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Archive for the 'American History' Category

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist

“I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of ‘integration’ but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.”—Mary Helen Washington

The following is an interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s:

Question: Why did you choose to focus on the 1950s?

Mary Helen Washington: I came of age in the early 1950s in Catholic schools in Cleveland, Ohio, fed on a steady diet of anticommunism at school, and, at home, a steady diet of integration, but both of those prescribed lessons—anticommunism and integration—separated me from the story of radical civil rights activity. While the black left of the 1950s was protesting discrimination on every front, from residential segregation to unions and factories, we black kids were being taught that integration meant blacks becoming acceptable to the white mainstream. When the left-leaning National Negro Labor Congress (NNLC) came to Cleveland for their 1952 conference, they staged a protest downtown against the airlines for refusing to hire blacks. Since stories like these were blacklisted by the anticommunists as well as the integrationists, black kids grew up in the 1950s with no access to a critical discourse on race. Radicals used terms like white supremacy and racial justice, not integration, while black kids were learning that we should dress, act, and speak a certain way as a marker of acceptability, radicals were defining integration as claiming the rights of citizenship—as you can see from the NNLC poster featuring the Statue of Liberty as a black woman.

Q: Why did you call the book The Other Blacklist?

MHW: Most of what we know about the McCarthy era focuses on the white left. Communism is seen as a white left radicalism, though black civil rights activists were deeply involved in radical movements in the 1940s and 1950s. People who were investigated by J. Edgar Hoover for being communists were routinely asked if they were involved interracially because civil rights activity was considered radical. This is a very powerful and commendable radicalism that black people don’t get credit for. They weren’t the Hollywood Ten, but they were the New York/Chicago 100. There’s a fine documentary on screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo and his admirable resistance to HUAC, but there’s no documentary on black radicals like Alice Childress, Lloyd Brown, Julian Mayfield, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett or Lorraine Hansberry [some of the figures in my book], who also paid a price for their radicalism. I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of “integration” but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.

Q: You have a chapter called “Spycraft and the Black Literary Left.” Can you talk about the connection between government agencies, politics, and art?

MHW: Keep in mind that the Left and the Communist Party supported black artists when no one in white mainstream culture (with the exception of J. Edgar Hoover) showed any interest in black culture. They came to the defense of black culture because they saw art as a means to effect social and political change. One critic Willliam Maxwell says that Hoover should be considered an important historian of black culture becaue he always took black literary production seriously. The FBI files are thus a mixed blessing—a gold mine for biographical material because the FBI kept close track of the activities of radicals, and also a record of governmental abuse of artists and intellectuals. There’s a current play on Broadway about the life of Lyndon Johnson called All the Way that shows how relevant these issues still are. The character playing J. Edgar Hoover asks LBJ to justify his relationship with Martin Luther King because, Hoover claims, King is being advised by communists. The government, particularly in the age of McCarthy and Hoover, created the tradition of demonizing the Left that is still with us and that has resulted in the dismissal of an entire generation of black intellectuals and artists.

Q: Why is radicalism of the 1950s still relevant?

MHW: We’re grappling with the same issues today but without that radical perspective. I’m thinking about Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case and all the discussion that was generated about Jeantel’s appearance and speech—the way she looked rather than the case itself. Another example is Paul Ryan saying “inner city” people live in a culture that doesn’t value work or doesn’t have a work ethic. And here we see how “inner city” becomes a code for “black.” The jurors from the Jordan Davis case in Florida, one white and one black, said that the Davis case, in which a black man was shot and killed because a white man thought his black music was too loud, was not about race. This kind of political illiteracy shows how and why we need what I call a critical racial discourse. As Boston Governor Deval Patrick said—“words matter.” Even more than words, the radical left—and, yes, I include communists– gave us examples of a powerful resistance. The Rosa Ingram case and the Trenton Six—which were also about racial violence inflicted on blacks– were fought in the courts, in the streets, and in African American artistic production. When Rosa Ingram was sentenced to death along with her two sons for killing a man she claimed had violently assaulted her, the left and civil rights groups organized the protests that eventually freed them, and, as part of that protest, artist Charles White made the Ingram case the subject of his 1949 drawing.


Monday, April 7th, 2014

Book Giveaway! The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington

The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, Mary Helen Washington

This week we will be featuring The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Other Blacklist to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and indicate your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 11 at 3:00 pm.

In The Other Blacklist, Mary Helen Washington recovers the vital role of 1950s leftist politics in the works and lives of modern African American writers and artists. While most histories of McCarthyism focus on the devastation of the blacklist and the intersection of leftist politics and American culture, few include the activities of radical writers and artists from the Black Popular Front. Washington’s work incorporates these black intellectuals back into our understanding of mid-twentieth-century African American literature and art and expands our understanding of the creative ferment energizing all of America during this period.

