History Majors Spearhead Debate

On February 18th and 19th, the Saint Anselm College Debate Team competed at the Emerson College Tournament and the Northeast Regional Championships held at Suffolk University. The team finished first place in both competitions for overall Debate Sweepstakes. Of the twelve members of the team, five are history majors: Greg Valcourt ’19, William Bearce ’19, Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18, Drew Collins ’19, and Ed Frankonis ’19. Both Frankonis and Collins competed at the tournaments, Collins finishing second place in Lincoln-Douglas policy debate at Emerson College and third place in the IPDA debate at the Regional Championships. Frankonis finished first place in Lincoln Douglas policy debate at the Regional Championships and second place in IPDA at Emerson.

Frankonis, a sophomore History major from Maine, chose Saint Anselm College for the small size of the student body. As he explains, “It seemed like it would be easier to get involved here.” As a history major, Frankonis enjoys finding “answers to the questions we ask about our society’s problems . . . in past answers.” One Thing after Another sat down with Frankonis to discuss his recent debate victories and the skills he has developed through the study of history.

The two variations of debate require different preparations and skills. In the Lincoln-Douglas policy debate, students receive a topic in July or August. This year’s topic was the role of the military in Latin America. As Frankonis explains, the debaters “argue for and against the resolution during the tournament.  In each round, you try to defend your evidence, promote your side of the aisle, and try to ‘take away’ parts of your opponent’s argument. The round lasts around twenty minutes, and at the end of it, the judge gives his/her decision.” Preparation for these kinds of debate tournaments is time consuming: “Lincoln-Douglas debaters prepare by meeting twice a week and dedicating around 3-4 hours during those times polishing our cases, refining our arguments, and plugging any holes that were discovered during last tournament. . . 5-6 hours of non-meeting preparation are usually involved for Lincoln-Douglas.”

IPDA, or International Public Debate Forum, on the other hand, tests general knowledge and speaking skills more than the research skills demanded in the Lincoln-Douglas policy debate. According to Frankonis, two debaters “arrive and are given a list of five or so topics. They take turns ‘striking’ each topic, until only one remains  Both debaters then get thirty minutes to prepare an argument (for or against, depending on your role), and then spend around twenty minutes arguing for or against said topic. These topics can range from which superhero is better to the morality of drone warfare, and change each round. After the round, the debaters leave, and the judge makes his/her decision.”

Farnkonis’s dominant performances can be attributed to a supportive team, skills he learns in class, and a lot of practice. After each tournament, the debaters receive ballots from judges that are “chock-full of feedback.” After the team reads this feedback, “[they] share [their] general experiences at the tournament, [and they] exchange insight, share advice, and talk about the mistakes [they] made during rounds.”

Frankonis credits his debate skills to his previous three years of experience in mock Senate debate in high school, as well as the skills he has developed as a history major: “Knowing how institutions came about, how problems evolved, and the stories of the various actors involved in those problems gives debaters a nice edge in round. . . . Other skills learned from being a history major include research skills and the ability to smoothly transition from one debate format to another.” Frankonis thinks skills learned in debate help him in the classroom as well: “being a debater means you are actively learning skills that can be employed in debates over the consequences of historical events.”

After his first-place finish in Lincoln-Douglas policy debate at the Regional Championships, Frankonis received an invite to the National competition. Unfortunately, due to a family commitment, Frankonis will not be attending.  Next year, he plans to permanently and exclusively switch to IPDA, “focusing more on being well-rounded with [his] topic knowledge.”

The debate team currently meets on Mondays and Thursdays on the third floor of Goulet, from 6:30-8:30.

NOTE: In the photograph above, from left to right, are Drew Collins, Greg Valcourt, Ed Frankonis, Lily-Gre Hitchen, and William Bearce. 

Milo Yiannopoulos, Free Speech, and the College Campus

milo-yiannopoulos

At the beginning of February, in the wake of protests and riots at UC Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos’ proposed visit, One Thing after Another thought it possessed sufficient inspiration to write a post about free speech at colleges—especially as it applied to guests invited to speak on campus. Life intervened, however, and this blog did not quite get around to producing an essay on the topic. Now that Yiannopoulos is back in the news because he has lost his CPAC invitation, his book contract with Simon & Schuster, and his job at Breitbart (all because of his assertion that thirteen-year-old boys have the potential to engage in “consensual” sexual relationships with men twice their age), One Thing after Another feels it has enough momentum to write about free speech. By what standard should one judge whether a Yiannopoulos should be admitted to speak at a campus?

