Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Klankraftiness of Donald Trump

                  Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education is revealing of more than trouble ahead for public education in the United States. Because she wants to turn much of public instruction private, it also reveals how profoundly the politics of white supremacy has changed since the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan was a mainstream social movement and had broad political influence.  There is no better way to understand today’s Trump phenomenon than by comparing him with the Klan, but to do this we must rid ourselves of the idea that the early twentieth century Klan was identical to that of the mid-nineteenth century or the one of our day.

                  The Klan was re-founded in 1915 in the Deep South not long after the release of the popular movie, Birth of a Nation, which was itself based on an earlier novel The Klansman.  The expansion of the Klan relied on techniques now associated with multi-level marketing firms such as Amway as well as the synthesis of exotic rituals such as those earlier popularized by fraternal societies such as the Shriners. 

                  White supremacy has always been a basic element of Klan ideology or Klankraft as it was called with the organization. Despite its constant concern to avoid being labeled as an organization whose members took the law into their own hands, the Klan always employed violence as political terror and social discipline.  Between 1915 and 1928, however, the Klan was a broadly representative fraternal organization insofar as it mirrored the beliefs of many white native-born Protestants and insofar as it projected those beliefs into the political realm. 

                  Despite the initial association of the Klan with the Confederate states, in the 1920s it was an organization well beyond the South.  Seeking to understand the spread of the Klan, contemporary observers and later historians utilized the same causal links that have been deployed to explain the Trump vote in 2016: fear of labor market competition by immigrants, the transition to a new economy (more industrial) and new society (more urban), as well as changes in social mores about sex and intoxicants. 

                  There has been considerable scholarly debate about who joined the Klan in the 1920s.  A once dominant tendency was to believe that Klansmen were marginal members of society: uneducated and impoverished whites with a propensity to violence and profound ignorance about economic structures and politics.  In part this was simply a stereotype based on an esthetic that less attractive politics must be held by less attractive people.  In part it arose from the desire of middle-class and professional opponents of the Klan who held similar ideas to differentiate themselves and their social milieu from the organization.

Recent studies, employing internal Klan documents, have shown that the Klan in the 1920s was broadly representative of white society, but that its members were disproportionately drawn from semi-skilled labor and lower level civil servants.  Klan members were more likely to have had modest incomes and modest educations than to have been unskilled, illiterate, or well-off professionals with college degrees.  Klan members, to a greater degree than society at large, benefited from receiving education at a period in American history when most pre-baccalaureate instruction was provided by public schools.

A moment’s reflection dismisses the idea of the Klan in the 1920s as an organization of the impoverished and dispossessed.  Unlike the Klan ‘s first incarnation in 1868 as an avowedly terrorist group, the Klan’s revival in after World War I was the work of publicists and advertising agents working out the basic elements of multi-level marketing in the context of a fraternal organization.  Members paid the klecktoken or annual dues of $10 at a time when Henry Ford had made himself nationally famous by offering skilled assembly workers $5 a day, which was twice the normal daily wage for factory employees.  Members were also expected to buy their own robes, other paraphernalia, and printed literature.  Formal membership in the Klan was beyond the means of the impoverished and the economically insecure.  Paid organizers, the kleagles, retained $4 of every klecktoken they received.  Higher officials retained smaller amounts but from a larger pool.  By the mid-1920s the national Klan leadership often attained incomes of hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money. 

Klan membership was restricted to white Protestant native-born men although the creation of the auxiliary Women’s KKK in 1923 opened up an avenue for women to participate.  The Klan is best known for the violence with which, especially in the South, it enforced white supremacy and suppressed any bids for political or economic equality by Black Americans.  The Klan also sought, through legal and extra-legal means, to affect American society in a variety of other areas: immigration, education, drugs, sexual relations, child support, and divorce.

Since the 1960s, Americans have thought of drugs in terms of marijuana and a handful of powerful stimulants and depressants such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and briefly LSD.  All of these are available through illegal markets.  The hard drugs are sufficiently available to create public health problems and they all contribute to the existence of an unregulated economy that engenders wealth and violence.  Recently many states have effectively legalized marijuana although Federal law continues to sanction its use.  For hundreds of years, however, Americans thought of alcohol as the most dangerous drug for its economic, social and moral effects on society.  In the latter 19th century increasingly effective movements sought to ban the production and consumption of alcohol and they were ultimately successful immediately after World War I with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution and the Volstead Act.

Mention Prohibition today and it conjures up quaint images of flappers and speakeasies or exchanges of gunfire between square-jawed federal agents and gangsters with ominously Italian names along with the easy admission that it was obviously a terrible policy.  Yet prohibition had long been a staple demand of American Protestant churches. The Klan, along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Organization and the Anti-Saloon League, also fought for it.  Like so many issues, Prohibition was not directly a matter of intolerance or prejudice but it sharpened opposition between immigrant groups and nativist whites.  For Jews and Catholics from southern and eastern Europe wine was a sacramental item as well as an item of cultural conviviality along with hard liquor.   The inability of the Federal and state governments to enforce Prohibition also gave the Klan license to enforce it by itself.  It did so with assaults on drinking establishments and, in parts of the South, with public whippings. 

                  If alcohol was one popular issue that deeply concerned the Klan, education was another.  It invariably supported the expansion of the public schools and frequently also supported higher taxes to enhance them.  From the Deep South to the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast the Klan fought consistently to extend compulsory public education.  In Oregon in 1922 elected Klan officials passed a law requiring that all children between eight and sixteen attend public schools.  Progressive as this might seem, the aim of this and other similar legislation backed by the Klan was use the schools to shape the values and allegiances of American citizens.   As one Klan official put it in 1923, “the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan should be the vehicle for this Bible reading and instruction and that no atheist, infidel, skeptic or non-believer should be allowed to teach in the public schools.” 

                  The Klan’s opposition to the Catholic Church was rooted in beliefs that the culture and society of the US were uniquely Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  The Klan viewed the massive immigration that characterized the US from the 1890 to 1920 and had brought large numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans to the US (as well as Jews) as an existential threat.  The Catholic Church possessed a formidable institutional presence.  Its members owed allegiance to the Church and were enmeshed in an institutional framework that included schools, parishes, and charitable organizations.  Unlike the various Protestant sects that dominated the religious scene in the US, the Church had a well-organized hierarchy and could mobilize its primarily urban worshippers for elections.  Long before academics thought about the reproduction of culture, the Klan grasped the importance of controlling early education to affect the ties of citizens to the institutions of civil society and the state. 