For more on the book, read an excerpt from the introduction.

Monday, March 17th, 2014

When Was the First St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City?

St. Patrick's Day Parade

An increasingly controversial event, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade has nevertheless been a staple of New York City life. But just how much of a staple is it? To answer that question, we turn to When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green?: And 101 Other Questions About New York City, edited by The Staff of the New-York Historical Society Library, Nina Nazionale, and Jean Ashton:

When was the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City?

This is a tough question, since a definitive answer hinges on whether a record of the event has actually survived. Addition­ally, the sources that do exist are not particularly explicit about the form the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations took.

That aside, the first allusion to something resembling a pa­rade appears in the March 20, 1766, issue of the New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy. The newspaper account notes the playing of fifes and drums at dawn—which we can reasonably interpret as a parade—and festivities later in the evening, both organized by Irishmen serving in the British army. Still, the first known reference to any commemoration of St. Patrick’s Day in New York City is a full decade earlier, in 1756. There is no specific mention of a parade or procession, but according to a brief notice in the New-York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy, the event was worthy of the governor’s attendance.

Regardless of the exact date of the first parade, these cele­brations differed notably from those of later generations. In this early period, organizers were Loyalists, proposing toasts not only to “The Day; and Prosperity of Ireland” but also to “the King and Royal House of Hanover,” “the glorious memory of King William,” and “the Protestant Interest.” The influx of Irish Catholics into New York in the nineteenth century, along with the appointment of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (an Irish Catholic fraternal organization) as the parade’s chief sponsor in the 1850s, signaled a swing to a more Catholic, na­tionalist tone.

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

LINCOLN: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

As part of our ongoing feature of Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies, we’re delighted to share a guest post from the author himself on Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies!

Lincoln: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Had my writing of Finding Ourselves at the Movies extended over one more year, Steve Spielberg’s Lincoln would no doubt have had a central place in my discussion of the narrative of politics that we find in American films. I would have placed a discussion of the film alongside that of Gran Torino, which places an act of sacrificial love at the foundation of law. Lincoln too is about sacrifice and love at the foundation of the state. To see this, we must look past the film’s immediate focus on low politics. To secure House passage of the bill making way for the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery, Lincoln was not above trading patronage positions for votes. We also see that he could be less than honest, as in his representation of southern peace overtures. To be sure the use of political tactics to pursue principled ends raises interesting questions, but the meaning of the film does not lie in this direction.

Lincoln is a great example of the first rule of American film: There is no political movie that is not also a film about family. A disturbance in the political order is a disturbance in the familial order – and vice versa. We cannot say whether Lincoln is a film about family or state. The crossing of the familial and the political is the meaning of the White House – both family residence and office – a theme beautifully illustrated in Lincoln’s late night wanderings.

This theme is powerfully portrayed in the subplot involving the radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, who had spent 30 years fighting for racial equality, must compromise his rhetoric to obtain passage of the bill. He restrains himself to the disappointment of his radical followers, but he succeeds politically. In the only truly surprising moment in the film, he returns home, bill in hand, to share the event with his black housekeeper, who is also his lover and companion. The political and the familial are inseparable.

Political and familial success should go hand in hand for Lincoln too. Instead, he is assassinated. We do see, after passage of the bill, a moment of domestic happiness, as President and wife dream of future travels. It never happens. There is no family recovery, but only endless pain at the death of husband, father, President.

Lincoln’s death represents the great unsettled moment in American history. Without family reconciliation, there is no political reconciliation. Reconstruction fails; we continue to live with many of the same divisions of race and region at issue in the War. Lincoln’s assassination is the rend in the fabric of American life.

The greatness of the film, and its deepest lesson, is in the portrayal of Lincoln as a figure of love. He is, in Thadeus Stevens’s words, “the purest man in American politics.” From the opening scene in which Lincoln speaks with black and white soldiers, to his constant companionship with his young son, to his conversations with an ex-slave, to his visit to a hospital, he is a figure of overwhelming compassion. He quite literally touches all those with whom he comes in contact. This man of amazing oratory is also a man of extraordinary love.

Lincoln is, of course, the American figure of Christ. He speaks in parables, loves the least among us, embraces the enemy, and takes on to himself the nation’s pain. Like Christ, he suffers the paradox that for his faith endless numbers will kill and be killed. Love makes sacrifice possible. Lincoln knows this as the unbearable pain of the war that he must bear for the sake of the nation. The Civil War marks American politics as tragedy; Lincoln personifies that tragedy of love and sacrifice.