One Thing after Another starts with the proposition that institutions of higher learning, public and private alike, have a right to invite or not invite guests as they wish. Even public schools are not public forums, and administrators have the right to restrict entry when school is in session. The question, of course, is on what grounds administrators should exclude guest speakers from campus.

For reasons that will become very clear, One Thing after Another believes that colleges should ask for something more of their guests than mere legal speech. Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), which supersedes the “fire in a crowded theater” argument laid down by U.S. v. Schenck (1919), sets a fairly low bar. Inflammatory speech that advocates violence is protected unless it “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” And thus, a conviction against Brandenburg (a local leader of the Ohio Ku Klux Klan) for burning a cross and promising “revengeance” against “n******” and “Jews” was overturned. One Thing after Another would prefer not to see cross-burning (or even flag-burning) on campus—not because these things are offensive (which they are) but because they do not advance the mission of a college.

That mission, however, has become increasingly unclear in recent years. Those now in charge of universities are not as well equipped to understand or articulate that purpose as they used to be. Administrators, as Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, argued at an Aspen Ideas Festival last year, increasingly do not come from academic backgrounds and do not necessarily understand academic freedom. Trained as administrators, they see their job as “to damp down problems” and avoid all controversy. “They have,” Carter adds, “no sense of the mission of a university.” A constellation of factors have further clouded that sense of mission. For example, due to the increasingly difficult economic environment in which they operate, college is often sold as many different products. These products run the gamut from preparation for the job market to a transformative experience in which the whole person is made anew. Everything from the curriculum to residential life has responded to these pressures, and the jurisdiction of the college has expanded to include more aspects of student life than ever before. Under these circumstances, it is easy to lose sight of what is central to university life and what is ancillary.

So what is central? One could do worse (especially if one works at a Catholic institution) than refer to The Idea of a University by Cardinal John Henry Newman. According to Newman, the point of a university was the “culture of the intellect” or the “real cultivation of the mind.” What was wanted, he argued, was the “the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us, which sometimes indeed is a natural gift, but commonly is not gained without much effort and the exercise of years.” A real education allowed one to escape a “youth” in which one was “merely dazzled by phenomena, instead of perceiving things as they are.” He favored a liberal education that developed an understanding of how the particulars in the world were united in a single whole. To his way of thinking, a liberal education was an end in itself.

Newman wrote much that was sensible in The Idea of a University. For our purposes, he discussed a number of ideas that are worth remembering today. He expressed a reverence in his approach to liberal education; it was a serious means to the important end of adopting a broad view of the world and thus understanding its unity. He believed such an education should be conducted within a diverse and earnest educational community. And he intimated that it should be carried on by instructors who practiced what they preached—people who were experts in their fields but not so narrowly focused that they could not see the forest for the trees.

These ideas about the mission of a college and how to attain it provide us with some guidance when it comes to determining what kinds of guests should be invited to speak on campus. Above all else, guests must support the ends and means of a liberal education. The other criteria merely follow from this point.

First, guests must be experts in the fields on which they will speak. Clearly, a school can define “expertise” in a variety ways (how this blog defines expertise will become fairly evident). However, it is One Thing after Another’s impression that this definition should be somewhat more restrictive than it has been as of late. Guests have often been invited with an eye toward publicity, and that often means celebrities  find themselves before college audiences where they do not belong. If you need examples, think of the many, many commencement speeches delivered at various schools every year by actors, athletes, comedians, singers, and so on. Or check these ones out (which are just the tip of the iceberg). People without any connection to the pursuit of liberal education often do not recognize its significance, display sufficient respect for it, or possess any understanding of its protocols. Providing them with a forum to speak on campuses trivialize education.