                  The Klan viewed the religious threat to American society as the primary result of immigration.  The Klan viewed with concern the large number of Catholics who had entered the US in the preceding decades and especially that “a big percent of these immigrants are from the lowest strata of Italy, Poland, and other Roman Catholic countries.”  The Klan strongly supported immigration legislation that in 1924 ended the policy of nearly unlimited entry into the US in order, in its words, to “prevent the glutting of the American labor market and the Romanizing and mongrelizing of the citizenship of the United States.”

                  No one would deny that the Klan in the 1920s was committed to white supremacy, but this is popularly thought to be a nearly unconscious reflex.  For most white Americans, we are often told, being white was a background condition and whites were rarely aware that whiteness was itself a singular condition.  This is not how the Klan presented the relevant issue.  As noted above, the Klan undoubtedly saw white dominance as intimately connected with Protestantism and Protestantism they certainly believed to be under attack from Catholics and Jews. 

                  It can be difficult to separate the Klan’s racism with that of white society at large in the period between the two world wars.  The Klan was committed to maintaining the legal and economic separation and subjugation of African-Americans.  It held, as did many Americans in the era of “scientific racism”, that Blacks were an inferior group.  Criticism of the Klan at the time from those who believed equally in white supremacy was often based on concern that the Klan provoked violence both as a short-term policy and in order to spread fear among whites that would bring more recruits to the Klan.  Writing in 1922, Henry Fry discussed the Tulsa race riot the previous year in which whites killed some 300 Black people, destroyed property, and drove citizens into exile. Speaking of what was probably the worse pogrom in American history Fry, in his book The Modern Ku Klux Klan, noted that the Klan at no time rallied to support the maintenance of law and order despite its claims to be an organization committed to such goals.  Oklahoma, Fry pointed out, was a stronghold of the Klan.  Despite its state support for law and order, the Klan was a constant source of disorder both through its propaganda and through its mobilization of members for extra-legal and illegal activity.  Inciting and organizing popular violence while piously asserting that its commitment to legality was a hallmark of the Klan.

                  The Klan was, however, solicitous of the police and local law enforcement. It was here that the Klan, especially in the South but elsewhere as well, had its greatest impact on local government.  The Klan in the 1920s, even in the South, did not deploy the Confederate flag.  To the contrary, although it deplored what it called an over-reaching Federal government during Reconstruction, in the 1920s the Klan presented itself as a bastion of Americanism and a supporter of American institutions. 

                  In 2016 the Klan is no longer an organization of any importance in American politics, but the so-called Alt-Right and political currents that swirl in and around it such as the Tea Party and sections of the Republican party remain strongly motivated by the issues and policies that the Klan pioneered in the 1920s.  Trump himself sometimes articulates views very close to those of the Klan. Whether this is chance is far from clear.  Just because they were once common views among white Americans of his father’s generation means he likely heard them growing up.  That his father was arrested at a Klan demonstration in 1927 and may have been attracted to their nativist message and thus raised his son on it is also possible.

                  Trump is closest to evoking the Klan of the 1920s in his views on immigration.  Indeed Trump’s call for a moratorium on immigration sounds remarkably like a 1923 statement by a South Carolina Grand Dragon to restrict immigration for a decade while the US took “an inventory of human assets and liabilities” with its border.  His view of Mexicans resembles those of Klan quoted above. 

                  In the 1920s the Klan was concerned primarily with Jewish and Catholic immigration and secondarily with Japanese immigration.  Muslim immigration was insignificant and the Klan never mentioned it.  The prevailing infatuation with the Orient at the end of the 19th century may even have played some role in the Klan’s ritual meetings which, unlike cross burning, took place indoors.  Citizens of the “invisible empire” entered a separate space from the “alien” world of everyday America when the Klavern assembled.  The Klan constitution was officially known as the Kloran and the sergeant-at-arms was a Klaliff which may have been a portmanteau of bailiff and caliph. 

Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic animus, major themes of the klancraft of religion, were more than mere personal prejudice although they certainly included it.  The persistence of anti-Semitism in countries such as the US and Germany which had relatively tiny Jewish populations owes more to its role as a discourse of mobilization than as a lived experience for most people.   Modern anti-Semitism is a way of transforming economic grievances into ethnic ones.  As the German social democratic leader August Bebel once put it, anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.  Anti-Catholic sentiment was more directly aimed at mobilizing sentiment against institutions that necessarily sought to expand pluralism and what we would today call “multi-culturalism” in American society.  Many Protestants perceived the Church as an enemy to their dominance of society and as recently as the 1960 presidential election it was possible to argue that John Kennedy would, if elected, take orders from the Pope about how to govern the US. 

                  Anti-Catholicism is no longer a main theme in American politics and anti-Semitism, while significant, has not been a primary motivating tool of the American right.  The religion most in the public eye today in American politics is Islam and Trump has echoed many themes of the older anti-Catholic discourse when he speaks of Islam.  This sounds peculiar because antagonism to Islam and to Arabs is often described as similar to anti-Semitism.  Considering the nature of the Klan’s antagonism to the Catholic Church (and indeed the history of conflating anxiety about Catholic and Muslim challenges to Protestant polities going back to the 16th century) it should be clear that much of what is called “Islamophobia” resembles anti-Catholic sentiment.  Muslims, like Catholics, are said to be incapable of integrating into the American political community: they are beholden to religious leaders outside our national territory; they are subordinate to a particular textual tradition; they have not experienced the Reformation; in addition to their religious incapacity to assimilate they are members of equally problematic ethnic groups; they seek to transform American institutions through subjecting them to alien religious norms.  These complaints are rarely if ever addressed to Jews in the United States but they have been commonly applied both to Muslims and Catholics.

