Thursday, November 27, 2014

Roll Over Colonel Sanders, Make Way For A Schmaltzy Thanksgiving Tale

On Turkey Day, 2014, Andrew Lawler takes up the cause of the chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus), a domesticated fowl that is one of the most common and widespread domestic animals in the world. The turkey is the supreme element of Thanksgiving cuisine, but Lawler upholds the primacy of chickens on all other non-holidays of the year. If this is a (fair & balanced) pecking order, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
How The Chicken Built America
By Andrew Lawler

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This season millions of Americans will celebrate with turkey on the table. The turkey is, after all, the native North American animal that Benjamin Franklin considered “a much more respectable bird” than the scavenging bald eagle. But while the eagle landed on the country’s Great Seal and the turkey gets pride of place at our holiday dinners, neither bird can claim to have changed American culture more than their lowly avian cousin, the chicken.

English settlers arriving at Jamestown in 1607 brought a flock of chickens that helped the struggling colony survive its first harsh winters, and the bird was on the Mayflower 13 years later. But the popularity of the Old World fowl soon faded, as turkey, goose, pigeon, duck and other tastier native game were plentiful.

This proved a boon for enslaved Africans. Fearful that human chattel could buy their freedom from profits made by selling animals, the Virginia General Assembly in 1692 made it illegal for slaves to own horses, cattle or pigs. Poultry, though, wasn’t considered worth mentioning.

This loophole offered an opportunity. Most slaves came from West Africa, where raising chickens had a long history. Soon, African-Americans in the colonial South — both enslaved and free — emerged as the “general chicken merchants,” wrote one white planter. At George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, slaves were forbidden to raise ducks or geese, making the chicken “the only pleasure allowed to Negroes,” one visitor noted. The pleasure was not just culinary, but financial: In 1775, Thomas Jefferson paid two silver Spanish bits to slaves in exchange for three chickens. Such sales were common.

Black cooks were in a position to influence their masters’ choice of dishes, and they naturally favored the meat raised by their friends and relatives. One of the West African specialties that caught on among white people was chicken pieces fried in oil — the meal that now, around the world, is considered quintessentially American.

Slaves laid the foundation for the American appetite for chicken, but it was the forced opening of China by the West in the 1840s that made the modern bird possible. American ships brought specimens of Asian chickens never seen in America. Breeders crossed the large and colorful exotics with their smaller but hardier Western counterparts to produce a bird that could lay more eggs and provide more meat. The results were famous varieties, like the Plymouth Rock and Rhode Island Red, that appeared just as the nation began to industrialize.

Still, chicken rearing in the United States remained a small-scale family business; American meat-eating tended toward pork and beef, with chickens used mostly for eggs.

That began to change with the arrival of millions of Eastern European Jews, who relied on chicken as a meat source. By 1900, New York City boasted 1,500 kosher butcher shops, stocked by train cars filled with live chickens that arrived mainly from farms in the Midwest, where rural women, who ran much of the poultry business at the time, took advantage of the growing demand.

Their market soon extended beyond immigrant Jews. Millions of people were leaving their Midwestern and Southern farms for factory jobs in the expanding cities in the North. Finding a reliable and cheap source of protein was critical. Pork and beef were expensive for urban shoppers, and there were not enough eggs produced in the United States to satisfy their appetites. The chicken business started to take off.

World War I gave chickens another boost, when beef and pork stocks were diverted to the troops. Then, in 1923, an entrepreneurial Delaware woman named Celia Steele began sending the first broilers to New York, birthing a multibillion-dollar industry. For the first time, chickens began to be sold solely for their meat on a mass scale.

The rise of the chicken continued through the Great Depression, when chicken farming helped many farmers get by. Henry A. Wallace, a sometime vegetarian pacifist from Iowa who also served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s agriculture secretary and vice president, argued that the chicken was the savior of poverty-stricken rural Americans. The company he helped found in the 1920s is now the world’s largest single producer of egg-laying hens. Finally, in the 1950s, engineers and scientists created a bird that could grow quickly with minimal feed — and the chicken we know today emerged.

Today chicken is cheap, and it has become America’s favorite meat. In the land of the hamburger, we eat more of it than beef. And while we enjoy turkey at Thanksgiving, over the course of the year we will consume five times as much chicken.

The bonanza of cheap meat and eggs has been a boon in many ways, but it has come at a largely hidden cost. Billions of chickens, both layers and broilers, live in vast warehouses locked behind fences and unprotected by federal regulations, which don’t consider poultry raised for food as animals. Then there are the low-paid workers who labor in the cold and dark of processing plants with high rates of injury, and the environmental degradation that sullies our waterways. And today’s industrial bird is a relatively tasteless food that we must relentlessly flavor with sauces, marinades and rubs.

So as we celebrate and give thanks this season, take a moment to consider the lowly chicken, and how its story and that of our country are so deeply entwined. The bird that gets little respect is the creature that has given us more than we know. Ω

[Andrew Lawler is a freelance writer who has written more than a thousand articles for a dozen different magazines on topics ranging from asteroids to zebrafish. He is the author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? (2014). Lawler received a BA (interdisciplinary studies, with highest honors) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What's As American As Green Bean Casserole?

Today, a foodie par excellence deconstructs our freedom from want; the largest supermarket chain in Texas (HEB) hosts a number of Feasts of Sharing in the major cities of Texas (including Austin) that are free and open to people of all ages. During the celebration, guests are served a complete Thanksgiving dinner by a wait staff of volunteers bringing meals to the tables, a significant departure from similar events where meals are dished out in cafeteria-style lines. This expansion on the tradition family meal is in its 18th year. In 2013, more than 250,000 people received a Thanksgiving meal at no charge. So, forks up! If this is (fair & balanced) gastronomy, so be it.

[x Boston Fishwrap]
Thanksgiving, Or How To Eat American Politics
By Rachel Laudan

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On Thursday, almost nine out of ten Americans will gather around Thanksgiving dinner—some version of the traditional family-style meal of roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pie. And once again the accepted wisdom about how the Thanksgiving meal took root and what it means will be rolled out.

This story is as much a tradition as the meal itself. Even if we doubt the schoolroom version of an unbroken tradition going back to a founding feast shared by Native Americans and Pilgrims, it is still easy to think of Thanksgiving as a celebration of the bounty of the New World, an American custom whose origins are lost in the mists of time.

But food—what we eat and why we eat it—is rarely as simple as the tales we tell about it. In the case of Thanksgiving, a closer look at the history of the dishes we set out and how they came together on our tables suggests a different story.

Thanksgiving as we know it today—a holiday that brings family and nation together over roast turkey—took shape 150 ago. And although it is certainly built on American culinary traditions, the meal we’ll eat on Thursday is also built around a political principle. It is a deliberate, small-r republican contrast to the haute cuisine that for millennia had been served at events of state.

Food can embody ideas as well as customs, and our standard Thanksgiving draws on a long tradition of antimonarchical political and culinary thought. These ideas had deep European roots in France, England, and the Dutch Republic, and even before that among Roman republicans and the Church fathers.