If what is wanted these days is informed discussion, then it would also appear that a variety of notorieties should also be blocked from campus—figures who are engaged in various public debates but who have nothing profound, learned, or substantive to contribute to those debates. For example, there is no need to invite David Duke or Richard Spencer to campus for a discussion of race; neither has any great insight into the topic. In response to those who will inevitably cry that Duke or Spencer are being censored, One Thing after Another retorts that plenty of other venues are available to them, and colleges need not waste time on their nonsense. For the same reason, we need not invite Holocaust deniers or Creationists. Students should not be presented with all manner of shoddy arguments unsupported by evidence; they need to choose from among the best.

Second, guests ought to respect their audiences by not only deploying arguments based on a thorough understanding of the topic at hand but also by avoiding gratuitous insult. There is no other way to go about persuading one’s auditors within the free market of ideas that underpins a liberal education. In this context, it is important to point out the difference between experts who express opinions that may give offense and those who express opinions offensively. For example, one may find Peter Singer’s views extremely repugnant, but he is an enormously influential ethicist, a recognized expert in his field, and a figure who is willing to engage in respectful debate. Attempts to silence him (and there have been many) are out of order; they suggest that opponents have no compelling counterarguments. On the other hand, threats and insults leveled at various minorities are inarticulate and baseless arguments that are calculated to inspire fear and anger. They appeal to emotions, not the intellect. Again, colleges should not turn away articulate and learned speakers with controversial arguments, but they have every right to ignore fatuous ideas poorly expressed.

Is this post arguing for deference to the experts? When it comes to inviting guests to speak at a campus that seeks to promote the intellectual life, yes (different rules apply, though, when it comes to free speech within the campus community—but that’s a topic for another, more complicated post).

The main idea to keep in mind is that academic freedom is a means to an end, and for that reason, it is limited. As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, claimed at the same roundtable at the Aspen Ideas Festival where Stephen Carter also spoke,

Academic freedom is not the ability to do whatever the hell you want on campus because it’s an academic place. Academic freedom is a professional freedom. It’s about research and intellectual work. It’s not about saying whatever you want.

It is for all these reasons that Milo Yiannopoulos has no business on a college campus. He could serve no other purpose, really, than to play the part of the drunken helot. It is hard to see how Yiannopoulos is an expert on anything. His relentless humiliation of others is an integral part of his method of argument—and does little to persuade. What he seeks to do instead is provoke. Yet he is a provocateur of the worst sort; he does not seem to believe in anything—or at least he gives that impression. As Slate puts it, “You can’t treat the ideas of Milo Yiannopoulos as though they are worthy of debate, because Milo Yiannopoulos doesn’t treat them as being worthy of debate.” In other words, he displays a lack of the earnestness and sincerity that Newman found so important in his reverential approach to learning. Yiannopoulos’ “shtick” tends toward dissolving taboos and the idea of objective truth for the sake of destroying what he sees as a “leftist-PC” totalitarianism. He is free to do whatever he wants in other public venues, but a higher standard obtains at a college which seeks to promote a broad understanding of the world through the respectful exchange of facts and ideas. Otherwise, when confronted with a seemingly amoral and intellectually destructive charlatan, we in the academe might find ourselves at a loss and, like Larry Wilmore, say something that is not altogether productive intellectually. And that benefits no one.

Ancestry.com, Lederhosen, and Genetics

ancestry-dot-com

One Thing after Another was working out at the YMCA, as is this blog’s wont, when the following commercial for Ancestry.com appeared on the TV:

Kyle (who apparently is a real person) had long thought his family was German. He danced in a German dance group, and he wore lederhosen. When he joined Ancestry.com in 2011, he was surprised to find that there weren’t any Germans in his family tree. He had a DNA test done through Ancestry.com and found that he wasn’t German at all: 52% of his DNA came from Scotland and Ireland. So he traded in his lederhosen for a kilt. Ha!

One Thing after Another was initially struck by the fatuousness of this ad, but further reflection led to a feeling of some discomfiture. The commercial sends out mixed messages about ethnicity. That Kyle can play the part of the enthusiastic German-American, even though, “genetically speaking,” he is much more Scots and Irish, suggests that ethnicity is a matter of culture not biology. But having found out he was mistaken and that genetic testing proves he is just over half Scots and Irish, he conforms to type and wears a kilt—a move that implies that genes influence our cultural destiny. The whole story is ridiculous on its face. Think of the following thought experiment: a Scot is stolen at birth from a Glasgow hospital and spirited away to Leipzig to be raised by a German family. At fifty, if the story of his origins were revealed to him, would he really feel more affinity for Glasgow than Leipzig? The answer seems straightforward.

