever explained.”

“Alone with his clairvoyance” may have tossed around the Hoover mind for some time to come.

* * *

In next week’s issue, essayist, journalist and Nation contributor of several decades David Rieff reviews Margarethe von Trotta’s recent biopic, Hannah Arendt, which focuses on the events surrounding the publication of her controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). In that book, Arendt introduced the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the defendant as a go-along-to-get-along functionary whose monstrous crimes were largely the result of unthinking conformity rather than diabolic anti-Semitism. But loyal readers of this magazine and of Arendt, as well as viewers of von Trotta’s film, are probably unaware that during her years in New York City during and immediately after World War II, Arendt contributed a series of essays to The Nation, including the one on “French Existentialism,” many of which telegraphed the themes of her later, more controversial work.

Randall Jarrell, who briefly served as interim literary editor of The Nation in 1946, was one of Arendt’s closest friends during those New York years, when she worked as an editor for Schocken Books. According to the late Arendt biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Jarrell was translating German poetry at the time, which Arendt helped him with and tried, but failed, to convince Schocken to publish. Jarrell, in turn, commissioned from Arendt a series of short book reviews on topics ranging from the songs of Robert Gilbert to her new friend Hermann Broch’s novel The Death of Virgil to the collected essays of the philosopher John Dewey. It is striking to see Arendt discuss in that last article the connection between “scientific planning” and the Holocaust—one of the major themes of Eichmann in Jerusalem—with the same kind of empathy for its victims in which she was later charged with being deficient:

Dewey earnestly holds that the source of all the social and political evils of our time is laissez faire…but a glance at today’s or yesterday’s newspaper invariably teaches us that hell can be properly established only through the very opposite of laissez faire, through scientific planning. (This, of course, does not say anything against science as such.) Even more out of tune with reality are Dewey’s complacent judgments on those evil times of the past in which men were still slaves and serfs; only a great scholar living in the ivory tower of common sense could be so completely unaware of the fact that certain categories of men today are far worse off than any slave or serf ever was. Nor do we need to evoke the extremities of the death factories. Concentration camps have outlived the downfall of the Nazi regime and are accepted as a matter of course; their inmates belong to a new class of human beings who have lost even the elementary human usefulness for society as a whole of which slaves and serfs were never deprived.

Arendt went on to take issue with the fundamental premises of Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy: namely, that the conceptual tools of science could be usefully applied to studying and improving human affairs.

The intention of this approach is certainly humanistic in essence; it tries sincerely to humanize science, to make scientific results usable for the human community. The trouble is only that, at the same time, science, and not man, takes the lead in the argument, with the result that man is degraded into a puppet which through education—through “formation of attitudes,” through “techniques for dealing with human nature”—has to be fitted into a scientifically controlled world. As though it was not man who invented science but some superhuman ghost who prepared this world of ours and only, through some incomprehensible obliviousness, forgot to change man into a scientific animal; as though man’s problem were to conform and to adjust himself to some abstract niceties. As though science could ever be more than man; and, consequently, as though such a gap between scientific and social knowledge could ever be more than wishful thinking.

***

Though Arendt did not again contribute to The Nation after 1946, our Books and the Arts section covered her career almost every step of the way—almost, because the controversy that raged around her “banality of evil” thesis in Eichmann in Jerusalem somehow received no notice in our pages until 1969, when in a review of another Arendt book, the late political theorist and historian Paul Roazen said Eichmann “remains a shocker—for the terrible historical tale it tells, for the trial it records, and for the viewpoint it presents.”

As with Rieff’s essay, Nation writers have always had a strikingly mixed reaction to Arendt’s books. In 1951, the historian H. Stuart Hughes—grandson of the eleventh Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—praised The Origins of Totalitarianism as “the product of a rigorously trained and scrupulously honest mind, impatient with easy explanations and verbal fluency.” A later Nation writer, Jonathan Rée, called that “a very tactful way of putting it.” Hughes continued:

It reflects the high intellectual level of the German emigration of the 1930’s, which has done American thinking an inestimable service by setting a standard that the native-born have rarely been able to match. To a reader surfeited with the vacuous rhetoric that is currently doing service as the discussion of public affairs, Dr. Arendt’s book comes as a salutary mental shock.

While Hughes went on to complain that the author’s “unitary view of the totalitarian phenomenon causes Dr. Arendt to slur over the differences” between communism and fascism, he also called Origins an “unconventional history, but…a magnificent effort of creative imagination.”