Political philosophers and cookbook authors alike had long railed against the appetizers, complex sauces, sweets, and expensive, imported ingredients central to high cuisine. Indulging in these created an appetite for expensive luxuries that, it was widely believed, ruined the individual, the household, and the nation. But it was in the United States that the simple meal that these people advocated became a national celebration embracing all citizens.

Starting in the 1840s, Sarah Josepha Hale, a novelist and editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the nation’s most widely circulated women’s magazine, campaigned in print and in letters to politicians to extend Thanksgiving, a holiday already celebrated in New England, to the country as a whole. She finally persuaded Abraham Lincoln to declare a national holiday in 1863. It was, in Lincoln’s words, intended to restore “peace, harmony, tranquility and union” to a nation torn by the Civil War.

At that time, the ruling classes in much of the world dined on French haute cuisine, widely regarded as a mark of a civilized, progressive nation. From Britain to Russia, from Mexico to Japan, and in the United States as well, diners dressed in formal attire sat at tables set with expensive crystal, china, and silver. Servants passed a sequence of richly sauced meats, elaborate molded desserts, and hothouse fruits that neither they, nor the professional cooks who prepared them, could enjoy. It was everything the anti-aristocratic republican tradition was arguing against.

To Hale and others like her, a feast based on such haute cuisine, far from being the hallmark of a modern nation, would only perpetuate the monarchic traditions so firmly repudiated by “our Great Republic.” To make good on its political ideals, the new state had to find a middle way—a meal that lay somewhere between the extravagance of Old World aristocratic feasts and the scanty fare of the common people.

The will to bridge this gap had long been at work in American political thought, and had long been expressed through food. In the 1760s, as a patriotic protest the Daughters of Liberty had organized boycotts of expensive imported tea, offering recipes for local herbal alternatives. In 1796, a few years after crowds in Paris had protested the king’s failure to ensure their daily bread, Amelia Simmons, the author of the first American cookbook, American Cookery (1796), promised her readers pies and cakes “adapted to this country and all grades of life.” And Lydia Maria Child’s Frugal Housewife (1829), which went through 32 editions in the succeeding 25 years, preached the values of the simple home-cooked meal as truly republican.

In her magazine, Sarah Hale published recipes for roast turkey and pumpkin pie, and popularized homecoming for the holiday through sentimental poems, images, and stories of “traditional” Thanksgivings. In the Union states, at least, her campaign finally found a receptive audience, accustomed through long tradition to the notion that household meals of national ingredients contributed to the flourishing of the greater American family. Although the wealthy continued to dine French-style on other occasions, and although the South was not to accept it until after Reconstruction, Thanksgiving was on its way to being the celebration we recognize.

Turkey, a large, affordable, and readily available fowl, allowed the whole family generous servings of meat. Pumpkin pie could be prepared by the housewife in the home kitchen. Children, traditionally barred from aristocratic tables, were expected at the meal as well, to be physically nourished by ample, wholesome food and mentally nourished as they absorbed civic principles from the adults’ manners and conversation.

Neither turkey nor pie nor any of the other dishes that appear on the Thanksgiving table was a new invention. All of them had appeared in other times and other contexts. Gravy was a democratized version of lush sauces served at court; cranberry relish has origins that stretch through medieval Europe to Islam. This thing we now call tradition was a creative reworking of culinary elements from different, often even unrecognized cultures to create a feast that in its accessibility to all citizens was uniquely American.

Over the years, as the Thanksgiving dinner has spread to all regions, all faiths, and successive waves of immigrants within the United States, it’s been easy to forget what a radical achievement it was, and what a specific expression of American ideas. When we look across the table on Thursday, we see a meal both more politically American and more philosophical than many of us give it credit for. What could be more worthy of thanks? Ω

[Rachel Laudan is a Visiting Scholar at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies of The University of Texas at Austin. Laudan received a BA First Class (summa cum laude) from the University of Bristol as well as an MS and PhD (history and philosophy of science) from the University of London. She has written The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage (1996) and Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (2013).]

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Today, A Cure For Historical Amnesia

Even Charles Dickens would say "These are the worst of times — over & out." Public discourse is filled with anti-government invective and the skies are smoky over Ferguson, MO. The racial divide is no narrower in 2014 than it was in 1964. There are as many dog-whistles and racist whispers today as 50 years ago. If this is a (fair & balanced) echo of Cassandra in the realm of Clio, so be it.

[x Origins]
An Enemy Until You Need A Friend: The Role Of "Big Government" In American History
By Steven Conn

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We live at a moment in American politics when there has never been more anger directed toward “big government,” and that anger has boiled over during the last several election cycles. For some of those angry Americans, the federal government has usurped the role of state and local governments ever since the New Deal of the 1930s. Others fulminate that anything the federal government does amounts to an existential threat to their liberty.

So with another round of federal elections looming, let’s start with three vignettes to help illustrate the problem Americans have understanding the role of the federal government in American life:

1) At a town hall meeting in Simpsonville, South Carolina hosted by Republican Congressman Robert Inglis in the summer of 2009, an angry senior citizen thundered: “keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

2) In April 2013, Kentucky Republican Senator and Tea Party darling Rand Paul traveled across Washington, D.C. to deliver a speech to students at Howard University, perhaps the most venerable of the nation’s historical black colleges. He told them, among other things, that “big government” had failed African Americans.

3) In July 2008 David Koch, billionaire energy magnate and funder of libertarian political causes, pledged $100 million to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City. In return the theater was renamed “The David H. Koch Theater.”

The first of these scenes is a risibly obvious example of the ignorance some Americans have about the place of government programs even in their own lives, and plenty of people have poked fun at that sputtering geriatric from South Carolina. Even Congressman Inglis, no friend of the federal government or of the Obama administration, seemed a little exasperated: “I had to politely explain,” he told a reporter afterward, “that ‘Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government.’ But he wasn’t having any of it.”

Senator Paul’s speech in front of a group of African American college students was a breathtakingly obtuse misunderstanding of the role the federal government has played in the history of black civil rights. Senator Paul regularly denounces the reach of the federal government as an intrusion on the rights of the states, but he can’t quite acknowledge that “states rights” was responsible for the creation of Jim Crow segregation, nor can he acknowledge that our system of American apartheid was broken, finally, in large part because of the actions of the all three branches of the federal government.

My third vignette about how we misunderstand government resides in the department of irony. David Koch is apparently a big fan of opera and ballet and he has been a regular patron at Lincoln Center over the years. His philanthropy was, at one level, an act of generosity toward the arts that he loves.

At another level, of course, it gave him the opportunity to create his own legacy by putting his name on what is arguably the center of the cultural life of New York, which is arguably the center of the nation’s cultural life. A kid from Wichita, Kansas, Koch wanted to buy himself a piece of New York cultural cachet.