Love is at the center of Lincoln, and it is here that we can truly learn something about ourselves. The film constantly moves between the familial and the political, between inner life and outer practice. The family is the site of an inner pain no less grievous than the pain of the battlefield. Lincoln and Mary bear the unspeakable pain of the loss of a child, just like every other family touched by this war. The message is unmistakable: there is no line to be drawn between the family and the polity for both are expressions of love. Every soldier who dies for his country is a loss to a family. We must love the state, if we are to bear the sacrifice our loved ones. The success of the film suggests that this is a story that Americans want to hear: Ours is a project that is worthy of sacrifice because it is a project of love. Lincoln is the face of that love.

We will miss this point if we think the 13th Amendment is about a theory of equality or that liberal politics is about keeping the government out of our private lives. Before we can have a government, we must have a state; before we can apply a theory, we must have a community. To have either, we must be bound to each other. Americans believe – or want to believe – that the ties that bind us are elements of our very being. Lincoln speaks to a common faith that these are ties of love, and that for this love we will give everything.

Can we translate love into a political program? Because the American love of nation is a sacrificial love, war has occupied much of our history. The narrative of sacrifice often comes easier than a political program of charity. Yet, the final words of the film – Lincoln’s words – are precisely on point: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln’s words call us still to heal the nation’s divisions. He left us no instruction book, and the film offers none. Lincoln shows us the stakes, but the burden of politics is our own.

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Book Giveaway: This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains

“This marvelous book offers us a glimpse of the ghost of the Great Plains as it makes a last appearance. We ought to be immensely grateful to David Stark and Nancy Warner for inviting us to their deeply moving séance.” — Ted Kooser, former U.S. Poet Laureate

This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains, David Stark, Photographs by Nancy Warner

This week we will be featuring This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains, by David Stark, with photographs by Nancy Warner, on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, December 20 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

You can also read an excerpt and view photographs from This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

VIDEO: Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter on Thai Stick

Australia Network News recently broadcast a story about Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, by Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter.

The story focuses, in part, on Mike Ritter’s personal story as someone who dropped out of college in 1967 and traveled the world searching for enlightenment and “the perfect wave.” Ultimately, in order to pay for his lifestyle, Ritter turned to smuggling Thai marijuana or Thai stick. While drug smuggling from Thailand in the 1970s was very lucrative, it was not without its dark side.

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Doughnuts? A Thanksgiving Tradition? Apparently So.

Gastropolis, Thanksgiving in New York City

We culminate our week-long (or, at least short week) feature on Thanksgiving with a quick look at the holiday’s history in New York City.

In his chapter, “The Food and Drink of New York from 1624 to 1898,” from Gastropolis: Food and New York City, Andrew Smith describes the role both George Washington and doughnuts have played in how the holiday has been celebrated in New York City:

Although it had originated in New England, [Thanksgiving] was quickly adopted in communities throughout New York. Indeed, it was in New York City that President George Washington issued the first presiden­tial thanksgiving proclamation, which set aside Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a day of prayer and thanksgiving. New York was one of the first states outside New England to declare Thanksgiving an official holiday. In 1795, John Jay, the governor of New York, tried to establish a statewide thanksgiving day, and in 1817 it was finally recognized as a state holiday. Thanksgiving was celebrated with what is now considered the traditional meal of turkey, apple pie, mince pie, and cranberries; New Yorkers often added doughnuts and crullers to the menu. Thanksgiving holiday remained an important holiday throughout the nineteenth century. The Ladies Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church opened a mission in the gang-infested Five Points District, and on Thanksgiving Day, under the eyes of their bene­factors, the ladies paraded and fed hundreds of Sunday- school students.

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Interview with Peter Maguire, author of Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade

Thai Stick, Peter Maguire

The following is an edited transcript of a podcast interview with Peter Maguire, coauthor of Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade. The excerpt starts with midway with Maguire talking about the marijuana smugglers.

For another interview with Maguire, you can listen to Waking from the American Dream.

PM: Yeah, these were modern day pirates who basically needed to find a way to finance their endless summers and growing up in southern California they were sort of our heroes and I was a young lifeguard in Malibu and knew many people in this world and for many years I kind of tried to, to pretend I was you know, a straight history professor that didn’t have this other life that I had led before I moved on to academia, but I figured it was time for me to come out of the cannabis closet.

Q: These surfers that were part of this giant drug trade, just, they didn’t think it was immoral

PM: No, absolutely not.

Q: Certainly there were people executed, who were caught….. I don’t understand why this story hasn’t been , well, part of the vernacular of the war on drugs.

PM: Well, you know you figure that you had a generation of, of many of these guys were draft dodgers, and had basically been turned criminal as a result of, of dodging the draft and evading service in the Vietnam War, or you know minor criminal convictions for marijuana use and they just left the system.

And in case of my co-author Mike Ritter, he was a draft dodger, went to Afghanistan, began, they all began, very small and the thing just escalates, and so by 1974, the Thai stick, the finest marijuana, really, of the 1970′s, grown by the hill tribes in, in northeast Thailand, one pound of Thai sticks in the United States was $2000 in 1974.