In its own silly way, Ancestry.com touches upon some important questions about ethnicity and genetics. First, is there really such a thing as being “genetically” one nationality or another? Second, do these genes really influence our culture? To answer the first question, a brief discourse on genetics seems in order. There are genetic differences between groups of humans, but largely because we are a recent species, these difference are very small. These variations don’t seem to matter much except for the prevalence of certain diseases among particular populations, such as, say, sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis (or these populations’ responses to certain treatments). For sure, the distribution of certain genes among the population varies with geography. However, as an article in Nature Genetics points out, the extensive migration and mixture of populations throughout the past have militated against the perpetuation of genetically “pure” groups of people:

Genetic variation is geographically structured, as expected from the partial isolation of human populations during much of their history. Because traditional concepts of race are in turn correlated with geography, it is inaccurate to state that race is “biologically meaningless.” On the other hand, because they have been only partially isolated, human populations are seldom demarcated by precise genetic boundaries. Substantial overlap can therefore occur between populations, invalidating the concept that populations (or races) are discrete types.

Daniel Defoe captured this point quite well in his famous poem, “The True-Born Englishman” (1701):

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend’ring off-spring quickly learn’d to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen. . . .

The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit,
And with the English-Saxon all unite:
And these the mixture have so close pursu’d,
The very name and memory’s subdu’d:
No Roman now, no Britain does remain;
Wales strove to separate, but strove in vain:
The silent nations undistinguish’d fall,
And Englishman’s the common name for all.
Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;
What e’er they were they’re true-born English now. . . .

’Tis well that virtue gives nobility,
How shall we else the want of birth and blood supply?
Since scarce one family is left alive,
Which does not from some foreigner derive.

Defoe’s immediate target was those who attacked the Dutch-born William III of England because the monarch was not a “true” Englishman. Yet Defoe clearly showed why it was so problematic to claim that somebody was “English” (or anything else) by blood. And had he been able to go farther back in time, he could have shown even more examples of admixture. Statements, then, about our national descent are somewhat arbitrary and depend on how far back we go (if we travel far enough in time, we are all African). For example, adjectives like “German” as applied to descent are slippery. Romans invented the word “Germani” to describe the great multitude of folks who lived east of the Rhine and north of the Danube (many of whom had come from farther east); the Romans did not mean to suggest a unity of any sort. “Germany” eventually became a geographic term, and “German” was a cultural expression that emerged in the medieval period. But Germany did not become a unified state until 1871. So what does “German” descent really mean unless applied almost exclusively to the modern period of history?

Aside from the difficulty of claiming that this or that national group is genetically united and fundamentally distinct from others (what does it mean to be 52% Irish and Scots?), there is the question of what role genetics play in the formation of ethnicity or identity. Neo-Darwinists believe that a number of our behaviors have evolved due to natural selection (think of behaviors as diverse as humans’ sociability or the “flight or fight response”). A number of scholars also argue that these biological inheritances were intertwined with cultural natural selection (a “cultural Darwinism”) in which certain practices and behaviors persisted because they gave the social groups that employed them an advantage over others during the Upper Paleolithic period. This theory of cultural natural selection is contested, and the mainstream version of this theory, as it stands now, has to be stretched a great length to claim that biology determines contemporary national culture. Only racists would stretch the argument to that degree.

For example, Adolf Hitler argued in Mein Kampf that Aryans (which he asserted were a distinct and pure biological group) were distinguished by the fact that they were the world’s sole “culture creators” or “founders of culture.” This was a part of their biological inheritance. Should the Aryan race disappear, he claimed, all advances in culture would come to an end. What made the Aryans so uniquely capable of “creating and building culture”? It was not the Aryans’ “intellectual gifts” but rather their idealism that led them to work and sacrifice on behalf of the community—in other words, they had inherited a capacity for “Pflichterfüllung” or devotion to one’s duty.