But Lincoln Center itself was created as part of a large-scale urban renewal project in the early 1960s and partially funded by the federal government. Whether he recognized it or not, David Koch put his name on a pure piece of “big government.”

These three stories – and I could have chosen any of a dozen others from the past few years – demonstrate that there has never been more confusion about what the federal government does, how it does it, and why.

At its root, that confusion is historical: the three people at the center of my little stories – the angry senior, the angry senator, and the angry billionaire – each misunderstand the role the federal government has played in creating the nation we inhabit today, whether in health care, civil rights, or cultural achievement.

In fact, the federal government has from its inception been an active force in American life across a wide range of sectors. An activist federal government is as old as the nation itself, and that history demonstrates how seriously the federal government has pursued its Constitutional charge “to promote the general welfare.”

In 1996 former Senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen (R-ME) famously quipped, “Government is the enemy until you need a friend.” And for over two hundred years many Americans—from the largest of businesses to the most dispossessed of citizens—have benefited in all sorts of ways from that friendship.

Government Intervention, American Tradition

When the First Congress of the United States assembled in 1789, the first major piece of legislation it passed involved an intervention in the economy and raising taxes. The Hamilton Tariff, named because it was championed by Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, slapped a tax on a range of imported manufactured products.

The tariff had two goals: first, it was designed to raise revenue so the new government could pay off its debts; and second, it was supposed to stimulate domestic industry by making imported goods more expensive. Call it an economic stimulus package, 18th-century style. And by and large the Hamilton Tariff achieved its goals. Money was raised and American producers, especially in northern urban centers, grew.

The Hamilton Tariff was by no means an anomaly. In fact, it is worth remembering that the Constitution itself was written and adopted so that the federal government could take a more active role in promoting American economic growth (the Articles of Confederation having proved a miserable failure for the economy).

Just three years later, in 1792, Congress created what was then a huge new national program when it passed the Postal Act. The act didn’t merely create a postal system, the most important means of communication at the turn of the 19th century. It guaranteed privacy for our mail and it permitted newspapers to travel through the post.

The Postal Act helped tie a far-flung nation together and permitted news to travel even into the American hinterland. Our 1st amendment guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press are splendid abstract principles. The Postal Act made those principles real for Americans and allowed them to be put to work.

Across the 19th century, the federal government acted in a variety of ways to stimulate American growth. Once he became president, Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the founder most suspicious of big government, used the power of the office to expand the nation through the Louisiana Purchase. He imagined that this government acquisition would provide farmland for countless generations of American yeoman farmers.

His ideological successor, Andrew Jackson, used federal authority to remove Native people from their homeland, marching them brutally on the Trail of Tears. Thus did he clear space for southern farmers and slave owners to prosper.

The Civil War certainly marks the most dramatic expansion of federal power in the 19th century. As Americans have been marking the 150th anniversary of that conflict, we have been reminded that in order to prosecute the war President Abraham Lincoln instituted military conscription, suspended habeas corpus rights, and started printing paper money. It is worth stating forthrightly: this creation of big government was necessary to end the institution of slavery . Had we left the question to the states, as Southerners regularly demanded, slavery might have lasted a great deal longer.

But fighting the war was not all Congress did during those years. In 1862, Congress enacted three pieces of legislation intended “to promote the general welfare” that still resonate today.

When Congress wanted to facilitate the expansion of the nation westward and to stimulate the transportation network necessary for this, it chartered the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad corporations. The terms of this charter should strike us today as extraordinary. Congress loaned money to these private corporations on very generous terms. Even more than that, it granted free land to the two railroads—to the tune of 20 square miles for every mile of track laid! —that they could turn around and sell to raise capital.

The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and it simply wouldn’t have happened without that public support. The railroads did not build themselves.

At the same moment, Congress passed the Homestead Act. That act enabled settlers in the trans-Mississippi to lay claim to 160 acres each. If they farmed it for 5 years, the land was theirs. For free! (The Homestead was joined by other acts that opened up ranching and timbering as well.) The Homestead Act became one the greatest land giveaways in human history.

It turns out that those rugged pioneers of American myth traveled west on federally subsidized railroads to settle land given to them by the federal government. And once out in the west, those railroad networks and those settlers were protected by federal troops who, between 1865 and 1890, engaged in continuous military action against native people. This is how the west was won.

Congress wasn’t finished in 1862. The third of its big initiatives in that year was the Morrill Land Grant Act. This act gave federally owned land to individual states in exchange for the promise that states would sell or use revenue from the land to establish universities. Collectively we call them “the land grants” and they amount to nothing less than the greatest democratization of higher education ever.

We can measure the economic impact of those railroad charters and of the Homestead Act, but the value to the nation—economic, social, cultural, and intellectual—of the land grants is incalculable. I say this from personal experience because I am lucky enough to teach at one.

Transportation, agriculture, education, communication.

All four were profoundly reshaped by the actions of the federal government in the 19th century because the American people, through the elected representatives they sent to Washington, believed this was how to promote the general welfare.

The Roosevelt Revolution (TR, that is)

In the late 19th century, the federal government continued to help the growth of American business in any number of ways. Indeed, during this era, the American economy grew to become the largest in the world and that would not have happened without the help of the federal government.

In the 1880s the Supreme Court ruled on “corporate personhood,” granting corporate enterprises extraordinary Constitutional protections. Titans of industry who preached “laissez-faire” economic dogma did not hesitate to call upon government troops to suppress their workers when they went on strike . And, in 1890, Congress passed yet another tariff on imported goods, this one a whopping 50% tax in order to protect domestic industry.

They called it the “McKinley Tariff” after the Ohio Congressman who sponsored it and it was designed to protect American industry from foreign competition. American businesses preferred their laissez-faire to be situational: no government interference when it suited them; lots of government intervention when they needed it. Six years later, William McKinley was repaid handsomely for his service to big business when they funded his presidential campaign.

Theodore Roosevelt was among a younger generation of politicians and reformers who watched the spectacular rise of industrial capitalism, aided generously by the federal government, with real skepticism. When he accidentally became president in 1901 after McKinley’s assassination, he brought new ideas about the role government ought to play to the White House.

Roosevelt looked at the landscape of American life at the turn of the 20th century and saw that ordinary citizens were more or less powerless in the face of enormous corporations that controlled everything from their wages to the price of consumer goods. The only force in American life strong enough to push back, he concluded, was the federal government.

So if the private sector was going to receive all kinds of support from government, Roosevelt announced that the people would also get protection from corporations through the mechanisms of the federal government. Roosevelt called it his “Square Deal” for the American people, summarized with three “C’s”: conservation of natural resources (against the depredations of timber, mining and other extractive companies); control of corporations; and consumer protection.

This was the bargain TR laid out: big business could continue to grow and prosper and enjoy all sorts of public support, but in exchange they would accept some measure of legal limitations and regulatory controls. If they didn’t play by the new rules, Roosevelt threatened, they might find themselves in court.