Subsequent Nation reviews, however, identified the same faults in Arendt’s writing which, as Rieff notes in his essay, invited controversy after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Reviewing 1958’s The Human Condition, British philosopher Richard Peters called Arendt’s distinction between labor and work “coarse and confused,” while the prolific Canadian historian D.J. Goodspeed took issue with “not quite faultless” logic, “mistakes in history,” and “a lack of clarity only partly attributable to her subject” in On Revolution (1963). “Not all obscurity is the result of profundity,” Goodspeed cautioned. “All too often in Miss Arendt’s book, the sluggish flow between subject and verb is diverted and the reader is left to trace as best he can a thin trickle of assertion through a flooded swampland of redundancies, appositional phrases, pronouns of indefinite antecedent and unnecessary relative clauses.”

* * *

More recent Nation articles on Arendt have focused on biographies and collections of letters published since her 1975 death. In contrast to von Trotta’s film, which Rieff says fails “to convey any sense of [Mary] McCarthy’s enormously cultivated sensibility and breadth of knowledge,” the philosopher Seyla Benhabib, in a 1995 review of Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, wrote:

Through their writing and lecturing, public participation and involvements, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy earn their place among the few women of our tradition who have discovered, in Arendt’s words, “the joys of public life” of acting and speaking in common in a shared public sphere.

Unsurprisingly, another constant preoccupation of Nation writers regarding Arendt is her complicated lifelong relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose willful collaboration with the Nazis was known at the time but the astonishing extent of which has only come to light in recent decades. Reviewing Elzbieta Ettinger’s landmark 1995 study, Hannah Arendt / Martin Heidegger, the first book on the subject which used the long-secret correspondence between Arendt and her former lover and teacher, the critic Carlin Romano employed some amusing Heideggerian and Arendtian puns in talking about their relationship. Heidegger, Romano wrote, “made clear through a couple of notes that he had Daseins on her.” In Ettinger’s “somewhat Cosmo-ish view,” he said,

Heidegger may not have been able to put his finger on Being, but he could always make Time for Hannah. As for Arendt’s all-too-human condition of eternal loyalty, it’s simply the banality of romantic obsession.

More seriously, Romano exonerated Arendt of Ettinger’s most scathing allegation: that Arendt, motivated by lingering romantic attachments to Heidegger, willingly acted as an apologist for her mentor’s fascist sympathies as he tried to salvage his reputation after the war.

Given that she famously detested self-protecting intellectuals as a class by the time she fled Germany for Paris [in 1933], Arendt, if she was to forgive Heidegger after the war, must have seen him as different from the street-smart intellectual careerists she loathed. It is certainly possible, as Ettinger believes, that love blinded Arendt to decency when it came to Heidegger. In light of everything we know about Arendt and her work—her “genius for friendship,” her concrete acts of kindness over the years, her refugee shrewdness about people’s characters, her no-nonsense recognition of man’s weakness before temptation, her belief that one must act politically and communicate with others to solve social problems—it’s far more likely that decency, and a unique understanding of Heidegger’s flaws as a man, made it possible for her to continue to love a part of him while regretting the rest.

Ettinger’s book implies that, knowing what we know now, we should respect Arendt less. This reader, for one, respects Arendt more.

* * *

In the nearly seventy years since her own essays in our pages, the life and work of Hannah Arendt has been discussed and debated in The Nation possibly more than those of any other twentieth-century philosopher. (Exceptions might be Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, both of whom were also occasional Nation contributors.) One reason Arendt’s writing has so interested this magazine is her reflections on the relationship between philosophy and politics, which the British philosopher (and author of a book on Heidegger) Jonathan Rée discussed in a fascinating 2006 review of three posthumously published essay collections:

Arendt had a distinctly high-minded conception of politics, seeing it not as the bureaucratic administration of collective concerns or a burdensome public duty, still less as a self-interested continuation of warfare by other means. Politics for her was a precious cultural achievement rather than a regrettable social necessity, and it involved the careful maintenance of institutions that enable people to converse freely and respectfully about the world as they see it and as they would like it to be. It was essentially concerned with problems of a kind that will never have perfect solutions, and that therefore require improvisation, invention and endless critical discussion. Politics required us to set aside all sentiments of pride, indignation, shame or resentment, as well as any pretensions to superior expertise, in order to become responsive, intelligent citizens willing to negotiate all our differences on a basis of complete equality. Politics, in short, was the opposite of totalitarianism, and it depended on an open-hearted love for “human equality”—for people not in the mass or in the abstract but in the distinctness and idiosyncrasy of their lives and the infinite variety of their perceptions. It was more like a serene philosophical seminar than a self-interested struggle for power, and it was not so much a means to human happiness as the pith and substance of it.