                  What then of education?  If Trump spoke the fears of the Klan to a new generation of white Protestants (and of course to some other Americans as well) his embrace of Betsy DeVos shows how different our world is than that of the 1920s.  The struggles to integrate and secularize the public schools in the 1960s ended the dream that they could be used to create a citizenry steeped in white supremacy and Protestant religiosity.  Catholics increasingly turned to the public schools to educate their children as did Jews and school boards and local governments increasingly withdrew Bible reading from morning exercises.  Teaching became both a profession with a pluralist workforce and increasingly committed to cultural pluralism as a value. 

                  The rise of private schools as a safe space for the values of middle as well as upper class white Protestants grew in tandem with the integration of the public schools.  In the south, but less so in the north, the Klan existed in tension with an older, wealthier oligarchy frequently rooted in land ownership.  That oligarchy also believed in white supremacy and required cheap Black labor.  Conflicts between the Klan and the oligarchy frequently arose over education and the leasing of convict labor.   Because much of the prison population was Black, convict leasing threatened the wages of impoverished white workers.  Not until 1928, with the support of the Klan, did Alabama finally eliminate convict leasing.  It was the last state to do so.  Schools remained chronically underfunded, however, and the same literacy tests and poll taxes that prevent almost all African Americans from voting also limited white electoral participation.  The public schools were the only possible path for upward mobility.

The Klan hoped, with some success, to force all Americans into the public school system and also hoped, with some success, to control the curriculum. White supremacists and the political activists from the far right of the political spectrum can no longer hope to accomplish that.  Nor indeed do they, as did many of their predecessors, send their own children to public schools.  Whether today’s wealthy constitute an oligarchy is an open question, but the wealthiest Americans send their children to private schools and sponsor the privatization of public schools as an ideal.  Thus Betsy DeVos will play an important role in making education policy for the next several years. 

If white supremacists have turned against a public school system they can no longer control, the schools remain an important locus for political power.  They continue to shape citizens and provide many young Americans with whatever skills and human capital they can acquire as they seek to find employment.  Another way to look at the most recent election is to realize that although unions in the private sector have been largely eliminated those in the public sector remain potent economic and political actors.  In the 1920s many lower level civil servants were attracted to the Ku Klux Klan but that has ceased to be true.  Today public employees are divided into two main groups: those who deal with security and those who deal with human services.  There are about 1.3 million police in the US and about 3.1 million teachers.  Police unions appear to have endorsed Trump and teacher’s unions supported Clinton.  Transforming the public schools has an ideological purpose but it also will have political consequences.  Unions that are no longer primarily white and no longer have primarily white constituencies no longer benefit from the support of organizations, mainstream or extreme, that further white supremacy.  Privatizing schools will decrease organized support for public schools by teachers as well as among parents.  Strong support for the police will have the opposite effect. 

Although Americans at large and some supporters came to distrust the Klan as its leaders grew wealthy and engaged in egregious acts of self-aggrandizement one of the most important causes of the collapse of the Klan was the 1925 abduction of Madge Oberholtzer by Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson.  In a horrific incident that was once widely known but is now largely forgotten Stephenson kidnapped Oberholtzer and held her at his mansion where he raped her repeatedly. Stephenson released her after her attempt to escape him by committing suicide failed.  Stephenson returned Oberholtzer, bruised and bloodied, to her mother’s house.  Her death several weeks later was attributed to a combination of infected deep bites by Stephenson and kidney failure from the suicide attempt.  Stephenson was convicted of rape and second degree murder.

Stephenson’s conviction led tens of thousands of men to leave the Klan and, after being denied a parole, he provided evidence that led to the conviction of Indiana officials, including the governor, Ed Jackson, on bribery charges.  Within two years the Klan, which in 1924 had nearly a quarter of a million members, ceased to exist as an organized force in Indiana.

The leaders of the second Klan came to believe they could act with impunity, but the Madge Oberholtzer’s death and the subsequent revelations showed their limits.  Donald Trump is not D.C. Stephenson and it remains to be seen if his administration will show similar venality to Jackson’s.  Like the Klan, however, he has ridden a cresting wave of populist white supremacy, religious discrimination, anti-immigrant politics into office claiming to be the opponent of a financial oligarchy.  Trump’s use of social media to incite violence that he then claims to oppose resembles the Klancraft of the 1920s which was seriously concerned about the dissemination of their message and dealing with the public media.  The Klan is an insignificant organization today but its ideas, appeals, and base of support appears to live on.  Whether its weaknesses will prove to be Trump’s as well remains to be seen.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Democratization's First Failure: The American South After 1865

This is the second of two entries against American exceptionalism.  The first dealt with the period of the revolutionary war of independence.  This one addresses the occupation of the South after the Civil War and the failure to create a democratic capitalist system there.  

Americans, including academics, have an immense appetite for books, stories and films about the
people, processes, and details of the Revolution and the Civil War.  American academics have a nearly equally immense appetite for books and articles about democratization, but more recently their tastes have changed to include studies of authoritarianism, dictatorship, and repression.  Neither citizens at large nor academics, however, have much of a taste for the period in which American history comprises grim accounts of authoritarianism, terror, dictatorship and the violent overthrow of elected governments—the period between 1876 and 1956.

American academics do occasionally research and write about those years but they prefer to focus on what are, generally, more uplifting stories.  These include the expansion of American industry, the political integration of millions of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, the development of the welfare state, and the increasingly important role of the US as a global power. What negative aspects there are to the role of urban political machines, the unequal distribution of wealth in the Gilded Age, and the inability (or unwillingness) of the US to bring democracy to the real or metaphorical islands where US troops were dispatched from the Philippines to Central America or the Caribbean form a necessary counterpoint to the ineluctably progressive character of the American experience. 

Inherent in these stories—whether told in the academic or the popular press—is the belief that America is one country with one people.  Its territorial boundaries expand and its population becomes increasingly diverse but, as our national motto has it, we are, out of many, one.  Walt Whitman is our national poet because he celebrates our protean ability to combine multitude of individuals.  To the extent that we may be slightly skeptical of how exceptional we are, we sometimes note the role that ideas of race have played in the history of the American state and American society.  Because African slavery in Americas was nearly coextensive with white settlement, we have come to see African Americans as people against whom there has been discrimination but who are historically part and parcel of the American people and American history. 