Then as now, big business howled at what they saw as over-reaching federal imposition. Most of the rest of us, I suspect, are pretty pleased that our food supply is safe because of the Food and Drug Administration, created by Roosevelt in 1906 after the horrifying conditions of the meat packing industry had been exposed.

Barry Goldwater, Republican Senator from Arizona, and GOP presidential candidate in 1964, famously said that “individual initiative made the desert bloom” in the western part of the country. He was right. Plenty of hard working settlers took that journey (on federally subsidized railroads) to farm hard-scrabble land in the west (which they received through the Homestead Act).

In his ringing call to individuality, however, Goldwater neglected to mention that without the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, which created massive and expensive dam and irrigation projects throughout the region and thus provided federally subsidized water to those farmers, no amount of hard work would have made the desert bloom.

Goldwater is regarded as the godfather of today’s anti-government politics because of his angry denunciations of big government and his celebration of individualism. He is the godfather of those politics as well because of his profound historical amnesia.

The Roosevelt Revolution Part II (FDR This Time)

For those Americans angry at the federal government, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a four-letter word.

There is no question that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal expanded the scope of government activity and its reach into American life. Nor is there any question that the scale and scope of the crisis he faced when he moved into the White House in 1933 was unprecedented and that FDR had a mandate to do what he did. Americans waited for nearly three years for President Herbert Hoover to do something that might reverse the Great Depression. He failed, and the voters punished him for it.

We can think of FDR’s New Deal—that vast array of initiatives, agencies, and projects they called “alphabet soup” because of all the acronyms—as trying to accomplish two things.

First, FDR wanted to rescue American capitalism from its own cupidity by reforming and stimulating it. The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), for example, promised to bring oversight and honesty to the stock market in order to avoid the kind of disastrous bubble that triggered the economic collapse in 1929.

Likewise, Roosevelt created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) because so many ordinary Americans had lost their life savings when their banks failed. Not only did the FDIC insure depositors’ money, which it still does, but in so doing it restored confidence in the entire banking system.

No sector of the economy was stimulated more by the New Deal, however, than housing construction. The Great Depression brought the housing industry to a virtual standstill. As a result thousands were laid off and a housing crisis grew as virtually no new housing units entered the market.

FDR’s solution was to use public money to guarantee private home mortgages through the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA). This opened up the mortgage market to large numbers of Americans who would otherwise not have been able to purchase a home and, in turn, it created a demand for new housing.

And it worked: by 1970 nearly two-thirds of American families owned their own homes, thanks to the largesse of the federal government, and housing construction had become a major indicator of the health of the overall economy.

There was much that was “new” about the New Deal, but there was much that continued the patterns set out in the 19th century. HOLC and FHA, in the way they promote private home ownership, can be seen as updated versions of the Homestead Act.

The second broad aspect of the New Deal was certainly new.

Under FDR the United States began to develop the rudiments of a social welfare state. When anti-government activists rail against the New Deal it isn’t the mortgage subsidies or the SEC they have in mind, it’s the social welfare programs.

We ought to remember that these programs were modest and that FDR resisted them as long as he could. Only political pressure brought to bear on behalf of the millions of Americans in desperate straits convinced him to initiate employment programs like the Works Progress Administration.

The most enduring of these New Deal social welfare programs is Social Security. This too was an old idea, and the United States was among the last of the industrialized nations to adopt an old-age pension system.

Social Security was denounced by conservatives as paternalistic and insulting because it implied that Americans couldn’t save for their own retirement. Never mind that many Americans in the 1930s didn’t make enough each week to set aside for retirement. Or that Americans over the age of 60 were the poorest demographic group in the nation. Or that many of those Americans had lost all their savings in bank failure.

Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon campaigned in 1936 on a promise to repeal Social Security, though it had only been passed the year before. Conservatives still hate Social Security, and when President George W. Bush vowed to privatize Social Security in 2005 he was channeling his inner Alf Landon. As it happens, Landon lost that election by what was to that point the most lopsided margin in American history.

If many anti-government Americans misunderstand the way the New Deal helped create future economic growth and stability, if they fail to recognize that federal social welfare programs grew only because private charity and local relief funds had all been exhausted, then they also misinterpret Franklin Roosevelt altogether.

FDR was no ideologue, despite the charges leveled against him then and now. He was a pragmatist in the best tradition of American politics. Campaigning in 1932 he told a crowd, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” And that’s what he did.

The fact that he was elected to the presidency four times is perhaps the most important measure of the New Deal’s success.

The Post-War American Government

There were some very strange moments during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

Candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Congressman Paul Ryan made “small government” the center of their campaign and promised to rein in what they saw as the runaway expansion of federal power under President Obama.

Yet there was former Republican Senator Rick Santorum on stage invoking the memory of his father and how he raised a family while working a government job in the Veterans Administration. Not to be outdone, New Jersey governor Chris Christie got teary-eyed while telling the assembled Republicans about his own father who worked his way through college on the G.I. Bill. When he took the stage, Paul Ryan promised to save Medicare for the next 100 years.

An observer could be forgiven for mistaking all this for, well, the Democratic National Convention. Each of these Republican heavyweights celebrated initiatives created by Democrats and they all involved the expansion of the federal government.

The post-war expansion of government was driven by several factors, not the least of which was the war itself and the Cold War which followed it. Funding for scientific research and education, for the study of “strategic languages,” and even for cultural events all had Cold War rationales. Yet as much as World War II and the Cold War changed the landscape, the post-war expansion of government represented important continuities as well.

For example, the G.I. Bill so beloved by Governor Christie provided the financial wherewithal for returning veterans to attend college, thus extending the democratization of higher education set in motion when the Morrill Land Grant Act was passed in 1862.

Likewise, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, he continued the pattern of federal subsidy to large-scale transportation projects that started with the Union and Central Pacific railroads and also included construction of the Panama Canal, another project initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Through the Highway Act, the federal government picked up the tab for highway construction to the tune of 90 cents out of every dollar.

Most people angry at government, however, don’t complain about the G. I. Bill or the National Science Foundation (created in 1950) or the interstate highways. Their anger is directed primarily at the civil rights revolution and at the War on Poverty, launched in 1964. For these people Lyndon Baines Johnson is another four-letter word.

For his part, Johnson saw his initiatives as firmly in the American tradition.

When he pushed for the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), he framed these historic pieces of legislation as completing the process of emancipation and citizenship begun during the Civil War.

And when he declared his War on Poverty he saw himself as completing the work begun by his political hero, Franklin Roosevelt. FDR gave the nation a New Deal; Johnson would turn it into a Great Society.

Medicare, of course, was part of Johnson’s Great Society, extending as it did the Social Security pension with health care coverage. It’s worth remembering that this was opposed bitterly by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater among other conservatives.

In fact, Goldwater made his opposition to Medicare central to his 1964 bid for the presidency. “Having given our pensioners their medical care in kind, why not food baskets” he asked in rhetorical disbelief, “why not public housing accommodations, why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?”

In the end, Medicare did not provide free beer to seniors, but Goldwater lost the election of 1964 by an even greater margin than Landon lost his presidential bid in 1936.