Rée argued that was a somewhat naïve conception of politics, and that this naiveté helped explain some of Arendt’s more controversial writings, like 1959’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” which described federal attempts at desegregation of public schools as, in Rée’s words, “a fateful step…toward totalitarianism.” It does not take much to extrapolate from the last paragraph of his essay an explanation of Arendt’s problematic conclusions about Eichmann and defense of the unrepentant Heidegger:

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

It never seems to have occurred to Arendt that if she sniffed Platonic condescension toward politics wherever she looked, it might be because it emanated from her. If she was as keen on the purity of politics as Plato was on the purity of philosophy, it was perhaps because politics as she conceived it was little more than philosophy by another name: a gracious art of respectful, self-critical listening that must always be allowed to take its time. But politics is also about emergencies, catastrophes and deadlines, and if it embodies a set of high republican principles of the kind that Arendt championed, it also contains much else: on the one hand a mass of more or less efficient administrative routines, and on the other elements of compulsion, folly and delusion, or—as Marx would put it—of tragedy and farce. She may have been right to defend the “promise of politics” against our reckless hopes and fears; but she should also have remembered that promises are often broken.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

The ‘Democratic Wing’ of the Democratic Party Wakes Up

Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

What a difference a year makes. In 2012, Politico was reporting that Democrats had gone “AWOL in class war.” Occupy had come and gone by the spring. Mitt Romney’s Republican primary rivals were harsher on his “vulture capitalism” than President Obama was. Labor was under siege across the country. Liberals were focused on social issues like gay rights and abortion. The Tea Party had captured the (faux) populist mantle and was still riding high.

No longer. The Tea Party discredited itself with its government shutdown and threat of defaulting on American obligations. And the populist temper in the Democratic Party has been unleashed, once the president was safely reelected.

Now the simmering tensions between what former Senator Paul Wellstone called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” and the Wall Street wing of that party have begun to boil. Populist Bill de Blasio is elected mayor of New York calling for raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for pre-K for every child. Bill Daley, early favorite in the Illinois race for governor, doesn’t make it out of the Democratic primary, as he is skewered as an ex-lobbyist for JPMorgan Chase. The New Republic puts rows of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s face on its cover with the headline “Hillary’s nightmare.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The differences between the two wings aren’t cosmetic or personal. They concern the basic direction of the party and the country. The battle is being driven by the harsh realities of this economy. Coming out of the Great Recession, the wealthiest few are capturing nearly all the rewards of growth, while most American families are struggling to stay afloat. The new majority forged by Obama—the “rising American electorate” of millennials, people of color, and single women—is struggling the most.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Debating the JFK Legacy, in Real Time

John F. Kennedy.

“There is more to Senator Jack Kennedy,” the journalist Frederic W. Collins wrote in the April 4, 1959, issue of The Nation, “than a coiffure arranged, during his plastic years, by facing South in a strong East wind.”

That early judgment—bemused condescension offset by a cautiously positive appraisal—marked The Nation’s coverage of John F. Kennedy during his Senate career, presidential campaign and abbreviated administration.

As the world marks the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination this month, there is much to be gained from looking at how his presidency was regarded in its own time. Kennedy arrived on the national political scene as neither a Great Man of History nor as an especially reliable standard-bearer of liberalism, as a reading of The Nation’s articles about him reveals. Rather, at least from this magazine’s perspective at the time, the swift rise of John F. Kennedy from relative obscurity signaled an troubling privileging of image over content: in a dispatch from the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Nation editor Carey McWilliams wrote of “the hollow, synthetic quality of the Kennedy movement.” He also noted that

the paradox of this convention has been that a young man without an impressive political record, without a program, without broad rank-and-file support, backed by not a single interest group with the possible exception of labor, not merely won the nomination of a great party without substantial opposition, but took possession of it, lock, stock and barrel. The delegates were victims of a default of political leadership which was premised, of course, on their own default as citizens.