Is One Thing after Another making much too big a deal about a commercial? Undoubtedly, but to paraphrase The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, TV and especially commercials are the “director” and the “reflector” of popular ideas. Does One Thing after Another wish to pin nefarious motives on Kyle or Ancestry.com? No, but claiming that one’s genes predispose one to a particular culture (Ancestry.com’s intimation) and arguing that one’s biological inheritance determines one’s behavior (Hitler’s argument) are points on the same slope. Ancestry.com ought to be extra mindful about claims it makes about ancestry, DNA testing, and nationality. There’s a reason that Germans have generally been allergic to genealogy since 1945.

Lyin’ Ted, Democrats, and the Ku Klux Klan

cruz-vs-warren

With so much excitement surrounding President Trump’s first few weeks in office, one would be forgiven for not following closely former Republican presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. But “Lyin’ Ted,” as President Trump labeled him during the primary campaign, has been back in the news, defending Trump’s nominees for cabinet posts. Cruz’s recent headline-grabbing interview on Fox News caught the attention of One Thing after Another. Cruz may not have been lying, and he may not have been offering up “alternative facts,” as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway claimed White House spokesman Sean Spicer did shortly after the inauguration.  But he is in need of some historical perspective.

In case you missed it, here’s the story according to the Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/08/ted-cruz-the-democrats-are-the-party-of-the-ku-klux-klan/?utm_term=.425ddd9be663

Cruz appeared on Fox News last week after Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren had been cut off on the Senate floor as she spoke against her fellow senator Jeff Sessions’s confirmation to be attorney general. To rebut charges of racism against Sessions, Cruz tried to turn the tables. “Democrats,” Cruz claimed, “are the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” He added, “You look at the most racist – you look at the Dixiecrats, they were Democrats who imposed segregation, imposed Jim Crow laws, who founded the Klan.  The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats.” Cruz is not the first to make such claims. Indeed, One Thing after Another has heard Republicans say similar things in the past, most often in an attempt to deflect charges of racism and insist that it is Democrats who bear the burden of opposition to civil rights for African Americans. If your response is, “Say what?”, then give One Thing after Another the chance to fill in the gaps.

Although Cruz presents his claim as if it is relevant to current debates about race, it most certainly is not. One Thing after Another does not want to impugn the senator’s motives, but this is a distraction at best. Nevertheless, there is some truth in what he says, so let’s get that out of the way first. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the American South was solidly Democratic—the Solid South. Before the Civil War, the Democrats were the party most closely associated with protecting slaveowners’ property rights. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Democrats returned to power in all of the states of the former Confederacy and eventually disenfranchised the African-American voters most likely to support Republicans. Those white southerners were responsible for imposing segregation and resisting any federal efforts to protect civil rights for African Americans. The violence that the KKK represented helped to reinforce segregation.

The problem with Cruz’s claim, of course, is that in his attempt to cast racist aspersions on current Democrats, he ignores the historical development of the American political party system. The current Democratic party is not the same party that formed around Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century or helped to elect men like Grover Cleveland to the presidency in the late 19th century. In fact, for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Democrats—like the Republicans—were more a loose national coalition of regional and ethnic factions than an ideologically united party. The various factions did not always see eye to eye on issues like tariffs or workplace regulation, but the goal was to win office and hold power through patronage appointments. So they avoided potentially divisive issues and for the most part did not work to advance any particular ideological agenda. Even when an agenda emerged in the 1930s, the party was not united. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, tried in vain to purge the Democrats of anti-New Deal southerners.

World War II patriotism emphasized the need for party unity, but the post-war period brought the return of southern outliers within the party. In 1948, a group of southern Democrats were angered about President Harry Truman’s embrace of a civil rights agenda. Known informally as the Dixiecrats, those southerners nominated their own candidate for president—South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond—under the banner of the States Rights Democratic Party. Thurmond won four states in the Deep South that year, but that was not enough to prevent Truman from being elected. After Thurmond’s loss, those Dixiecrats licked their wounds and returned to the Democratic fold. They stayed there, often a thorn in the side of the national party, and because of seniority in Congress often, held significant power and influence within the party.