The anti-government backlash against the Great Society, which began in the 1960s, has culminated in the Tea Party and related opposition to President Barack Obama and it has crystallized around the Affordable Care Act.

Whatever one thinks about Obamacare as a policy, much of the opposition to it displays all the historical misunderstanding discussed here. Obamacare opponents, with varying degrees of histrionics, have decried it as an unprecedented intrusion of the federal government into the private sector.

In fact, since the turn of the 20th century, health care has been among the most federally subsidized areas of American life and at a host of levels.

The federal government provided money for hospital construction, especially in the under-served South, and it has provided the training for countless doctors, nurses, and public health professionals. Between 1947 and 1971, to take one example, the Hill-Burton Hospital Survey and Construction Act provided almost $4 billion in federal funds (matched by state money) and added 500,000 hospital beds in almost 11,000 hospital projects.

Likewise, the pharmaceutical industry has relied for years on the basic research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health among other agencies. Between 2003 and 2013, fifteen Americans have won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Exactly none of them did their path-breaking research in the private sector. They all received public support of one kind or another.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Centers for Disease Control are located in Atlanta and not Washington, the answer is that they started out in 1946 as a federally sponsored malaria control effort, when malaria was still endemic to parts of the South. It’s hard to imagine that the “Sun Belt” would have taken off in the post-war years if all those new arrivals had to spend their time swatting malarial mosquitos.

In fact, the Affordable Care Act itself is not only an outgrowth of the Great Society or even the New Deal. It can trace its origins back to the health care system created after the First World War for veterans returning from that war .

One might not like Obamacare, but its lineage, like so many other government programs, is all-American.

Why All the Fuss?

Given the history of the federal role in fostering the economy, education, health care, transportation, communication and more, why do so many Americans seem to resent our government with such vehemence?

One answer is that Americans like their government hidden from them. Steeped in myths of rugged individualism, we don’t like to believe that we’ve had any help achieving what we’ve achieved.

So while Americans have never been eager to support public housing for those who need it, few of them thank the federal government for subsidizing the mortgage on their own house. Likewise, these people see funding for public transportation as a waste of money even as they drive down interstate highways extravagantly paid for with federal money.

When Lincoln Center officials renamed the New York State Theater after David Koch, they not only honored a donor but they hid from the public the public source of the theater in the first place. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s exactly what Koch intended.

Another reason Americans are hostile to their own government is our conflicted views about race and class. If we’ve achieved our success all on our own, then those who do need more obvious forms of government help must be failures of some kind. More to the point, they suck up my tax dollars.

Government programs that aid the have-nots appear to many Americans to reward laziness and irresponsibility, like Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In contrast, programs which benefit middle-class people are seen as something they have worked hard to deserve, like deducting the interest payments on your mortgage on your federal taxes. Bluntly put: Americans don’t like government when it works for the poor (even if Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson thought it should).

Nor, it must be said just as bluntly, do they like government when it is designed to benefit African Americans. Barry Goldwater campaigned just as energetically against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 as he did against Medicare. In so doing he created the coalition that joined segregationist bigots with anti-government zealots, the one that helped elect Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan. Now that a black man is the face of the federal government, the worst nightmare for this group of Americans has become real.

Those cheering GOP conventioneers in Tampa point to a final reason why Americans don’t like big government. It has become, over and over again, the victim of its own success. After all, before the Republican Party supported the G. I. Bill and Medicare, it opposed them. Just like conservatives opposed the SEC and the FDIC in an earlier generation, and they opposed the FDA a generation before that.

Despite the rhetoric we are used to hearing that government programs are wasteful failures, the record of many of them is quite successful. We did create the greatest system of higher education in the world, and we did build 40,000 miles of interstate highway, and we did raise seniors out of poverty. The list could go on.

Yet because so many of these programs are hidden from sight, and because they have worked as effectively as they have, we have taken them for granted. A kind of familiarity that has bred a bitter contempt.

One final scene

On August 28, 2010 media demagogue Glenn Beck sponsored a rally in Washington, a quasi-religious revival to “restore America.”

The ironies were thick on the ground that day, though I suspect few of the assembled thousands noticed them. Beck issued his call for restoration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – the shrine to the man who expanded federal power dramatically – and he did so on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington . Beck was shamelessly trying to invoke the moral authority of that event, oblivious, apparently, to the fact that King and others came to Washington to demand federal action to advance the civil rights agenda.

Most of all, however, Beck and the thousands who came to restore America all demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the role the federal government has played from the very beginning of the nation: to promote the general welfare as each generation has defined that task.

We can and should have debates over what is and is not appropriate for the federal government to do in American life. But those debates can only be fruitful if we wake up from the historical amnesia we seem to be suffering currently.

In the meantime, keep your government hands off my Medicare.


Suggested Reading

Brian Balogh, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in 19th Century America (2009)

Steven Conn, ed., To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (2012)

Richard John, Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (2010)

Paul Light, Government's Greatest Achievements: From Civil Rights to Homeland Defense (2002) Ω

[Steven Conn is a co-editor of Origins and teaches American cultural and intellectual history at the Ohio State University. He is the author or editor of 5 books, most recently To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (2012). Conn specializes in 19th and 20th century cultural and intellectual history. He received a BA (history) from Yale University and a PhD (history) from the University of Pennsylvania.]

Copyright © 2014 The Ohio State University, College of Arts and Sciences



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Monday, November 24, 2014

Roll Over, "Walk of Shame" — Make Way For a "Ride of Glory"

Today, Tom Tomorrow offers instruction in the social argot of the twentysomethings' weekend hookups: the "Rides of Glory" for "... anyone who took a ride with Uber between 10pm and 4am on a Friday or Saturday night, and then took a second ride from within 1/10th of a mile of the previous nights’ drop-off point 4-6 hours later." All of this information is gleaned from e-mail/text messages to Uber dispatchers. "Ride of Glory" is the 21st century alternative to the "Walk of Shame." If this is (fair & balanced) number-crunching, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
The Future: It's Uber-Iffic!
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly. Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002. When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001. More recently, Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning.]

Copyright © 2014 Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)



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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sic Semper Imbecillus (Thus Always To Imbeciles)

C. (for Crackpot) Cruz, the junior senator from Texas demonstrated his inability to know Cicero (the Roman orator) from Cicero (Porky's nephew). In a classic example of reach beyond his grasp, Cruz — the Princeton wonk — is taken to task by a classics professor. At best C. Cruz deserves a D- for his nearly complete misreading of Cicero. If this is (fair & balanced) academic humilation, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
Ted Cruz: Confused About Cicero
By Jesse Weiner

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For better than two millennia, politicians have invoked classical Greek and Roman literature to construct, defend, and challenge ideologies of power. On Thursday, November 20, Senator Ted Cruz channeled his inner Cicero and delivered his own rendition of “In Catilinam (Against Catiline)” to denounce President Obama’s planned executive actions on immigration reform. “The words of Cicero—powerfully relevant 2,077 years later,” said Cruz, who adapted Cicero’s text to fit his 21st-century American context. In quoting Cicero, Cruz reached back to Harry Truman and Thomas Jefferson, who also were avid readers of the Roman philosopher, statesman, and orator.