Moreover, the sudden dominance of Kennedy’s prominent family in the Democratic Party was taken as a sign of the unseemly influence of money in the public sphere: “The most notable thing about Mr. Kennedy,” Collins continued in his 1959 assessment of the presidential field, “is that he needs to form no organization because he was born into one.”

But at the same time, The Nation recognized the great promise that Kennedy represented and, with a few frustrating exceptions, the fundamentally progressive nature of his politics. When Kennedy won the general election in November 1960—beating by only 100,000 popular votes Vice President Richard Nixon, who in the words of Frederic Collins had based his campaign on the conclusion “that sadism is the stronger strain in the psychopathology of American politics”—The Nation wrote in an editorial:

A man may aspire to the Presidency for a number of reasons—ambition, vanity, love of country, love of power, a sense of responsibility, and so on. But, whatever his motives, he cannot justify them, even in the privacy of his own mind, unless he is resolved to promote the welfare of a majority of his fellow Americans and the long-range interests of the country as well as he can. In short, he must take his oath of office literally if he is to succeed, in his own estimation and the verdict of history. This opportunity Mr. Kennedy now has, and to a degree shared by few of his predecessors. A majority of his fellow citizens, taking him at his word, have avowed their receptivity to the basic idea of dynamic progress and the subsidiary ideas needed to make it a reality. They have repudiated the essentially static philosophy of the Republican Party and embraced new leadership. Not only new, but young leadership: Mr. Kennedy is the youngest man ever to be elected to the office. He symbolizes the rise to power of a new generation.…

No one ever assumed the office under brighter personal auspices or with a finer opportunity to cope with its enormous difficulties…. Mr. Kennedy not only can afford to be courageous now; he cannot afford to be anything else. Mr. Kennedy is intelligent and energetic; probably these considerations are clear to him. If so, he should have a successful administration. The Nation, which has seen many Presidents come and go, wishes him godspeed on a journey perilous to him and to all of us.

* * *

Nation writers vigorously debated the meaning of Kennedy’s presidency during his 1,036 days in office. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, in one of his annual essays on civil rights for The Nation, expressed dismay with the slow progress the administration made on that defining issue during its first year in power:

The Kennedy Administration in 1961 waged an essentially cautious and defensive struggle for civil rights against an unyielding adversary. As the year unfolded, Executive initiative became increasingly feeble, and the chilling prospect emerged of a general Administration retreat. In backing away from an Executive order to end discrimination in housing, the President did more to undermine confidence in his intentions than could be offset by a series of smaller accomplishments during the year. He has begun 1962 with a show of renewed aggressiveness; one can only hope that it will be sustained.

Indeed, Kennedy did issue such an order in November 1962, but in his 1964 report, published less than four months after the president’s assassination, King wrote that the order was “conspicuously flawed with compromise and to this date has not significantly altered any housing patterns.”

Other Nation writers took exception with the young, glamorous president’s treatment in the press. In “The Kennedy Cult” (August 11, 1962), Sister Mary Paul Paye stoked widespread controversy by writing that the public’s fawning over JFK amounted to an undignified identification of the president with the country:

Because of the cult of personality, to the average man everywhere Mr. Kennedy has become synonymous with the United States; his victories are American victories; his health, American health; his smile, his family, his hobbies, his likes and dislikes, become symbolic of the country. And the danger of this equation is that should the President fail, then the country fails; should he make a mistake, the country errs….

In the measure that the cult grows, the tendency will grow stronger to elect Presidents not on the basis of reason, but on the basis of the emotional pull the candidates engender…

The cult is dangerous because it seems as innocent as a baby’s picture, as simple as a man’s smile, because it is public and yet unseen. Even if events conspire so that no limitation of freedom occurs because of it, it is still an appalling trend; for it is symptomatic of an American disease: mental apathy.

United Press International syndicated a story about Sister Paye’s article headlined, “Nun Writes Blast on Kennedy Image.”

And still other Nation writers analyzed the president’s style of politics and his commitment—or perceived lack thereof—to any definite political philosophy other than opportunism. The Daily News journalist Ted Lewis, in “Kennedy: Profile of a Technician” (February 2, 1963), argued that Kennedy’s vague ideological commitments had a pernicious effect on America’s image abroad.