There are sound reasons for looking at American history this way, but we can learn something else about the history of our country and the world by looking at things slightly differently: as the centuries-long account of attempting, with varying degrees of success, the integration of two very different countries—one with liberal democratic and market institutions riven by class conflict and one with an authoritarian political system and a command economy and a caste society—into one and of attempting, often with very little success, to democratize one of them. Seen in this light and shorn of the idea that the conflict over race is simply a matter of individual prejudice (although that too exists) similarities between post-colonial states in the Middle East, Asia and Africa with the United States become more apparent.  

For anyone interested in whether an occupying army can accomplish democratization or the ways in which a dispossessed elite regains authority or simply how much political capital US governments are willing to expend in the pursuit of democratization, the years between 1865 and 1960 in the American South provide a wealth of insight.  In April 1865 the Federal government won the war it had prosecuted for four years against an insurgent government, the Confederate States of America.  Unlike many rebellious movements the CSA was a fully formed state.  It had an army, governing institutions and offices, diplomatic representatives, and a legal system.  It claimed and, except when militarily defeated by the Union army, largely succeeded in maintaining a monopoly of legitimate violence in the territory it claimed. Had the Union not occupied the south, including its successive capitals, there is no reason to believe that it would have been anything other than a functioning state in the global system of states. 

It is generally understood today that the war was fought over the issue of slavery but what this means is often unclear.  The war was not fought over racial discrimination, but over whether the state would recognize and defend property rights in human beings. More exactly it was fought to determine whether a political system in which slavery provided an elite with crucial economic power would continue to exist in North America where it had already been abolished in the two neighboring polities of Canada and Mexico. The Emancipation Proclamation was a tool through which the Union destroyed the economy of the CSA.  Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US constitution in 1865 outlawing slavery made the re-creation of the Old South’s political economy impossible. 

Over the next twenty years several Republican presidents and congressional majorities wrestled with the problem we now call democratization.   They thought of it as a problem of how to construct republican government.  In a world of monarchies and empires, political theorists still thought more about republics than democracies as the alternative to autocratic rule.  Equally pressing was that the wording of the US constitution permitted the Congress to ensure that the various states had republican not democratic governments.

The fourteenth Amendment to the constitution and the civil rights act of 1866 were initial attempts to create political (but not social) equality between black and white citizens.  In the mid-19th century several states of the Deep South had black majorities and thus political equality necessarily transferred power in any fair and free election.  Former slaves were solidly Republican voters but the candidates they supported were usually white.  Some were from the South and others were immigrants from the North.  It is testimony to the continued power of the political vocabulary of southern reaction that the nomenclature to describe these whites, “scalawags” and “carpetbaggers”, has survived into the 21st century.

To a degree perhaps unprecedented in human history, the racism that structures relationships between black and white Americans is the outcome of conscious human decision-making.  Unlike the relationships between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims or Armenians and Turks or Koreans and Japanese, there simply are no historical categories that correspond to white and black as Americans understand them before 1620.  Neither the progenitors of Europeans or Africans inhabited the continents that were to be named after the obscure Italian navigator Vespucci.  If the children of Europe came largely of their own volition, the children of Africa were brought in chains and suffering and the relationship between the two developed in relatively well-documented historical time.  

With the exception of the American Indian peoples, neither the US constitution, ordinary politics, nor American scholarship is in the least at ease with the idea that ours is a multi-ethnic or pluri-national country.  There was really no time when Black and white in America lived happily together in a paradise riven by colonial machinations.  And yet precisely because this is so it is easier to re-imagine the historical processes of American economic and political history creating two distinct nations and facing, however imperfectly, the necessity of transforming them into one.

It is common today to look with some disdain on movements and thinkers in American history who seriously considered that black and white Americans were separate peoples.  Merely to state it in those terms seems to provide the segregationists and slave-owners with a kind of victory.  Such a refusal ignores that Abraham Lincoln looked favorably on the idea that freed slaves would be best returned to Africa. Many whites and a number of black in the nineteenth century supported colonization of West Africa and the creation of the state of Liberia.  It is easy to condescend to Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa movement.  With his hats and his bluster and the ultimate collapse of his movement in corruption he is no longer an inspiring figure, but there was a moment when hundreds of thousands of African Americans considered him a beacon of hope in a violent and impoverished time.  Garvey, like many earlier figures who promoting the return of African Americans to Africa, seems to have thought of them as a people that only required a territory of their own to become truly a nation.

The one theoretical claim that African Americans might be a distinct nation within the US is even more suspect.  Harry Haywood, a long-forgotten Black Communist, wrote Negro Liberation precisely to propose that the inhabitants of the Black Belt deserved recognition as a separate nation with a separate territory.  Uncomfortable as we may be today with the concept of reparations, it is far easier to consider reparations than the idea of a sovereign or semi-sovereign entity on the territory of the United States with an African-American elite.   Writing within the framework of Stalin’s definition of nationhood, Haywood proposed to his comrades that the Negro people were a nation because they shared language, history, economic relations, and culture. Haywood realized that the Negro people shared many of these characteristics with whites. There is nothing anomalous in Haywood’s argument if we recognize the Irish, Welsh or Scots as nationalities distinct from the English despite sharing with their former overlords these same presumably primal characteristics.  What distinguishes those nations from each other would be either their claim to antiquity—an existence prior to conquest—or a “national project” in modern times.  Haywood understood that an African-American people were created by conquest and slavery and thus could not pre-date it, but his work remains of interest if we can see in Garvey, Malcolm X, and other leaders the enunciation of a national project. American academics no longer believe that nations are created by shared structural characteristics and thus Haywood’s argument has long been forgotten.  

Seen in these lights, the post-Reconstruction period of American history looks more like the forerunner of later American attempts (and conspicuous failures) to impose democracy on divided societies and less like the halting progress of triumphant liberalism.  The Confederacy looks more like an alien society whose autonomous existence whether within the United States or as an independent entity posed an existential threat to the liberal, industrial, market-oriented Federal republic.  