So basically, if you could fill a boat with Thai sticks and get it back to the United States you could set yourself up for life.

One of our favorite narrators, Mike Charley Tuna Carter, one of the great captains of the Thai marijuana fleet, he brought back six tons in I think 1975 and netted something like twenty million dollars that he seal-a-mealed, put in igloo coolers in his yard and called it the bank of the igloo underground.

But that’s, that’s half the story.

The other half of the story is the Southeast Asia 1975 to 1979 was probably one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world given not only the pirates, the boat people, the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese Navy, so the DEA was the least of the worries that the Thai smugglers faced.

Q: Well, in going, in going through the Pirates and Perils chapter, I can’t believe that they were taking that kind of risk, but for $2000 you could buy a house in 1974 for that.

PM: Oh absolutely. And my co-author, Mike Ritter, he would contract Thai fishermen, and Thai fishermen will traffic in anything. Smuggling is not really frowned upon in Thailand as long as you make money. And marijuana to the Thais is grown in every garden in the Northeast. It’s a therapeutic plant, really not many people even smoke it, it’s used in chicken soup, it’s used to sooth menstrual cramps, and help pregnant women, and the idea that, that the US government was coming down on this, the Thais had a hard time taking it even seriously.

Q: So, when the DEA decided that they were going to go after this, the way that they did why do you think it was specific to that?

PM: Money. It was all about money. And there was one DEA agent in particular who we interviewed extensively, named James Conklin, and he was a Vietnam veteran who understood Southeast Asia. He very candidly told us that in his early years in the DEA, he started in the BNDD, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, that marijuana was called kiddy dope and they weren’t allowed to touch it and they had to focus on heroin. And he said the thing that turned the tables was the money and that he got a tip from an informant about a Thai marijuana smuggler’s house in Santa Barbara and then he began to see the assets that these guys had and it absolutely blew his mind and he was the first one to really begin to get his head around it. He single handedly pretty much took down the Thai industry. So by 1988 they arrest Brian Daniels who had two gigantic loads come across the Pacific. One was in a boat captained by two former Green Berets and it had been loaded by the Vietnamese military. And so you know, money transcends all things. And the actual smugglers, I really would compare them to the rum-runners or the moon-shiners of the North Georgia mountains where there was arbitrary law against it this, but they didn’t see it as immoral or anything else.

Q: Well it was Dave Catenburg who you cited was a former Vietnam veteran, who said that in the 70′s it was a Robin Hood sort of thing.

PM: Oh absolutely.

Q: And the links that you make between these people who were draft dodgers, who are Vietnamese vets, who are Vietnamese military, there were no obstacles for them anymore, it was like they had just one currency.

PM: Absolutely, and you know for many, and it was interesting, for many who served in Vietnam and for many who were draft dodgers, the defining event of their lives was the Vietnamese war and so you had these very disparate groups come together in the post ’75 period, because you had Vietnam vets who had trade craft language skills, knew the country, they could procure loads, and then you had the surfers who could sail boats, offload boats and all that and they formed an uneasy alliance which breaks down over time and many of the former military guys become confidential informants and are much more comfortable dealing with the government and turning on their former co-conspirators and pretty much everyone gets busted, everyone.


Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Images of Surfing, Drugs, and Drug Smuggling via “Thai Stick”

From California surfers to the hinterlands of Thailand, Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, by Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter, documents the growth, professionalization, and dangers of the international marijuana trade.

That story is, in part, captured in the following images from the book:

Peter Maguire, Thai Stick

Peter Maguire, Thai Stick

Peter Maguire, Thai Stick


Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Book Giveaway! Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade

Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, Peter Maguire

This week we will be featuring Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade the extraordinary tale of marijuana smuggling in the 1970s by Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter.

Throughout the week we will be featuring Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Thai Stick to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, November 22 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

Hollywood and Hitler Reviewed in The New Yorker

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and HitlerThe debate continues. Writing for The New Yorker, David Denby weighs in on the competing interpretations of Hollywood’s complicity with Nazism advanced in two new books: Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, by Thomas Doherty and The Collaboration Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand.

As Denby writes, both books argue that Hollywood studios were hesitant to produce films that criticized, either explicitly or implicitly, Nazism for fear of losing the German market. However, the studios were also restricted in what kinds of movies they could make by the Hays Production Code, which at that time was led by “censor-in-chief,” Joseph Breen. Breen, who is also the subject of Thomas Doherty’s book Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration pressured the studios not to mention Nazism and follow the Code’s ambiguous guidelines to treat other countries fairly. Denby writes, “The pattern was clear: no matter how vicious Nazi conduct was, any representation of it could be deemed a violation of the code’s demand that foreign countries be treated ‘fairly.’”