As a classics professor, I am on one level pleased to see the legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity alive and well, informing debate around our most pressing issues. The problem is that Cruz dangerously misused Cicero. A deeper look at the speech Cruz adapted shows that the senator not only accused the president of overstepping the constitutional bounds of his authority (a legally dubious claim), but also challenges the legitimacy of the Obama presidency, accuses the president of treason, and perhaps even advocates for his violent punishment. And in speaking from the position of Cicero, Cruz presents himself as a decidedly undemocratic oligarch. (Cruz’s speech can be read in its entirety, alongside an English translation of the Ciceronian original, here.)

Cicero delivered “Against Catiline” to the Roman Senate in 63 B.C., against a background of martial law, high treason, and the specter of civil war. After losing an election to Cicero for Rome’s highest office, consul, Catiline conspired to murder Cicero and attempt a coup d'état. The consul discovered the conspiracy, declared martial law, and denounced Catiline to the Senate—a triumph about which Cicero never tired of reminding his peers and readers. (Catiline went into exile and soon after died in battle with the army he had mustered.) The speech is canonized as a rhetorical masterpiece and remains widely taught in Latin curricula today.

At one level, the political enmity between Catiline and Cicero maps rather well onto Obama’s proposed immigration reforms and broader Republican criticisms of the president. Catiline was an advocate for the poor, who called for the cancellation of debts and openly backed land redistribution. Some of Catiline’s support may well have come from slaves. Cicero, in contrast, issued a law banning such populist gestures. Thus, Obama’s attempts to ease the threat of deportation for illegal immigrants marginalized from the political process (as well as initiatives like the Affordable Care Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) are somewhat Catiline-esque. Cruz is a Cicero, working to protect the prosperity, power, and legal privilege of the lawful establishment.

The basic power relationships at play between Cicero and Catiline, however, are deeply disquieting when applied to Cruz and Obama. Cicero was the state’s high executive. In casting Obama in the role of Catiline, Cruz unsubtly suggests that the sitting president was not lawfully elected and is the perpetrator of a violent insurrection to overthrow the government. But don’t take it from me: Cruz explicitly accuses the president of being “openly desirous to destroy the Constitution and this Republic.” In effect, he accuses the president of high treason. Regardless of one’s views on immigration reform and the Obama administration at large, this is dangerous rhetoric.

To adapt Cicero’s “Against Catiline” to his contemporary context, Cruz tweaked and replaced many of Cicero’s words and phrases. The speech becomes more disturbing when one considers the words Cruz writes over—what classical scholars and papyrologists call palimpsests. For the well-trained reader, lurking beneath Cruz’s already inflammatory words are suggestions that Obama, Cruz’s modern-day Catiline, “should long ago have been led to execution,” marks members of the Senate for death, and seeks “to destroy the whole world with fire and slaughter.” Dangerous words indeed.

Let’s return to that line about Obama openly desiring “to destroy the Constitution and this Republic.” Cruz positions himself as the defender of the Constitution, the state, and—by extension in our American context—democracy. But Cicero was no proponent of popular sovereignty. In “On the Republic (De re publica),” Cicero describes the lower classes as “insane” and very explicitly blames the decline of Athenian power on its democracy. Through his spokesperson Scipio, Cicero offers that “these democratic pleaders do not understand the nature or importance of a well–constituted aristocracy.” Cicero vehemently advocates for maintaining a rigid class system and for restricting the access of the lower classes to the political process. Cicero allied himself with the “Optimates” (“Best Men”), who wished to preserve the aristocracy’s power by limiting the powers of popular assemblies.

Is Cicero really the best symbol to defend our Constitution? The next time Senator Cruz feels inspired to deliver a public reading on the Senate floor, he might be on safer ground if he returns to reciting Dr. Seuss. Ω

[Jesse Weiner currently is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Hamilton College; his previous faculty positions were at California State University at Long Beach, University of California at Irvine, and Illinois Wesleyan University. He received a BA (classics and classical languages) from the New College of Florida; he also received an MA and PhD (both in classics and classical languages) from the University of California at Irvine.]

Copyright © 2014 The Atlantic Monthly Group



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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Forget Jello, Cos — In Your New Career, You Can Be The Pitchman For Roche's Rohypnol (Roofies)!

As Bill Cosby struggles to reinvent himself, he can hire The Drifters (or a descendant group) to open his appearances with "Up On The Roof(ies)." Today, we have a daily double on Cosby and his accusers — a mea culpa from Ta-Nehisi Coates and critique of the Smithsonian's craven lack of integrity by Kriston Capps. Poor ol' Cos is bedeviled by a nattering regiment of female victims and the best he can do is shake his head, "No" in response to respectful questions from NPR's Scott Simons. Bill Cosby is a hypocritical fraud. If this is (fair & balanced) facade-smashing, so be it.

P.S. Helpful hint from the blogger: click on the bracketed numbers below to hop from one item to another; click on "Back To Directory" to return to the starting point. Thanks be to Vannevar Bush for giving us the idea of hypertext.

[Vannevar Bush HyperlinkBracketed NumbersDirectory]
[1] Point — The Cosby Show (Ta-Nehisi Coates)
[2] Counter-Point — Why Is The Smithsonian Standing Behind Bill Cosby? (Kriston Capps)


[1]Back To Directory
[x The Atlantic]
The Cosby Show
By Ta-Nehisi Coates

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On Monday, 66-year old Joan Tarshis accused Bill Cosby of raping her. Tarshis says the attack took place in 1969, when she was 19 and working as comedy writer:

...[H]e told me that he wanted to work on a monologue together, and I had an idea for something about an earthquake that had just happened. It was my first earthquake. I had some funny lines, and he said, Sure, let's work on that. And then? We went up to his cottage after they were done shooting. That's when it happened. He offered me a drink. It was a red eye, a bloody mary topped off with beer. He always made the drinks; he didn't have a bartender.

And then next thing I know, I was being undressed on his couch. I was so out of it. But I remember saying to him—I thought I would outsmart him—I said, I have an infection down there, and if you have sex with me, you're going to get it, and then your wife will know. He immediately switched to another orifice, which was worse....

Yes. He was holding me down. He's much bigger than I am. He's very big. I couldn't resist. He was forceful. He definitely used force. There was nothing I could do except wait for it to be over. I was in shock.

Tarshis is the fifth woman to publicly accuse Bill Cosby of raping her. There is now a sixth: model Janice Dickinson. In a civil suit brought by Andrea Constand, some 13 women were set to testify that Cosby had raped them too. They ultimately did not testify because Constand settled with Cosby. Tarshis says she was not among those 13, and so the total number of accusers appears to now stand at 15 including Dickinson.