The defeat and occupation of the CSA posed dilemmas for victors and vanquished alike.  The Radical Republicans were all too aware that they might have won the war only to lose the peace while the  former political and economic elite of the conquered territory sought desperately to prevent the transformation of their loss of status and influence into complete irrelevance and replacement by a new mixed elite of blacks and whites.  

Writing in 1935, WEB DuBois in Black Reconstruction described a “singular schism in the South.  The white planter endeavored to keep the Negro at work for his own profit on terms that amounted to slavery and which were hardly distinguishable from it…Meanwhile the poor white did not want the Negro put to profitable work.  He wanted the Negro beneath the feet of the white worker.”  DuBois further described the unease of the victors: “Back of all the enthusiasm and fervor of victory in the North came a wave of reflection that represented the sober after-thought of the nation.  It harked back to a time when not one person in ten believed in Negroes, or in emancipation, or in any attempt to conquer the South.  This feeling began to arise before the war closed, and after it ended it rose higher and higher into something like dismay.”  

DuBois viewed the task of Reconstruction as the revolutionary remaking of the Southern economy.  His analysis was as cool as his prose was ardent.  He summed up the penultimate chapter of Black Reconstruction with the words “How the civil war in the South began again—indeed had never ceased; and how black Prometheus bound to the Rock of Ages by hate, hurt, and humiliation, has his vitals eaten out as they grow, yet lives and fights.”  As DuBois recognized, “it is always difficult to stop war, and doubly difficult to stop a civil war.  Inevitably, when men have long been trained to violence and murder, the habit projects itself into civil life after peace, and there is crime and disorder and social upheaval, as we who live in the backwash of World War [I] know too well…When to all this you add a servile and disadvantaged race, who represent the cause of war and who afterwards are left near naked to their enemies, war may go on more secretly, more spasmodically, and yet as truly as before the peace.  This was the case in the South after Lee’s surrender.”  

DuBois recognized military dictatorship (his description) as the necessary instrument to transform the South and that the failure of the revolutionary project of Reconstruction (again, his description) to create a liberal, market-oriented South brought in its wake an even more potent counter-revolution.  Americans, DuBois noted, “apparently expected that this social upheaval was going to be accomplished with peace, honesty, and efficiency, and that the planters were going to quietly surrender the right to live on the labor of black folk, after two hundred and fifty years of habitual exploitation.”

DuBois’s Marxist-inflected analysis is predicated on the belief that force and violence necessarily accompany profound social and political transformations.  His account therefore highlighted the use of violence to forestall the revolutionary implications of Reconstruction.  Political science today is less concerned with violence than was DuBois and this is especially true, as DuBois suggested, of the study of American politics.  DuBois himself, as do many analysts, described the Ku Klux Klan as a major contributor to the violence that overthrew Reconstruction and that sealed the victory of counter-revolution.  The Klan, however, was a national organization and had largely been dismantled by 1872 thanks to vigorous Federal prosecution.  The decade before DuBois wrote Black Reconstruction a new incarnation of the Klan emerged and the organization was therefore once again on the minds of American progressives.  Nevertheless too great a focus on the Ku Klux Klan places too little emphasis on the degree to which local elites deployed violence not simply against individuals but against even the institutions of the state.  Repeated and sometimes successful attempts by terrorists and unofficial militias to overthrow local governments by force were a pervasive feature of life in the South between 1866 and 1900.  

The power of DuBois’s analysis is clarified by a closer look at the violence that pervaded the South from 1866 until 1900.  The Ku Klux Klan was one, but only one, organizational expression of widespread white resistance to equality for African Americans in the former CSA.  Radical Republicans and the multi-volume House and Senate investigative reports on the activities of the Klan published in 1872 recognized that opposition to democracy in the South transcended the Klan. The majority report noted that Southern whites would accept no reconstruction “so long as it embraced the liberation, the civil and political elevation, of the negro [sic].”

Disrupting the Klan entailed mass arrests and in one case (South Carolina) the suspension of the right of habeas corpus.  If the Klan itself had been broken by aggressive Federal military intervention the decentralized and partly spontaneous activity of terrorist groups and local white militias grew.  The use of violence to attack constituted and frequently democratically elected governments throughout the South continued until at least the end of the nineteenth century.  This was well beyond 1876, conventionally understood as the end of Reconstruction. Even halting and temporary democratization required the use of the full power of the occupation to forestall counter-democratic coercion.

Violence occurred early in New Orleans.  In 1866 a planter-dominated elected legislature voted to restore the pre-Civil War constitution.  The governor, a planter named James Madison Wells, vetoed the legislation and called a Constitutional Convention to meet in New Orleans, then the seat of government of Louisiana.  Mayor John Monroe, a leader of a secret society, armed the police and local citizens to attack the convention when it opened.  What amounted to a pogrom occurred on May 30, 1866 in which between 38 and 48 people were killed and more than a hundred wounded.  General Philip Sheridan, who President Grant had appointed as the governor of the Southwest Military District, returned from Texas and called it a massacre.  Had it not been for the presence of Federal troops and their willingness to intervene Reconstruction in New Orleans would have been ended before it began.  The Convention that Sheridan enabled finally sat in 1868 and adopted a constitution that guaranteed political rights to the black population and that repealed a repressive labor code although it limited suffrage to men.

Sheridan, for whom a square in Washington DC is named, is not a particularly appealing figure to many modern eyes.  He led the Army of Shenandoah which duplicated Sherman’s more famous March to the Sea in its devastation of the Confederate civil economy.  He fought similar campaigns against the Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa as well as the Ute War, the Red River War, and the Great Sioux War.  He responded with vigor in New Orleans.  He summarily dismissed Governor Wells, Mayor Monroe, and stripped much of the white population of their voting rights.  He was himself dismissed by President Andrew Johnson who accused him of being a tyrant.

To accomplish the democratic reconstruction of Louisiana and the rest of the South would require more than one constitutional convention.  In Grant County armed militias faced each other during a particularly tumultuous and tense conflict over local elections.  In April 1873, in the wake of a highly contentious electoral process in which a Republican and Democrat both claimed victory, black and white militias fought a battle for control of the county courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana.  Armed whites, led by former Confederate officers, overpowered a black militia led by former Union officers.  In addition to horses and guns the white militia also had a four pound cannon.  By the end of the fighting, between 100 and 275 black men, women, and children were dead; many had been executed with shots to the back of the head.  The Colfax massacre (as it was then known) became a national scandal but its repercussions were primarily to confirm the efficacy of violence by white militias. In 1950 the state of Louisiana placed a roadside sign at the site of the Colfax massacre justifying it.  