Any examination of his operations to date suggests the basic reason for the fog over the Kennedy image. His methods and style vary, and the unfortunate impression is left that they vary with the economic, political and global climate. This flexibility suggests to some the lack of deep-rooted political ideals and purposefulness in connection with domestic policy. More serious is the effect of his apparent opportunism in the foreign-affairs arena. Even the simplest pronouncement by the President on a cold-war policy problem raises doubts abroad whether it carries the conviction of real intentions.

About all that can be guaranteed,” Lewis concluded, somewhat eerily, “is that life in these United States, as long as Kennedy is in the White House, is likely to be exciting—and somewhat insecure.”

* * *

Our first issue after the assassination bore an editorial simply titled “John F. Kennedy,” echoing the plaintive mood in the country at large, while also weighing the meaning of the tragedy and the precise nature of his legacy.

A young President, John F. Kennedy must have known or sensed that he did not have all time and eternity to accomplish his major objectives. He was in a hurry to reach the top and he was not long in reaching it. Once there he wanted to get things done, to spin the wheels faster, to move along. It was as though he kept hearing at his back “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” But long before his tragic death he had learned that great as is the power of the American Presidency—and of the American nation—our ability to shape the course of events is not unlimited….

We had begun, under his maturing leadership, to cut back arms spending, to reduce some military commitments, to explore the possibilities for a gradual reduction of tensions—in a word, to make the great turn toward peace. John F. Kennedy will be remembered with affection and admiration for many fine qualities and achievements but above all for the fact that, after some false turns and starts, he set in motion the great task of directing American power toward broader objectives than deterrence and containment.

The same issue also carried testimonials from senators and congressmen who had worked with Kennedy. “I pray that our country continues on the course he set—one of domestic growth and fairness and of external peace,” wrote Rhode Island Senator and longtime Kennedy friend Claiborne Pell. Ernest Gruening, one of Alaska’s first two senators and a former Nation managing editor, wrote: “Articulate, witty, gay, gallant, courageous, his untimely death leaves a tragic void in the lives of all of us.”

In the following issue, dated December 21, 1963, the poet and farmer Wendell Berry—subject of a recent “This Week in Nation History”—published a poem titled “November 26, 1963,” which began:

We know the winter earth upon the body of the young President, and the early dark falling;

we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;

we know his name written in the black capitals of his death, and the mourners standing in the rain, and the leaves falling;

we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells, candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;

we know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now…

* * *

Twenty-five years ago, and twenty-five years after the assassination, the late Nation writer and editor Andrew Kopkind struck roughly the same balance in an article on “J.F.K.’s Legacy” (December 5, 1988). Kennedy’s administration, he wrote, was

vastly more admired in retrospect than in full swing, and if it were not for the tragic curtain twenty-five years ago in Dallas, the memory of that brief period would doubtless have a different cast. The dreamy, Arcadian quality of the thousand days of John Kennedy is an attribute of national re-vision, a nostalgic remembrance of things past not necessarily as they were but as they came to be seen….

What Kennedy did better than any President since Roosevelt, and what makes him a special kind of leader in American annals, was to mobilize a broad generational constituency—even if he was unable, by fate or his own limitations, to direct it to significant political change in his lifetime. There was no Kennedy Revolution. Kennedy’s greatness now consists of some parts myth and sentiment, but his leadership went beyond mere celebrity and style, and it is doubtful that we will see such sparkle in the White House before the century ends.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Strange Silence on Success in Removing Syria’s Chemical Weapons

OPCW

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Last week, buried beneath banner headlines blaring about Obamacare hearings, National Security Agency surveillance revelations and the Boston Red Sox’ World Series win, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) quietly reported that Syria “has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable.”

On the heels of winning the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, the unglamorous but undeniably effective OPCW, using saws, sledgehammers and cutting torches in the middle of a war zone, defied predictions by meeting the November 1 deadline to disable Syria’s chemical weapons program. The bombshell was that there was no bombshell—at least, not of the unconscionable chemical kind.