Although it’s probably not company Cruz would normally keep, his attempt to lump all Democrats in with the Dixiecrats got a shout out fifty or so years ago by none other than Malcolm X. No fan of political solutions to address racial justice issues, Malcolm complained in 1964, “A Dixiecrat is nothing but a Democrat in disguise. The titular head of the Democrats is also the head of the Dixiecrats, because the Dixiecrats are a part of the Democratic Party. The Democrats have never kicked the Dixiecrats out of the party.”

That same year, however, the times they began changing. Former Dixiecrat presidential candidate turned South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond switched party affiliation and endorsed Republican Barry Goldwater for president. Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Goldwater carried five Deep South states. Although the Civil Rights Act passed Congress with plenty of Republican support, legend has it when Johnson signed the bill, he reportedly remarked to aide Bill Moyers that he had just handed over the South to the Republican party for a long time to come. At first glance, then, it might appear that white southerners moved to the Republican party in reaction to the national Democrats’ embrace of civil rights for African Americans. And some, no doubt, did.

But, again, that’s not the whole story. Because of demographic change, post-World War II migration into the region, and the popularity of Dwight Eisenhower, Republicans made in-roads in the South throughout the 1950s. In many ways, the Republicans’ white, native-born Protestant homogeneity was a better fit for the South anyway. What is more, the changeover from a Democratic to a Republican Solid South happened gradually. As Democratic elected officials retired, voters replaced them with Republicans. Rather than draw a straight line between opposition to civil rights for African Americans and political realignment, therefore, it is more accurate to see the Civil Rights Movement as part of the post-war reshuffling of the political deck. After the success of the Civil Rights Movement in ending legal segregation, the political issues surrounding race became more complex, and neither party made racial justice matters a top priority.

Our current political party system came together after the dust of the 1960s had settled, in that post-Civil Rights Movement era. By the 1980s, the political parties were more or less ideologically united. It was then that Democrats became “liberals” and Republicans “conservatives,” a trend that held into the 21st century. During his campaign, Trump surrounded himself by people associated with the so-called “alt-right,” but his campaign and some of the promises he made—like a massive federal infrastructure program—make labeling him “liberal” or “conservative” problematic. His election, then, at least threatened to lay waste to that liberal / conservative dichotomy that had characterized the two parties since the age of Reagan. For now, Republicans appear to be grudgingly falling in line behind the president, while Democrats seek a new leader and new issues that can attract a broad base of support. We at One Thing After Another are historians, so we are loath to predict what is going to happen in the future. Nevertheless, this could prove to be a watershed moment for the current party system, and a realignment could be in the works.

Whatever happens, One Thing after Another would prefer that political arguments be based on accurate information understood in its proper historical context. Ahistorical claims like Cruz’s make truth a casualty of partisanship. When truth becomes optional and historical context is ignored, then democracy itself is threatened. We historians should not be solely responsible for saving the republic. But until politicians take their responsibility more seriously, anyone concerned about truth and democracy must continue to push back against lies, alternative facts, and the anachronistic use of historical information.

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part II)

Part II

Part I of this post explored parallels between the 1924 immigration law and President Trump’s 2017 executive order restricting immigration to the United States. Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

While the lessons of history may be ambiguous, we can learn a lot about our own society by looking at how we understand past events. The first part of this post was inspired in part by a picture on Facebook:

italian-immigrants-didnt-wave-italian-flags

There are numerous problems with this meme, not least of which is the attempt to use the past to suggest that the ancestors of white Americans were more noble or patriotic than recent immigrants to the United States. To suggest that early 20th-century Italian-Americans were much more likely to assimilate than their modern counterparts is likely not true. In fact, Italian-Americans in the early 1900s had a reputation that was not all that different from immigrants today. Italians attempted to preserve their culture, often in the face of intense pressures to “Americanize.” Moreover, some native-born Americans questioned whether Italians’ religious faith—in this case, Catholicism—was compatible with American civic life. In other words, Italian-Americans were not that different from other immigrant groups that came to the United States, both at the time and in recent years.