Given the pressures from Breen as well as the studio heads’ desire to appear as American as possible, Louis B. Mayer, Warner Brothers and others were extremely wary of producing films that called attention to issues relating to Nazism, Judaism, or anti-Semitism. As Denby explains:

By acting as they did, the studio bosses fell into the trap that they had allowed men like … Breen to set for them. Because they were Jews, they believed, they couldn’t make anti-Nazi movies or movies about Jews, for this would be seen as special pleading or warmongering. Breen tormented them with the spectre of what anti-Semites might do as a way of stifling their response to what anti-Semitism was already doing—and would do, in Europe, with annihilating violence. It’s as if the Hollywood Jews had become responsible for anti-Semitism. Of all the filmmakers in the world, they became the last who could criticize the Nazis. Their situation was both tragic and absurd.

Doherty and Urwand’s differing interpretations center around the extent to which studio heads ignored, abided, or collaborated with Nazis. As the title of his book suggests, Urwand views the studio heads as collaborating with and supporting some of the aims of the Nazis. Doherty argues, and Denby seems to agree, that “the studios didn’t advance Nazism; they failed to oppose it.”

Monday, August 26th, 2013

The Art of Being Erich Fromm – A Review from The New York Review of Books

A review of The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, by Lawrence J. Friedman, was published in the Summer Issue of The New York Review of Books. A link to the review is available by clicking here (you need a subscription to NYRoB for full article view). This post contains brief excerpts of the NYRB review by Alan Ryan.

The Art of Being Erich Fromm

Lawrence Friedman’s biography has many virtues; it is meticulous, detailed, friendly to its subject but not uncritical, the result of many years of archival investigation and interviews with people who knew Fromm well. Friedman is a professor of history in the Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative at Harvard, and the author of several books on the history of psychology, including a biography of Karl Menninger. Erich Fromm himself was a far from careful scholar, but The Lives of Erich Fromm is a reassuringly solid piece of work. What makes it a model of intellectual biography, however, is the way it illuminates the Erich Fromm who became famous in America in the 1950s, by seeing him in his many different settings—geographical, social, intellectual, and emotional.


Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt in 1900. His father was a wine merchant. More importantly, Naphtali Fromm was an Orthodox Jew who came from a long line of distinguished rabbis, and was more embarrassed than pleased at his own modest economic success, always regretting that he had become an undistinguished wine merchant rather than a more distinguished rabbi.

During the Cold war, Fromm encountered Rabbi Nehemiah Nobel, who had studied at Marburg with Hermann Cohen, a distinguished Kant scholar who welded the universalism of Kant’s moral philosophy onto the Jewish religious tradition to create a form of “religious humanism” very like the humanism of Fromm’s later writings.


Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Interview with Whitney Strub, author of Perversion for Profit (now out in paper!)

With Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right now available in paperback, we’re re-posting our earlier interview with the book’s author, Whitney Strub

Question: Why “Perversion for Profit”? Won’t people think the book is about the economics of the porn industry?

Whitney Strub: Hopefully not. I lay out the main emphasis in the subtitle! I chose the title for a few reasons. First, it was the name of an early-1960s antiporn short film distributed by Citizens for Decent Literature, which crystallizes some of the key methods of modern antiporn discourse—a secular veneer of legalisms and social science that tries to conceal a substantive moralism; a freewheeling construction of “perversity” that barrages the viewer with everything from bestiality to “your daughter, lured into lesbianism,” a dizzying array of perversions that share only their imagined contrast to the heterosexual nuclear family; and also the enticement of an opportunity to wallow in some perversion for a while, under the alibi of fighting for decency.

So the film Perversion for Profit occupies a place of centrality in the politics of pornography; my students laugh at the film today, but its tactics are still operative when politicians speak of the “debilitating effects on communities, marriages, families, and children,” as George W. Bush did in 2003. No meaningful evidence to speak of really supports that, but it’s the sort of trope the New Right mastered in the late 1960s and continues to employ to great effect—the displacement of material issues by moral ones. (Deindustrialization, economic and environmental deregulation, and the massive upward redistribution of wealth debilitate more communities, marriage, families, and children than porn, but you never heard Bush discuss those impacts.) That undergirds the other meaning of the title—that the modern Right has profited immensely through its use of various “perversions” for political gain. I argue that pornography played a crucial role in the formulation of the social-issues agenda that ultimately included comprehensive sex education, feminism, gay rights, reproductive rights, and other elements of modern sexuality that conservatism has very effectively construed as attacks on its monolithic notion of “the family.”