It is thus not surprising that the following year in New Orleans white militias again attempted to use violence to decide the issue of political power.  This was the Battle of Liberty Place when, in 1874, the White League acting as the “Louisiana State Militia” attacked a meeting of a disputed legislature.  Some 5000 members of the League defeated 3500 police and state militiamen and took control of the legislative building for three days until they were driven out by Federal troops.  In 1891, in the wake of the formal disenfranchisement of the state’s black population, the New Orleans city council erected a monument to commemorate the 1874 events.  The monument was placed in a prominent location on Canal Street and, although it was moved in 1993, it remained on public view until 2015.

The withdrawal of Federal troops after the compromise of the 1876 presidential election sealed the end of Reconstruction.  The conflict over the political rights of black people continued.  In North Carolina political violence culminated in 1898 in what has been described as the only successful coup d’etat in American history: the legally elected government of a major American city was overthrown by an armed insurrection. Until 1898 Wilmington had been a black majority city but in the wake of disputed election a secret society of white supremacists organized a group of armed men, including the “Wilmington Light Infantry” to attack black-owned businesses including the newspaper.  These men, properly described as a mob, then forced the white Republican mayor and other members of the city council to resign and installed a new one.  By 1898, unlike 1868 and 1873-4, there were no Federal troops to reverse the use of violence to overthrow an elected government.  Black residents fled and Wilmington became a white-majority city.  In modern terms we might describe this as a form of ethnic cleansing as well as a coup. What we call the “Great Migration” of African-Americans out of the South in the twentieth century was a slower process by which refugees sought safety and new beginnings and in which the demographic character of the South was changed.  In 1868 nearly 60% of the residents of Mississippi were black; today a little less than 40% are.

The insurgents who successfully installed a white supremacist government were widely recognized and known by their clothing: red shirts.  In the late 19th century red shirts had a different meaning than today.  Garibaldi’s troops wore them in Italy and they were widely associated with the militias of nationalist movements.  Throughout Europe and Latin America the wearing of red shirts was understood to reveal the patriotic sentiments and willingness to use force associated with rising nationalism.

There is every reason to believe that we should see Reconstruction more nearly in the light of contemporary nationalisms, state-building, and the suppression of the political rights of minorities than simply as a failed or premature struggle to extend the virtues of American liberal individualism against prejudice.  A declining old white Southern elite and a rising new one struggled to subjugate a minority to their control and, in the process, sought to ensure their control over their fellow members of the majority.  They were willing to employ significant violence in the form of terrorism and insurrection as well as all the legal methods at their disposal.  They saw themselves as re-creating the nation whose loss they feared military defeat would bring about.  Citizens of the US, having defeated their enemy, lacked the staying power to transform the society they had conquered as DuBois argued. After a decade they gave up.  And so the honorable citizens of the South, the religious fundamentalists, the former soldiers of the vanquished regime, and even those who had been educated in the values of US liberalism in its finest schools such as Princeton, Harvard, or Yale, collaborated in the creation of a repressive and authoritarian regime that lasted more than 100 years. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Giulio Regeni: The Police, The Citizens, and the Foreigner