Perhaps it is not fair for a journalist to consider, or even publicize, anonymous allegations of criminal activity. Even then we are left with six accusations of sexual assault: Tamara Green says that Cosby drugged and groped her in 1970. Beth Ferrier says that Cosby drugged and raped her in 1984. Janice Dickinson says Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982. Barbara Bowman says that Cosby drugged and raped her "multiple times" when she was 17 in 1985. And Andrea Constand says that Cosby drugged and raped her in 2004. Taken together, the public accusations span some 30 years and are remarkably similar in their detail.

Most of these allegations came after Constand sued Cosby in civil court. Her lawyers tracked down several accusers, some of whom wanted to use their names, and some of whom didn't. Perhaps all of these women are lying. Certainly, false criminal allegations happen. It is not unheard of for celebrities to be targeted for false allegations. The Cosby case is different, though, in its sheer volume and lack of ulterior motive—no civil suit, no criminal charges.

A defense of Cosby requires that one believe that several women have decided to publicly accuse one of the most powerful men in recent Hollywood history of a crime they have no hope of seeing prosecuted, and for which they are seeking no damages. The alternative is to see one of the most celebrated public fathers of our time, and one of the great public scourges of black morality, revealed as a serial rapist.

I spent parts of 2006 and 2007 following Bill Cosby around the country. He was then in the midst of giving a series of "call-outs" in which he upbraided the decline of morality in the black community. Our current organic black conservative moment largely springs from these efforts. It's worth distinguishing an "organic black conservative" from a black or white Republican moment. Black Republicans, with some exceptions, don't simply exist as people who believe in free markets and oppose abortion, but to assure white Republicans that racism no longer exists. Organic black conservatives (like Cosby, for instance) are traditionalists, but they hold no such illusions about America's past. They believe this country to be racist, perhaps irredeemably so, but assert nonetheless that individual effort can defeat trenchant racism. The organic black conservative vision is riding high at the moment. Thus even the NAACP cannot denounce the outriders of Ferguson without the requisite indictment of "black on black crime."

The author of this moment is Bill Cosby. In 2004, he gave his "Poundcake Speech," declaring black youth morally unworthy of their very heritage. Cosby followed the speech with a series of call-outs. I observed several of these call-outs. Again, unlike typical black Republicans, Cosby spoke directly to black people. He did not go on Fox News to complain about the threat of the New Black Panther Party. He did not pen columns insisting the black family was better off under slavery. He was not speaking as a man sent to assure a group that racism did not exist, but as a man who sincerely believed that black people, through the ethic of "twice as good," could overcome. That is the core of respectability politics. Its appeal is broad in both black and white America, and everywhere Cosby went he was greeted with rapturous applause.

I published a reported essay in 2008, in this magazine, on these call-outs. In that essay, there is a brief and limp mention of the accusations against Cosby. Despite my opinions on Cosby suffusing the piece, there was no opinion offered on the rape accusations. This is not because I did not have an opinion. I felt at the time that I was taking on Cosby's moralizing and wanted to stand on those things that I could definitively prove. Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists. But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person's word over another—it requires you take one person's word over 15 others.

At the time I wrote the piece, it was 13 peoples’ word—and I believed them. Put differently, I believed that Bill Cosby was a rapist.

Rape constitutes the loss of your body, which is all you are, to someone else. I have never been raped. But I have, several times as a child, been punched/stomped/kicked/bumrushed while walking home from school, and thus lost my body. The worst part for me was not the experience, but the humiliation of being unable to protect my body, which is all I am, from predators. Even now as I sketch this out for you publicly, I am humiliated all again. And this happened when I was a child. If recounting a physical assault causes me humiliation, how might recounting a sexual assault feel? And what would cause me to willingly stand up and relive that humiliation before a national audience? And why would I fake my way through such a thing? Cosby's accusers—who have no hope of criminal charges, nor civil damages—are courting the scrutiny of Cosby-lovers and rape-deniers. To what end?

The heart of the matter is this: A defender of Bill Cosby must, effectively, conjure a vast conspiracy, created to bring down one man, seemingly just out of spite. And people will do this work of conjuration, because it is hard to accept that people we love in one arena can commit great evil in another. It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn't just indict Cosby, it indicts us. It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows. It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.

And one cannot escape this chaos by hiding behind the lack of a court conviction. O.J. Simpson was not convicted in court for murdering his ex-wife. The men accused of killing Emmett Till were found innocent. ("If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long," mused one of them.) Police and government forces conspired to kill a Black Panther, Fred Hampton. They were never criminally prosecuted in any court.

Courts belong to the society, not the other way around. This is why many Americans scoff at the idea that O.J. was never convicted of killing his wife. And this is why many other Americans scoff at the idea that the government didn't kill Fred Hampton. Ducking behind an official finding is kind of cowardice that allows us the luxury of never facing hard questions. Cowardice can be insidious. Sometimes it is a physical fear. Other times it's just taking the easy out.

I would not dismiss all journalists who've declined to mention these allegations as cowards. It's worth considering what it feels like to, say, have been among those convicting Richard Jewell in the press. And should I have decided to state what I believed about Cosby, I would have had to write a much different piece. It would not have been enough to say, "I believe he is a rapist." A significant portion of my reporting, perhaps the lion’s share of my reporting, would have had to be aimed to investigating the claims.

The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else's salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby's moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I'd ever written.

It was not enough.

I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality—and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible.

I don't have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away. Ω

[Ta-Nehisi Coates (He pronounces his given name /ˌta-nɘˈhasi/.) is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for the magazine. Coates has worked for The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, and Time. He has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Washington Monthly, O, and other publications. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle (2008). Coates attended Howard University.]

Copyright © 2014 The Atlantic Monthly Group


[2]Back To Directory
[x The Atlantic]
Why Is The Smithsonian Standing Behind Bill Cosby?
By Kriston Capps

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Bill Cosby did not want to talk about rape with the Associated Press. That much he made clear in an interview with AP arts reporter Brett Zongker, who interviewed Cosby and his wife, Camille, upon the opening of an exhibit of their collection of African American art at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. During the November 6 interview, which took place at the museum, Cosby rejected a question from the reporter about the allegations of sexual assault that have lingered over the popular performer—and national father figure—for nearly a decade.

“There’s no response,” Cosby tells Zongker during the filmed interview, which the AP released in its entirety on Wednesday. Seated in front of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s powerful 1894 painting, "The Thankful Poor," Cosby appeals to the reporter after the interview concludes (with the tape still rolling) to omit any discussion of the allegations of sexual assault. When that doesn’t appear to work, Cosby tells someone off camera, “I think you need to get on the phone with his person [Zongker’s employer], immediately.”

Now it’s the Smithsonian that doesn’t want to talk about rape. Through a spokesperson, both the National Museum of African Art and the larger Smithsonian Institution declined to discuss allegations from as many as 15 women that Cosby drugged and raped them. Two women, Joan Tarshis and model Janice Dickinson, have come forward with their accusations since the November 9 opening of “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue.” A third woman, Therese Serignese, said yesterday that Cosby drugged and raped her when she was 19.