Monday, July 15th, 2013

Thomas Doherty and the Debate over Hollywood and Hitler

“I’m always leery of history that allows the present to feel smugly superior to the past.”—Thomas Doherty

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and HitlerThomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 has recently been involved in a well-covered and somewhat contentious scholarly debate. As reported in The Chronicle Review, the New York Times, The Guardian, and elsewhere, Doherty has taken issue with some of the conclusions made by Ben Urwand in his forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. *(Thomas Doherty will also be appearing on WFMU’s Too Much Information today at 6:00 pm)

Specifically, Doherty counters Urwand’s contention that Hollywood executives collaborated with Nazi officials over the content of Hollywood films. As Doherty argues in Hollywood and Hitler, Hollywood executives, particularly in the 1930s were acutely aware of the German market and did alter films but their motivation was profits and did not rise to the level of collaboration. In the article in The Chronicle, Doherty explains, “You use [collaboration] to describe the Vichy government. Louis B. Mayer was a greedhead, but he is not the moral equivalent of Vidkun Quisling.”

While Doherty praises Urwand’s archival research, he cautions against making moral claims about the actions of historical figures without understanding the contexts surrounding their decisions. Hollywood executives were grappling with a range of moral and practical issues when confronting how to depict Nazism and how to appeal to the German market. Doherty explains:

I’m always leery of history that allows the present to feel smugly superior to the past. I would have been so much more farsighted … scrupulous … I would have seen what was on the horizon…. We filter the 30s through the vision of what the Nazis were in the Second World War.”


Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Thomas Doherty Helps to Rediscover a Lost Anti-Nazi Film

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and HitlerA recent post from the New Yorker‘s blog, Culture Desk tells the remarkable story of the rediscovery of the first American Anti-Nazi film. The long-lost film’s location was tracked down by Thomas Doherty, author of the recently published Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, while he was researching the book.

The New Yorker post tells the remarkable story of how Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.trip to Germany in 1933 shortly after Hitler became Chancellor led to the film’s creation. The film, Hitler’s Reign on Terror, includes footage of Nazi rallies, book burnings, street scenes in Vienna and Berlin, and anti-Nazi protests in Madison Square Garden. The film premièred at the independent Mayfair theatre on Broadway on April 30, 1934, and garnered the biggest single opening day in the house’s history.

However, as the article writes, “George Canty, the Berlin-based trade commissioner for the U.S. Department of Commerce, got wind of protests against the film by the German Ambassador in Washington, and concluded that ‘the film serves no good purpose. Across the country, censors took Canty’s view, and the film was denied a license, banned, and cut by New York City and State censor boards.”

The film then seemingly disappeared only to be recovered by Thomas Doherty. Here’s the description from the New Yorker article:

This April, Thomas Doherty, a Brandeis University professor, published “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939,” a lively study of Hollywood’s relationship to Nazism. Researching the book, Doherty hunted down a number of American films from the period to provide a “Nazi-centric view of the American motion picture industry,” but had proved unable to find “Hitler’s Reign of Terror.” “Given the profile of the film in 1934,” Doherty wrote, “its total absence really stumped me. Curiouser still was its seeming disappearance from places it really should have been at least mentioned—such as the Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. papers at Vanderbilt University, where it was not referenced at all. It appeared to be an authentically ‘lost’ film.” Then, a few years into his research on the book, Doherty received an email from Roel Vande Winkel at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Vande Winkel had been contacted by Nicola Mazzanti, of the Royal Belgium Film Archive in Brussels, to report that the archive had come across a copy of the film in a back shelf in cold storage; he assumed it had been there since around 1945.

A Belgian film distributor, Doherty explained, must have ordered a print of the film from abroad—likely London—after the war broke out but before the Nazis invaded Belgium. Due to its foreign origins, it had to clear customs, but once the Nazis took control, the postulated distributor probably didn’t want to be holding an anti-Nazi film (or couldn’t afford the tax), and so never picked it up from customs. Somehow, some years later, it wound up with other unclaimed film-related customs inventory at the Royal Belgium Film Archive.

Monday, April 8th, 2013

The History of U.S. Capitalism

Yesterday’s New York Times article In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism by Jennifer Schuessler explores “the specter of capitalism” in history departments.

As Schuessler explains:

After decades of “history from below,” focusing on women, minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy.

Schuessler discusses the leading scholars working in the history of capitalism as well as the new books in the area. The article also mentioned our recently launched series, Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism, edited by Louis Hyman, Bethany Moreton, and Julia Ott, all of whom are featured in the article.


Thursday, April 4th, 2013

The Films of Hollywood and Hitler

Throughout the week Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, has been discussing a variety of books associated with the politics of the time.

Here are some clips and trailers from the films. All the quotes are taken from Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939:

Starring Henry Fonda and directed by Walter Wanger, the film depicted the Spanish Civil War. “Blockade was received by friend and foe alike as a brief in defense of the Soviet-backed loyalists. On that Catholics and the communists agreed.”

Olympia (1938)
“Riefensthahl was Nazism’s second most photogenic face. More than that though, she was a brilliant motion picture artist in thrall to a ruthless dictator, a match that inspired a special measure of loathing from the artists in the Popular Front….Being the one Nazi filmmaker who was not a second-rater, who was as good, or better, than the Jews purged from Ufa, she intrigued, tantalized, and unnerved. ‘The gal has charm to burn,’ gushed gossip monger Hedda Hopper, who was smitten with the lady. ‘As pretty as a swastika, snarled syndicated columnist Walter Winchell, who was not.”

Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
“For the typical moviegoer in 1939, more eye-and-ear opening than the plot or the politics of Confessions of a Nazi Spy was the visual drapery and sonic atmosphere. The insignia, salutes, and catchphrases of Nazism—huge swastikas, giant portraits of Hitler, and throngs of rabid Americans in Nazi garb shouting ‘Sieg heil!’…the free-wheeling operation of Nazi military men and espionage agents in New York conjured an elaborate fifth column crisscrossing America, a cancer eating away at the body politic.”

The Mortal Storm (1940)
The Mortal Storm reviewed the history of the period between 1933 and 1939 that had been overlooked by the Hollywood cinema produced between 1933 and 1939….The word that is still unspoken in The Mortal Storm is ‘Jew,’ but by 1940 only the dimmest moviegoer would have failed to read the signs….Professor Roth identifies himself as ‘non-Arayan’ and what kind of non-Aryan is made clear when his wife visits him in a concentration camp and a ‘J’ adorns his sleeve.”

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
“Set in a counterfactual fantasy world removed from history but not from the fascination with cinematic legacy of Nazism, it is a Nazi-obsessed movie about other Nazi-obsessed movies, an affectionate homage to the many hours of cinematic pleasures the Nazis have given moviegoers. The intoxication with the iconography of the the Third Reich is unblushing and obsessive.”

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Thomas Doherty — The Anti-Fascism of the 1930s and the Backstory to the Hollywood Blacklist

In the following essay, Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, examines how the ant-fascist movement in 1930s Hollywood shaped the blacklist in 1950s Hollywood:

Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939Last November, the Hollywood Reporter deviated from its normal beat and published and in-depth investigation of itself. Part historical reclamation, part act of contrition, the lengthy article by Gary Naum and Daniel Miller dredged up the paper’s complicity in facilitating the Hollywood blacklist, specifically the animating role of its founding editor, W. R. “Billy” Wilkerson.

Citing chapter and verse from Wilkerson’s front-page column, a must-read fixture of the trade press from 1930 to 1960, the piece traced an ideological vendetta by a mean SOB who, if he did not singlehandedly launch the blacklist era, worked tirelessly to sustain it. Along with the anguished self examination, a sidebar article by Willie Wilkerson, editor Wilkerson’s son, apologized for the sins of his father.

Like a lot of commentators on-line, I was put off by Wilkerson Jr.’s posthumous hit on his father—a gesture that struck me as an odd sort of oedipal payback— but Naum and Miller’s article was a solid job of history, backed up by exhaustive research in the paper’s back pages and sobering reflections from the dwindling number of alumnae of the blacklist era. It was also more temperate in tone than most inquiry into what jas become the bitterest slice of Hollywood history. I am always amazed at how raw and close to the bone the subject of the blacklist is, how ferocious the passions remain even after half a century, despite the fact that the battles are mostly vicarious now, fought by descendents, literal and spiritual, a generation or two removed from the main action.

The last major venting of authentic bile from actual participants was during the controversy that arose over the honorary Oscar awarded to director Elia Kazan in 1999. In 1952, in a closed session before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Kazan “named names”—informed on his former comrades in arms—and, worse, refused to apologize for doing so. Worse yet, he used his free pass to make indisputably great movies. Like the old joke about Irish Alzheimer’s disease, where the afflicted forget everything except the grudges, the surviving octo-and-nanogenarians went at each other once again, but mainly it was an ex post facto donnybrook. During the tense ceremony, younger members of the Academy audience showed their colors by (variously) sitting on their hands, standing up to cheer, or tepidly applauding.

Like Baum and Miller, I’ve spend a good deal of time scrolling through back issues of the Hollywood Reporter over the years, lately for a study how the motion picture industry responded to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. (The short answer: pretty well, on average, especially compared to the rest of America.) My own sense was that the sackcloth and ashes routine was a bit overdone: the piece didn’t unjustly malign editor Wilkerson but it left a lot unsaid and brushed over some of the historical complexities. As befits its masthead, the Hollywood Reporter‘s role during the blacklist was mainly reportorial not prosecutorial. In general, it reflected mainstream industry attitudes when it insisted that the Hollywood Ten be called the Unfriendly Ten, so as not to sully the industry as a whole with the antics of the witnesses called before the original HUAC hearings in October 1947. (These are the iconic hearings that are invariably unspooled in archival documentaries of the era: the testimony from HUAC’s other Hollywood-centric hearings was denied newsreel coverage).


Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Interview with Thomas Doherty, Author of Hollywood and Hitler (part 2)

“The pictures of Nazism first projected by Hollywood between 1933 and 1939 will always be before our eyes.”—Thomas Doherty

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939In the second half of our interview, Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, discusses the role of newsreels in depicting Nazism to American audiences, Mussolini’s son’s trip to Hollywood, and films of the era. (For part one of the interview and to read an excerpt from the book):

Question: Another component of American awareness of Nazi Germany came through film newsreels. What balances or compromises did newsreel producers make? Did they provide a forthcoming, honest picture of Hitler?

Thomas Doherty: The newsreels are actually one of the most interesting and untold stories of the era. Our focus on Hollywood feature films sometimes makes us forget that the most powerful images of the Nazis came from the motion picture journalism of the day. The problem for the newsreels was that it was virtually impossible to obtain uncensored film of the Nazis in action. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels controlled all outgoing motion picture imagery, which meant that when the newsreels showed the Nazis on screen, it was in Nazi—shot and—approved footage. As a result—and because unruly moviegoers would sometimes hiss and jeer at the Nazis on screen—the commercial newsreel companies often refrained from featuring the Nazis in the newsreels. Even when the newsreel editors did include pictures of Hitler and the Nazis in the newsreel issues, local exhibitors were known to cut out the clips so as not to disturb patrons out for an enjoyable night at the movies. The full motion picture record of the rise of Nazism—so vivid to us today—was not before the eyes of Americans in the 1930s.

Q: Your book also includes the odd but telling stories of Mussolini’s son and Leni Riefensthal’s sojourns to Hollywood. What do their stories tell us about Hollywood’s evolving attitudes toward fascism and its growing political awareness.

TD: Yes—the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League used the visits of Vittorio Mussolini in 1937 (in town to work out a a co-production deal with producer Hal Roach) and Leni Riefensthal in 1938 (she hoped to arrange a stateside distribution deal for Olympia [1938], her epic documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics) to discourage Hollywood from doing any business with the Nazis. The efforts of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League made Mussolini and Riefenstahl social pariahs around town—and intimidating anyone else in the film industry from associating with them. The animus towards Riefenstahl— “Hitler’s honey,” they called her—was especially intense because she was perceived as a genius of the cinema who had turned her talents to a demonic cause.

Q: Which anti-Nazi movies do you find most compelling? Do they feel dated or do they still have resonance today?

I find MGM’s The Mortal Storm (1940) oddly affecting—ironically enough, because MGM was the Hollywood studio that had no qualms about doing business with the Nazis throughout the 1930s. Director Frank Borzage shows how the Nazis destroy a culture through the disintegration of a once-happy family, with the warm conviviality of the opening scenes turning to emptiness and death in the end reel. Ernest Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) is go-for-the-jugular satire at its best, though I can see why American audiences in 1942 were not amused. Of course, Casablanca (1942) still packs an anti-Nazi punch, especially during the scene where everybody in Rick’s Cafe sings “La Marseilles” and drowns out the Germans.

Q: What is the continuing legacy of Nazism and Hitler on Hollywood either thematically or visually?

TD: Check out Quentin Tarantino’s Inglouriuos Basterds. Hitler, Goebbels, the SS, the Nuremberg rallies, swastikas, and all the other images of the twelve year Reich remain the most visually striking manifestations of political evil in motion picture history. The pictures of Nazism first projected by Hollywood between 1933 and 1939 will always be before our eyes.

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

Interview with Thomas Doherty, Author of “Hollywood & Hitler, 1933-1939″ (part 1)

“Up until 1938-1939, there were really no anti-Nazi films from the major Hollywood studios….For most of the 1930s, the major studios were missing in action.”—Thomas Doherty

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and HitlerOur featured book this week is Hollywood in Hitler, 1933-1939, by Thomas Doherty. In the following interview (we will post the second half tomorrow), Doherty discusses Hollywood’s reaction to Nazism:

Question: Hollywood celebrities today are associated with a variety of different social and political causes. How was the situation different then and how did it curtail film stars’ anti-Nazi activism?

Thomas Doherty: In the 1930s, motion picture stars were typically very timorous about expressing their political opinions in public, especially if the sentiments were in any way controversial or left of mainstream opinion. Why alienate a potential customer at the ticket window? For their part, the studio heads considered the stars their own personal property, not unlike the costumes and props in the studio warehouses. They didn’t want anything to deplete the value of their investments. At first, only the most stalwart and secure actors and actresses defied convention and broke ranks.

Q: What effect if any did their activism have on shaping American attitudes towards Hitler?

TD: It’s hard to say, but the anti-Nazi activism of popular stars like James Cagney, Melvyn Douglas, John Garfield, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford not only brought publicity to the cause but served to normalize the sentiments. The mere fact that movie stars—who more typically sold their faces for commercial endorsements—were now speaking out against Nazism, for free, made at least some people think about the reasons for the transition.