            The murder of Giulio Regeni threw unexpected and unwelcome light on the Egyptian government.  Not a single story proposed by senior government figures to explain how the young Italian researcher came to be tortured to death has proved the least bit convincing.  Neither an automobile collision or a night of rough sex leave a victim whose body shows evidence of having suffered electric shock to the genitals, cigarette burns, and a broken neck.  The most recent explanation proferred by the government is that he was kidnapped by a gang specializing in the abduction and robbery of foreigners.  The police say they killed all the members of the gang in a shoot-out but were able to obtain Regeni’s identification papers (which the gang conveniently retained) as well as his cash (which they equally conveniently neglected to spend). 
For now everything is speculative but the marks of torture on his body and the obstinacy with which the Egyptian government has resisted the entreaties of Regeni’s family and the Italian government for a joint investigation strongly suggest he was killed by Egyptian security agents. 
            One of the most puzzling aspects of Regeni’s murder is understanding why the Egyptian government would have wanted him dead or even why they would have tortured him.   One commonly held theory in Cairo and beyond is based on the suspicion of Egyptian security agencies that foreigners are agitators.  Thus they believe that the uprising of 2011 was the result of external interference rather than popular initiative.  They therefore saw Regeni not as a researcher but as an activist and he was deliberately retained after he attended a gathering of independent trade union activists.  Regeni, in this reading of events, was not unlike the American and German resident employees of organizations that funded civil society associations who were formally accused of being foreign agents in 2011.  If this were the belief of high government officials then it would have been easy to deal with Regeni: either by revoking his visa or an unofficial warning that he would be indicted if he did not leave the country promptly.   
Another theory is that he was simply unlucky.  He took the subway from a stop near a meeting with union activists to Tahrir Square to visit a friend on January 25, the anniversary of the start of the 2011 uprising. He never arrived. The government had put a massive police presence in place as well as undertaking widespread arrests.  Regeni, in this scenario, was an accidental victim.  If this were the case, however, it is hard to fathom both why he was not let go and why the government has had such trouble finding the guilty police agent.  To appease public anger the government had no trouble arresting and trying Mustafa Feto, a police officer who shot a Mohammad Adel, cab driver in the lower-class neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar, after an altercation over a fare.  Not quite two months passed before Feto was sentenced to life in prison.  Even if it proved impossible to discover who had killed Regeni it would seem to be as easy to appease the anger of the Italian government by bringing a sacrificial police lamb to trial as by the deaths of five suspected criminals.
Seen in this light Regeni’s fate resembles that of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, young Americans who were killed in Chile in the days after the Pinochet regime came to power by overthrowing President Salvador Allende.  Horman and Teruggi, however, were not picked up on the streets.  The were arrested by the authorities in their homes and executed along with Chilean opponents of the junta when its hold on power was still uncertain.  Most chillingly we now know for certain that US officials knew of and may have encouraged their arrests because they also saw these young men as enemies of the Chilean military and US policy.  This is certainly not true of Italian military or diplomatic officials in Egypt.
            How, then it might well be asked, do such obscure and enigmatic events throw light on the nature of the current situation in Egypt?  One answer to that question is to suggest a slightly different scenario, elements of which certainly have circulated in Cairo.  This suggestion is not for the purpose of telling the true story of what happened but of illustrating the institutional balance of forces within the current regime.  In regard to Regeni we are truly situated in the world of Akira Kurosawa’s famous film “Rashomon.”  The deeper truth of the movie is not that there can be different accounts of a single event but that, for this is how Kurosawa deliberately made the movie, we cannot construct out of those different narratives a single coherent "true" account.  We may never know what really happened to Regeni but it nevertheless illuminates the complexity and fragility of contemporary Egypt. If we accept that the Egyptian government and particularly its security agencies fear that foreigners are outside agitators and that Regeni was stopped and taken more or less at random and taken into custody what does that tell us?
            Authoritarian regimes are invariably anxious about conspiracies whose origins they impute to foreign machinations.  Insofar as dictators claim to represent an inherently united class, nation, race  or religion the existence of opposition can only arise from the temptations posed by outsiders who threaten the moral integrity of the community.  It is easy to ridicule such fears as intellectually feeble excuses for repression and the settling of political scores.  It is less easy to see that paranoia and xenophobia can be crippling.  It is, however, giving the police in such regimes far too much credit to believe that they have independent and infallible ways to determine who the regime’s enemies are.  They rely on many sources of information:  paid informers, complaints, and denunciations.  To say that these sources are reliable or objective would be ridiculous.  Informers inform for their own reasons which may have little to do with the objective truth of the information they provide to authorities. Using the government’s anxiety and enmity as a tool to rid oneself of enemies real or imagined is probably as old as government itself. 
            Immediately after the coup in 2013, Egyptians turned on each other.   Accusations of membership in the banned Muslim Brotherhood or in terrorist cells mushroomed in a society in which conspiracy theories had been nurtured by government officials for decades.  The government arrested well-known leaders of the Muslim Brothers for political reasons, but tens of thousands of other Egyptians were arrested by local authorities.  Some of these arrests and subsequent trials became notorious due to the summary death sentences imposed on defendants in mass trials.  Other arrests and convictions of well-known activists have merited intermittent treatment in the international press. 
All these accounts of arrests and trials suggest that Egypt has a unified government that knows what it is doing: limiting the political activity of the opposition, frightening the population at large, reinforcing the power of the dictatorship by targeting a variety of regime opponents.  What it is doing may be wrong, unpalatable and destructive, but at least the government has a clear authoritarian vision of subduing the population.  The public trial of Al-Jazeera correspondents and the arrest of Egyptian reporters are all designed to curtail access to information.  The pitiful spectacle of Esraa al-Taweel, a young woman on crutches weeping at a hearing reinforced the sense of weakness and impotence of the movement to which she belonged.  The killing of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh at a demonstration where she sought to lay flowers on the ground as well as the jailing of Mohammad Soltan, the son of a Muslim Brotherhood leader and an American citizen, or the deaths of countless others were all designed to re-build the wall of fear that surrounded Egyptians since the days of Nasser. 
There is no doubt that the Egyptian government is willing to use overwhelming and lethal force against its perceived enemies. In early July 2013 dozens of demonstrators were killed in front of the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo.   Upwards of a thousand people were killed when the government dispersed demonstration/encampments at Rabaa Square in Cairo and Nahdet Misr Square in Giza.  The government has also prosecuted foreigners such as Peter Greste, an Australian employee of Al-Jazeera news in the wake of the 2013 coup, for reporting without a license and aiding a terrorist organization. 
Yet each of these events have contradictory elements. What if, instead of an all-seeing government we are actually witnessing a blind Moloch? Greste was held for more than a year along with co-defendants Mohammad Fahmy (a Canadian-Egyptian) and Baher Mohammad (an Egyptian).  International pressure mounted heightening the embarrassment of the Egyptian government.  The courts refused to end the trial until finding the defendants guilty.  In the end the Egyptian government promulgated a law allowing President Sisi to deport foreigners such as Greste accused or convicted.  This face-saving allowed Greste to leave the country.  Fahmy and Mohammad were pardoned by Sisi shortly after their convictions. Soltan had been sentenced to life in prison but renounced his Egyptian citizenship and was later deported to the United States.  The policeman who shot al-Sabbagh was later sentenced to 15 years in prison for assault (which suggests he will serve about one third of the sentence). 