In a two-sentence statement, the Smithsonian made clear that it is standing behind Cosby, without saying as much. “Conversations” will remain on view through the start of 2016. That’s the end of the conversation from the museum’s perspective. But it should be the start of one. The National Museum of African Art had no business hanging Cosby’s art collection in the first place. But now, with serious questions about Cosby’s past finally coming to light, the Smithsonian must reconsider its own role in framing the one conversation that matters most right now.

“When you choose to launch a show about a collector, rather than a show about art, you’re putting the collector on the pedestal, rather than artists and art and its history,” says art critic Tyler Green, host of the popular "Modern Art Notes" podcast and blog. Green, an art-world watchdog, has been a vociferous critic of exhibitions like “Conversations,” collector-driven shows in which the focus is the pursuit of artworks, rather than an artist or a theme. “That can go south really fast, and here, it has.”

The individual collector hardly matters, Green says. Collector-driven shows run contrary to the mission of art museums, which serve to tell the history of art and its makers. While there does exist a school of thought that art history in fact is the history of its benefactors—a theory from the 1980s called the New Art History—critics today tend to dismiss this approach. And in practice, shows about collectors tend inevitably toward hagiography.

“Art museums, through their exhibitions or collection galleries, tell a story of accumulation: how artists accumulate knowledge from their cultures or the art around them,” Green says. “Turning the focus to acquisitors rather than artists makes the focus on accumulation a story about shopping.”

The Smithsonian has a record of condescending to viewers with thin collector exhibitions. “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,” a 2010 show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, traded on two of Hollywood’s biggest names for a scholarship-free presentation of one of America’s most overexposed artists. It was a blockbuster. The same museum planned an exhibit of Western ephemera from the collection of Tea Party backer Bill Koch, including Western art—like the celebrated nocturne paintings of Frederic Remington—but also non-artworks, like pickaxes and gold nuggets. (The show never panned out.)

Beyond their low nutritional value, there are other reasons to object to collector-driven shows. Collectors stand to see the value of their works rise after a museum exhibition, which is why museums should never entertain collector exhibits unless the collection is promised to the museum, as former Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik explained by email. But that’s not the real problem with the Cosby show at the Smithsonian, he argues (putting aside, for a moment, the horrific allegations surrounding Cosby).

“How many collectors, buying only over a span of a few decades, have really amassed just the works an exhibition needs to make some significant art-historical point?” Gopnik writes. “In judging any curatorial exercise, I always ask, ‘What mark would this get if a student handed it in as an exhibition proposal in a curatorial studies class?’ A one-collector exhibition (even including some comparative objects from the permanent collection)? That would get a definite D-.”

The timing of this exhibition can't be seen as a coincidence. Cosby has been on a publicity blitz this fall. "Bill Cosby 77," an hour-long comedy special, was set to air on Netflix on November 27. (Netflix has since postponed the program, perhaps indefinitely.) A biography, Cosby: His Life and Times (2014), was published in September to mark the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show. (The book is now taking a drubbing.) Most notably, Cosby was set to reunite with Tom Werner, the producer of "The Cosby Show," for a new NBC series. (That series has been cancelled.)

Even TV Land has pulled re-runs of "The Cosby Show" from its lineup. Only the Smithsonian is providing Cosby any cover. While it’s troubling to think that the National Museum of African Art can be lined up like an appearance on David Letterman—which, incidentally, Cosby cancelled—perhaps removing an art show in the face of controversy merits some debate. After all, it’s hardly the fault of the artworks that their owner is discredited. Removing powerful works by wonderful African American artists like Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold does a disservice to museumgoers who want to see them.

The Smithsonian has censored an exhibit once in the recent past. In late 2010, Secretary G. Wayne Clough removed an artwork from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. A 1987 video called "A Fire in My Belly" by artist David Wojnarowicz, one of the works included in “Hide/Seek”—a groundbreaking exhibition of portraiture by LGBT artists—drew the ire of a conservative activist-journalist employed through Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center. Just as Bozell’s Parents Television Council used to overwhelm the FCC with complaints about indecency on television, the Media Research Center flooded the National Portrait Gallery with hundreds of phone calls and emails, all registering the same ultra-specific complaint: "A Fire in My Belly" was anti-Christmas. (The surreal video artwork featured snippets of ants crawling over a crucifix.)

When then-ascendant GOP leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor spoke in favor of taking down the queer-art exhibition, Secretary Clough took action: Over the objections of the museum’s then-director Martin Sullivan, Clough had the video removed. It was absolutely the wrong decision, and Clough later earned a (mild) rebuke from an outside panel organized by the Smithsonian’s board of regents. Artworks shouldn’t be removed from exhibitions that have already opened, the panel recommended. (Secretary Clough is retiring at the end of the year.)

In “Conversations,” the artworks are not the issue. (They present a skewed narrative of African American art history, writes Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott in his review, but never mind.) It’s the show itself that is the problem. It should never have opened. Its origination calls into question the Smithsonian’s ethical standing as a fiercely independent public institution, and not a vehicle for celebrity. Removing “Conversations” would do the museum no harm.

“We’re not talking about a museum of art in Dubuque. We’re talking about the National Museum of African Art, which has a fine collection, and one of the finest collections of its kind in the United States,” Green says. “If it has to take down a show because it’s embarrassing itself, it’s not like they’ll be showing empty walls.”

Supporting “Conversations,” on the hand, invariably means supporting Cosby. But there might be a step short of pulling the exhibition: The Smithsonian could offer to strike the Cosbys’ name from the show. Pull down the Simmie Knox portrait of the couple that makes them look like modern-day Medicis. Scrub the word “Cosby” from the walls. That would show that the leaders of America’s cultural treasury are not willing to, as my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “take one person's word over 15 others.” It would no doubt lead to the show collapsing.

That would be for the best. In the AP video interview with Cosby, the gallery goes to a dark place. What happens in the room is an abuse of the dignity of an art museum. It’s not just Cosby telling Zongker to shut down the conversation, but several people. It’s not just the reporter that this room wants silenced, but by extension the women who have testified about their pain. One man from Cosby’s retinue tells Zongker that another AP reporter accepted Cosby’s refusal to discuss the allegations against him—and so should he. A woman off-screen whom Cosby doesn’t appear to know (he refers to her as “ma’am”) confirms Cosby’s opinion about Zongker’s line of questioning: “I don’t think it has any value, either.”

“We thought, by the way, because it was AP, that it wouldn’t be necessary to go over that question with you,” Cosby tells Zongker. (The original November 10 story mentions the allegations in the final paragraph of a 1,000-word piece on Cosby’s collection.) “We thought AP had the integrity to not ask,” Cosby adds.

Now it’s the museum’s turn to prove its mettle. Does the Smithsonian have the integrity not to ask? Or does it have the integrity the situation deserves? Ω

[Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post. He received a BA (English and art history) from The University of Texas at Austin.]

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