This wasn’t just a vindication of President Obama’s decision to work with Russia on a non-military solution to the Syrian weapons crisis (and a well-deserved slap in the face to neoconservatives like Bill Kristol, who compared the president of the United States to Groucho Marx, “doing farcical pratfalls as he followed down Neville Chamberlain’s tragic path”). It was also a success for international organizations like the United Nations and the OPCW, and, indeed, for diplomacy itself.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

That the story made few waves was all the more surprising considering that when Secretary of State John Kerry first—and, as was widely presumed, mistakenly—suggested this path to disarmament, the perceived gaffe was thoroughly covered, parsed and even parodied.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Life and Times of Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

The next issue of The Nation, available Thursday, contains a remarkable essay by historian and Gandhi biographer Ramachandra Guha about the late Eric Hobsbawm, whose posthumous essay collection Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century was published earlier this year. Shortly after Hobsbawm’s death last October, at the age of 95, Nation editorial board member Eric Foner celebrated Hobsbawm in our pages as a man whose “life and writings will long serve as an inspiration to those who believe that a knowledge of history is essential to understanding the current world, and to the struggle to create a better one.”

Hobsbawm himself first wrote for The Nation in 1965, with an essay that the magazine’s editors wrote “should be required reading in the White House and in the Pentagon.” In “Goliath and the Guerilla: The Pentagon’s Dilemma” (July 19, 1965), a sweeping study of the history and strategic nuances of guerilla warfare and Western military attempts to suppress it, Hobsbawm argued, even at that relatively early date, that the United States could not possibly win a war in Vietnam. He urged recognition of this reality and presciently warned of the consequences of ignoring it:

In orthodox warfare the purpose of indiscriminate mass destruction is to break the morale of population and government, and to destroy the industrial and administrative base on which any orthodox war effort must rest. Neither task is as easy in guerilla war, because there are hardly any cities, factories, communications or other installations to destroy, and nothing like the vulnerable central administration machine of an advanced state. On the other hand, more modest success may pay off. If terror convinces even a single area to withhold support from the guerillas, and thus to drive them elsewhere, this is a net gain for the anti-guerillas. So the temptation to go on bombing and burning at random is irresistible, especially for countries like the United States which could stripe the entire surface of South Vietnam of life, without dipping too deeply into its supply of armaments or money….

Having three times as many nuclear bombs as the rest of the world is very impressive, but it will not stop people from making revolutions of which Mr. McGeorge Bundy disapproves…If the United States can come to terms with the realities of Southeast Asia, it will find itself very much where it was before—the most formidable power in the world, whose position and influence nobody wants to challenge, if only because nobody can, but which, like all other powers, past and present, must live in a world it does not altogether like.

His next contribution to The Nation was on a very different topic: the philosophy of Antonio Gramsci, on whose contributions to leftist politics and thought no Nation writer had yet written, even thirty years after his death. Much of what Hobsbawm celebrated in Gramsci could with few changes be said of Hobsbawm himself, not least the claim that Gramsci’s “analysis led him into a variety of remarkable insights into the way in which political societies operate, the function of culture and intellectuals within them, and the development of his own nation.”

***

Just one month before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, Hobsbawm published an essay in The Nation titled “The Perils of the New Nationalism” (November 4, 1991). Hobsbawm expressed sympathy with the many nationalist movements erupting in the wake of the Cold War, noting that they helped people cope with the “insecurity and disorientation” caused by the disruptions of the twentieth century. But Hobsbawm argued that such movements should not be confused with movements for real independence from the major political powers and economic forces which continued to dominate the world.

Is it an accident that Quebec separatism as a serious political factor emerged at the end of a decade when a traditional, Catholic, pious and clerical community that had preserved the values of seventeenth-century French peasants suddenly gave way to a society in which people no longer went to church and the birthrate fell almost vertically? After two generations, when continents of peasants have become continents of city dwellers, when the relations between the generations, and increasingly between the sexes, have been transformed and past wisdom seems irrelevant to present problems, the world is full of people who long for something that still looks like an old, and unchallengeable, certainty. It is not surprising that at such times they turn to group identity, of which national identity is one form, or that the demand for a political unit exclusively for the members of the group, in the form of ethnic-linguistic nation-states, once again comes to the fore.

However, if we can understand the forces that lead to a revival of the political of national consciousness, and even sympathize with the feelings that inspire it, let us have no illusions. Adding another few dozen to the member-states of the UN will not give any of them any more control over their affairs than they had before they became independent. It will not solve or diminish the problems of cultural or any other autonomy in the world, any more than it did in 1919.