In short, the Sisi government not infrequently finds itself in embroiled in embarrassing situations or acts that provoke significant domestic anger or foreign scorn that it can neither contain nor repress.  The most dramatic such event was the claim by the government in 2014 that it had discovered a cure for hepatitis C, a disease of epidemic proportions in Egypt.  The bogus cure amounted to little more than metallic dowsing rods that swindlers in Iraq have also claimed can detect explosive devices under cars.  The government has since silently retired both the apparatus and its inventor while moving to provide Egyptians with an effective medication developed in the US and hoping its mis-steps would be forgotten.
Regeni’s murder, however, will not be quickly forgotten nor can it be easily fobbed off with excuses.  The inability of the Egyptian government to respond adequately to the demands of the Italian government, however, point to the contradictory nature of the case.  Regeni’s murder has provoked anger and fear but it has also produced some bewilderment. Therefore, what events of the past two months suggest is a government struggling for control and troubled as much by conflict within the ruling coalition as between that coalition and society.    
            Assuming for the sake of argument that the Egyptian police believed Regeni was himself organizing political opposition to the regime, how would they have come to that belief? The police would have already given Regeni clearance for his research since all foreign academics submit such requests to obtain visas.  Had they believed initially he was intending to agitate rather than research it is unlikely he would have received a visa. More plausibly someone among the people he studied was submitting reports to the police.  When demonstrators entered the offices of the State Security Police in Cairo in March 2011, it became apparent just how detailed (and frequently inconsequential when viewed objectively) the level of reporting was and how many records were kept on many citizens.
There is no reason to believe that such reports in police states are any more accurate than accounts of miraculous cures or membership in banned organizations.  False reports are submitted for many reasons: personal dislike, revenge, a desire to please superiors, simple malice, or even misunderstanding.  I had good reason, when I was doing research on trade union history in Egypt in the 1980s, to believe that the government was receiving copies of my correspondence and that elderly union leaders were followed to (and probably from) interviews.  The arrest and detention for over a year of Aya Hijazi, founder of the society Beladi that sought to provide aid to Cairene street children, seems to rely on false reports of trafficking and sexual abuse.  Hijazi, an American citizen, has no known connection to Egyptian political groups of any kind and none of the allegations has held up under external investigation.
Even in liberal societies such secret police reports are difficult to refute because they are hidden under a veil of secrecy.  In Egypt today and yesterday there is essentially no way to gain access to such reports and certainly no way to correct them.  If Regeni was picked up on leaving the Cairo metro in a sweep by police officers who initially had no idea who he was, his file might have contained false or misleading accounts of his activity.  If he was picked by police who already knew his identity, they might have been guided by the same kind of reports.  Regeni however would not necessarily have had any idea why he was questioned about suspicious or illegal activity and would have had no answers for an increasingly brutal and inexplicable interrogation.  Even readers of translated Egyptian fiction such as Karnak CafĂ© by the late Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz will be aware of the brutality of such interrogations and also of the casual way with the accuracy of the accusations interrogators had.
We may never know what exactly happened to Regeni in the days during which he was tortured to death.  Even with the prodding of the Italian government, Egyptian authorities refused to release information about Regeni’s cellphone calls in his last hours of freedom or the video footage that might have been available from Metro cameras.   Italian investigators claim that their Egyptian counterparts are stalling the investigation, which of course raises more suspicions.
Unlike deportations or the quick arrest and conviction of a known perpetrator the government has been unable to put Regeni’s death behind it.  The belief that the government purposely arrested Regeni and now seeks to hide the fact gains credence with the fudged explanations and foot-dragging.  More recently it has been proposed that no matter what happened to Regeni, President Sisi fears the police.  He will, it has been asserted, require the police to protect him should another round of massive demonstrations threaten to sweep him from power. 
The weakness of this account of the Regeni affair is that rarely, if ever, have the Egyptian police safeguarded an incumbent executive from mass demonstrations.  For nearly a century when kings and presidents have faced massive upheaval it was the armed forces—not the police—that intervened to protect authority.  In 1919 the British required armed columns and martial law to put down a revolutionary uprising; in 1952 martial law was again required after the burning of Cairo; in 1977 troops returned order after the government lost control of the streets during protests about the rising cost of food; in 1986 it was police units themselves rebelled and were put down by the Armed Forces; and in 2011 the police vanished leaving the army to take up positions in Cairo and Alexandria and ultimately to take direct control of the government.
            By the time mass demonstrations engulf Egypt the police will be helpless.  No matter how imperfect, corrupt and brutal, however, the police do manage to keep order in ways that the armed forces cannot in ordinary circumstances.  The withdrawal of the police, their refusal at many points in the first three years of the uprising to enforce the law, encouraged criminality and simply increased disorganization on the streets in the first years of the uprising.  The proliferation of street vendors, the illegal sale of land and construction, the occasional gunfights as criminals fought, as well as the proliferation of demonstrations were all the result of decreased police presence or the unwillingness of the police to enforce rules.   The freedom to take to the streets or the ability to buy cheap goods on the sidewalk are not equivalent to violent criminal behavior or the theft of real estate.  When the military took power in 2013 they promised to restore order and begin to solve the economic and social problems of the country.  For this they need the police.
            And yet the police have already threatened the new regime.  There are routine accounts of conflicts, including the use of weapons, between police officers and army officers.  These are, of course, isolated and individual confrontations but they suggest deep conflicts between the two security services about status and authority.  Policemen have also engaged in demonstrations against the government’s salary policy in blatant violation of the law against unauthorized demonstrations. 
The government needs the police because the armed forces can seize power but they cannot police the country.  The police suffered a historic disaster in 2011 but now they have recovered.  Thus even a military government that is on the defensive and embarrassed by the activities of the police cannot afford to look too deeply into what they do and how they do it because it cannot govern without them.  This is not to suggest that the President, his government and the military high command are innocent victims of a police conspiracy.  It is to say that they have attempted to rule a large, largely urban, and diverse country with tools that belong to a different generation and a different country—the Egypt of the mid-20th century—and that their grip on even those tools is weak.  The most important tool of a police state, the police, are now operating with little or no oversight or self-restraint. Two months ago a policeman murdered a taxicab driver in a dispute over a fare; days ago another policeman killed a vendor in a dispute over the price of a glass of tea. 
As my co-author, Hind Ahmed Zaki, and I argued in 2012 the uprising of 2011 made the issue of respect for the state and the legal system central concerns in Egypt. Our fear that the courts might begin to lose legitimacy has unfortunately been realized, but our greater fear was that the Egyptian state would be tempted to restore its authority (“haibat al-dawlah”) by force and that this would undermine the state and the very idea of the rule of law.  We did not expect that police violence of an almost random nature would come to pass, but its effects may be devastating.
The 2011 uprising was in significant measure due to concern about police brutality and Regeni’s murder in 2016, on the anniversary of the events of 2011, showed just how significant the problem of reforming and controlling the security forces remains. The image of Khaled Said’s broken face shocked members of the urban middle class who could see themselves in it.  There is every reason to believe that the image of Giulio Regeni would be, as his mother maintains, an equally powerful testament to torture and brutality on the part of the police. It has become common to say that Egypt today is more repressive than under Mubarak, but the events of the last six months suggest an even more disturbing possibility: the police are escaping from, or have already escaped from, control by Egypt’s political leadership.  If President Sisi, his government, and the armed forces cannot bring themselves to bring the police under control it may indeed be that they fear them.  They do not fear them for what might happen on the day after an uprising but because as Egyptians come to see them as simply a violent and corrupt gang, any hope of reversing the economic and political collapse of the last half decade will be utterly lost.