There was another element of the Italian-American experience that bears interesting parallels to today. In 1919 and 1920, terrorists launched a series of deadly bombings in the United States. The culprits were American anarchists who may have been inspired by Luigi Galleani, an Italian-American radical based in Lynn, Massachusetts. The great majority of Italian-Americans were not involved in anti-government activities, let alone deadly bombings. Nevertheless, some Americans came to believe that immigrants—especially Italian ones—represented a very real and dangerous threat to the nation’s security. Galleani was deported in 1919, along with several other Italian radicals. A Justice Department crackdown on radicals included a 1920 raid in Paterson, New Jersey that led to the arrest of twenty-nine Italian anarchists.

galleani

Italian Anarchist Luigi Galleani

In this climate of anti-immigrant and anti-radical hysteria, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti gripped the nation’s attention. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian-Americans who were accused of murdering a guard during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. The two men, who were alleged to have ties to Galleani, were tried, convicted, and eventually executed in 1927. Though their culpability has been debated (and research suggests that one or both of the accused were in fact involved in terrorist activities), most historians argue that their trial was hopelessly compromised by the virulent anti-immigrant and anti-radical views of the period.

The fate of Sacco and Vanzetti brings us back to the issue of immigration that started Part I of this post. The 1924 immigration law ostensibly protected the United States from dangerous elements who wanted to destroy American society. Italian-Americans were the victims of these policies. Today, Italian-Americans who want to denounce recent immigrants for their failure to assimilate look back nostalgically to a time when, in their understanding, their great-grandparents came to the United States and admirably and enthusiastically transformed from Italians to Americans. This characterization obscures the long history of nativism in the United States and the debates about security that have often informed immigration policy. It also does a disservice to earlier generations of immigrants, who face intense prejudice and opposition–not unlike immigrants today.

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.

ellis-registry

Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.

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On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.

Trump’s Executive Order, Immigration, and Budweiser’s Super Bowl Commercial

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On January 31, Budweiser posted its 2017 Super Bowl commercial on YouTube. In the last week, the video has been viewed over 20 million times. The one-minute ad, entitled “Born the Hard Way,” presents a series of fictional vignettes depicting the 1857 voyage of Adolphus Busch, Budweiser’s founder, from Germany to St. Louis.

Released only days after President Trump’s executive order, which severely restricts immigration from seven nations, suspends the admission of all refugees for 120 days, and bars Syrian refugees from the United States, “Born the Hard Way” has ignited a huge debate across social media and the internet. On the one hand (and One Thing after Another paints with a broad brush), those who support President Trump and the travel ban, because they wish to safeguard the security of the country, see the ad as an implicit rebuke. On the other, many interpret the commercial as a moving tribute to the centrality of immigration to the American experience.

What surprises One Thing after Another is the visceral reaction to an advertisement that probably would not have raised eyebrows a couple of years ago. Why is the social media world so sure that a representation of a German immigrant’s journey in 1857 is an assault on the travel ban imposed in 2017 against predominantly Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East? The analogy seems a bit of a stretch, even if Adolphus Busch is greeted in New Orleans by an unsavory character yelling “Go back home!” in his face. Why did Sarah Palin tweet “Budweiser Debuts Super Bowl Ad, and Its Politically Charged Message Has Americans Speechless”? Why did Stacey Dash, formerly of Fox News, write, “Dear Budweiser, your immigrant founder came here to make beer, not bombs (so spare me the heavy handed ad)”? Why is Brietbart convinced that Budweiser is playing politics? Why is there a movement afoot to boycott Budweiser (and see here) for making a supposedly political commercial?

A number of the claims made by critics seem a bit off-target if one looks at the genesis of the commercial. According to Adweek, work on “Born the Hard Way” began eight months ago (long before it seemed likely that Trump would become president) and forms part of a broad, long-term, multifaceted campaign to win back market share. The main role of expensive Super Bowl commercials within this campaign consists of building the brand (a one-minute spot during this year’s game will probably cost $15 million while the commercial itself cost $2-$3 million). The idea of showing the origins of Budweiser emerged in October 2016, and a script (the twelfth one considered) was approved around Thanksgiving of that year. According to Laura Rowan, group strategy director at Anomaly (the creative agency that participated in coming up with the idea), “This is the story of the original self-made man, one of the founders of the American Dream, making it the hard way, and his path that all came after him followed.” Rowan’s use of the phrase “the hard way,” along with the commercial’s title, link this effort to the phrase “brewed the hard way,” which has been the centerpiece of Budweiser’s message for the last couple of years (see Budweiser’s Super Bowl XLIX ad).