Establishing nation-states on the post-World War I model is not necessarily a recipe for disaster. Among the potential new nation-states there may well be one or two future Netherlands and Switzerlands, bastions of tolerance, democracy and civilization. But who, looking at Serbia and Croatia, at Slovakia and Lithuania, at Georgia, Quebec and the rest, would today expect many of the newly separated nation-states to go that way? Any who would expect a Europe of such new states to be a zone of peace?

The beginning of the Bosnian War was only a few months away.

***

Ramachandra Guha’s essay in next week’s issue is only the latest in a long line of critical appreciations of Hobsbawm’s work to be published in The Nation. In 1966, the historian R.K. Webb reviewed Primitive Rebels, Hobsbawm’s classic study of rural bandits as a “pre-historic social movement,” first published in 1959. “A gadfly darts, stings and usually escapes,” Webb wrote. “So Hobsbawm has darted from subject to subject—happily infusing life, not drawing it—and has artfully dodged most of the attacks on him to return again…or to goad another placid subject into agitation.” In a 1985 review of Workers: Worlds of Labor, the Yale historian David Montgomery wrote that Hobsbawm’s “penetrating social analysis and his systematic rejection of intellectual fads provide lessons of special importance” at a time “when the ideological fashion is a mummified celebration of ‘the market’ and ‘modernity.’ ” Three years later, upon publication of The Age of Empire, 1875–1914, the third installment of Hobsbawm’s history of the “long nineteenth century,” Hobsbawm’s fellow historian of British labor history, Geoffrey Field of SUNY Purchase, wrote:

For forty years Eric Hobsbawm’s polymathic brilliance has enriched the study of modern history. Few historians anywhere have played such a seminal role in so many debates; few have wider interests…Reading Hobsbawm or hearing him speak, one is struck by the same characteristic qualities: remarkable factual command, lucid analysis, a conviction that theory—in his case Marxist theory—and politics are inseparable form the practice of history, and a refreshingly old-fashioned belief that a historical perspective is vital to understanding the world we inhabit.

Perhaps the best tribute to Hobsbawm—and the most poignant reflection on what the world would lose, nine years later, with the silencing of his pen—was written by the literary critic Terry Eagleton in his 2003 Nation review of Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life.

He is a historian of formidable influence, erudition and stylistic grace; a public figure feted from Bologna to Beijing, yet a man skilled in the subtle arts of personal friendship; a politico who has survived the most bloodstained century known to humanity, yet who has managed to relish his life in the process. He still retains his insatiable energy for parties, debate, travel and ideas.

Interesting Times concludes on a sobering note. Hobsbawm is fond of the United States, but glad that he and his children do not live in a society that acknowledges no limits on its willingness to use its strength. The twenty-first century, he observed, ‘opens on twilight and obscurity.’ It is greatly to our loss that we shall not have his wisdom to guide us through it.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

The JPMorgan Settlement Is Justice, Not a Shakedown

Jamie Dimon

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Is JPMorgan Chase, the imperious mega-bank, a hapless victim of what a Post editorial dubbed “political persecution”? Is it the innocent target of a Justice Department “shakedown,” as The Wall Street Journal’s editors charged, with Justice “confiscating” JPMorgan’s earnings “for no other reason than because they can and because they want to appease their left-wing populist allies”?

The announcement that JPMorgan’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, personally negotiated the announced $13 billion settlement with the Justice Department has set off howls in the press. The Post suggested that JPMorgan only made the same errors about housing prices that everyone else made. The government was charged with acting in bad faith, holding JPMorgan accountable for misdeeds committed by Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual before Dimon agreed to acquire them at the behest of the government. All in all, we’re supposed to see this deal as a miscarriage of justice.

Give me a break.

Thirteen billion dollars is a lot of money—the biggest fine for one company in US history. But it only represents about five months of JPMorgan’s operating income in 2013, and it’s barely more than a third of what JPMorgan is spending on lawyers to defend itself.

The Nation is facing a crippling postal rate hike—donate by October 31 to help us foot this $120,272 bill.

It is hard to be sympathetic when reading JPMorgan’s recent rap sheet. In the last three years alone, it has paid billions to settle charges that it (1) manipulated the market in the infamous “London Whale” trading debacle; (2) rigged energy prices in California and the Midwest; (3) improperly foreclosed on homeowners; (4) bilked credit card holders by fixing prices and interest rates; (5) rigged municipal bond operations in 31 states; (6)gouged approximately 6,000 active-duty service members on mortgages and much more.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Syndicate content