In any event, it is this kind of thinking about building a brand and capturing market share that led to the production of “Born the Hard Way.” As Ricardo Marques, Vice President of Marketing for Budweiser, asserted:

It’s true, Adolphus Busch made an incredible journey to this country, and that’s really what this is about. It’s about his vision, his dream, everything that he does to achieve that. . . . Even though it happened in the 1850s, it’s a story that is super relevant today. That’s what we’re honing in on; it’s the pursuit, the effort, the passion, the drive, the hard work, the ambition, that’s really what this is about more than anything else. . . . There’s really no correlation with anything else that’s happening in the country. . . . We believe this is a universal story that is very relevant today because probably more than any other period in history today the world pulls you in different directions, and it’s never been harder to stick to your guns.

In other words, the Budweiser ad was intended as political, but not in the way that everybody seems to think. Instead of using the story of the company’s immigrant founder to express the value of immigration, it sought to extoll the virtues of hard work—an idea that it believes its consumers share.

Budweiser’s argument seems to make sense. Family-owned firms (or firms that have a long tradition of family ownership—Budweiser passed from the Busch family to InBev in 2008) are very proud of their founders and history. One has only to remember how Ford Motor Company produces encomiums to Henry Ford or the way Hewlett-Packard reverentially refers to David Packard and his famous garage in Palo Alto. It is entirely possible that a company enamored of its founder and his virtues might not have stopped to think about the different ways in which his story might be understood.

At this point, readers may start thinking that One Thing after Another is letting Budweiser off the hook by exonerating it of playing immigration politics. Yes and no; you should read on. This entire incident reminds this blog of three related points with which many historians (and scholars in closely related fields) will be familiar. First, crying foul because Budweiser has produced a “political” ad is naïve; all messages, whatever the medium, are political. An ad supporting immigration is just as political as a commercial touting the value of ambition, determination, and hard work. Through the act of associating certain images and ideas with a product, commercials are engaged in politics, whether it’s in the name of selling soft drinks, cars, cleaning supplies, or Snuggies. And if you stop for a second to think about the entire purpose of commercials—getting people to buy stuff that they might not otherwise want—you realize that commercials are a supremely political act.

Second, the kerfuffle over this commercial shows how important history is to popular political culture. Even those who know so very little about history understand that narratives about the past can either offer precedents for present-day actions or delegitimize them. Budweiser sought to use a small slice of history (albeit fictionalized) about its single-minded founder to burnish the image of its beer. But Budweiser could not retain ownership of the story as it became consumed by contemporary politics; it goes without saying that political groups are desperate to control narratives of the past.  In the case of “Born the Hard Way,” the question went from “Don’t you want to buy beer from a company that is as committed to its product as its founder, Adolphus Busch, was?” to, “Does the experience of Adolphus Busch and other German immigrants in the mid-19th century express the value of a less restrictive immigration policy in 2017?” One Thing after Another would like to think that Budweiser has performed an important service by inadvertently presenting this question to the public. Many responses to the commercial, though, seem to indicate that debate on this topic has become a dialog of the deaf—an occasion for expressing shibboleths rather than an opportunity for exchanging ideas.

Still, the third point might offer us some hope. The debate concerning the commercial makes One Thing after Another think of “reader response criticism” as developed by Stanley Fish, the literary theorist and legal scholar. Fish argues that readers do not interpret an objective text—rather, they make the text in the act of reading. The only reason so many readers produce the same meaning from a text is because they belong to an “interpretive community” which has been trained to read in much the same way. This idea, of course, can be extended to visual media, including commercials. Budweiser may have intended to produce a tribute to the bootstrapping character of its founder, but the time and place are such that Americans have read a statement about immigration. In some ways, this situation is more promising than it appears. It would seem that divided as the United States is at this point, we still have enough in common to belong to the same interpretive community. We have all produced the same text and agree on its significance—but we disagree on its value.