Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Echoes of McCarthyism bring book back to relevance

Book Review: A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, by David M. Oshinsky. 597 pages. Oxford University Press.

To the modern ear, "McCarthyism" is synonymous with "anti-Communist witch hunt." In truth, when the euphemism was current it meant more than that. Harry Truman defined it as “the corruption of truth, abandonment of the due process of law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism of security. It is the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spreading of fear and the destruction of faith in every level of our society” (348-9). If Truman’s definition is accepted, “McCarthyism” becomes familiar in 2016. While the witch hunts and shaming are no longer aimed at Communists, Senator Joe McCarthy’s tactics seem to be coming back into style, as if they’re a clothing style that has just been rediscovered.

A Conspiracy So Immense, Professor David M. Oshinsky’s tome on McCarthy and his “-ism,” delivers a detailed account of the American mood in the first half of the 1950s. With chapters on the history of American communism and journalism (which may have worked equally well as appendices), Oshinsky succeeds brilliantly at keeping the many balls in the air that brought the notorious Senator to power and eventually to censure and death. He paints a picture of a man who seemed to plan on taking power but not knowing what to do with it, almost like Heath Ledger’s analogy of a dog chasing a car in Dark Knight. If it seems long and at times disjointed (and it is almost 200 pages longer than most other academic biographies of McCarthy), it is because the extra details, explanations, and anecdotes not only make the story richer, but add a deep context that holds the attention of someone well versed on the subject while also keeping the leisure reader--a staple in the Oxford University Press market--involved no more strenuously than the most meager intellectual jog through the park.

McCarthy’s career was complicated. Chroniclers of the famed demagogue have had trouble weeding out the legends from the facts, while many revisionist apologists have attempted to contribute to something of a reclamation project of the late Senator, based on new claims that McCarthy was right about some of his victims. If new evidence has been presented on McCarthy and the subjects of his victims, that evidence did not make its way into Oshinsky’s 2007 reissue of the 1980s watermark high treatment of McCarthy. What might be more significant is that without addressing whether or not McCarthy was “right” about alleged Communists, Oshinsky seems to be arguing that whether these people were Communists or not was immaterial. What the author, and the Senators who finally stand up to McCarthy, seem to be saying is that is that while Communist subversion may be a problem, that problem can not be solved by oppression of free speech and free thought. The author is also careful to highlight, without overstating, the significance of identity politics, pointing to McCarthy’s not-so-subtle association of Communist sympathy with Judaism and “sexual perversion.”

Oshinsky manages the people of his story well, for the most part. Much like in McCarthy’s hearings, almost nobody comes out of A Conspiracy So Immense looking particularly good. President Truman appears partisan and bulldogish; President Eisenhower weak and more concerned with the image of the presidency than the state of the nation. The Democrats are presented as aware of McCarthy’s excesses early on, but fail to act in any substantial way, whereas the Republicans, equally concerned with McCarthy’s behavior, see it as a wave they can (and did) ride to the majority. Once in power, they found they couldn’t control the monster they’d made, and so most of them continued to stand by him in public, even as they grumbled in private. Even Senator Ralph Flanders of Vermont, the author of the resolution that ultimately censured McCarthy in 1954, is quoted as not wanting to help the Democrats by going after a fellow Republican. For his part, Lyndon Johnson sees McCarthy as “the Republican’s problem,” and remains silent until the last possible moment, when the die of McCarthy’s censure was already cast. All in all, McCarthy’s contemporaries struggled with a combination of disbelief, denial, party loyalty, political opportunism, and self preservation. This kind of behavior may have been hard to believe in 1983, when the book’s first edition was published, or even in 2005, when the new edition was released. It is no longer so difficult.

If A Conspiracy So Immense has shortcomings, they are few. The many characters involved in the multilayered tale drop in and out, and often disappear entirely without explanation. Senator Margaret Chase Smith, so central early on for being the first Republican to publicly denounce McCarthy in 1950, disappears from the narrative in 1952, simply declared as “probably need[ing] a rest.” Likewise, G. David Schine, the friend of McCarthy staffer Roy Cohn and apparent catalyst of McCarthy’s downfall, vanishes with the Army-McCarthy hearings. Oshinsky also makes an assertion about McCarthy’s mindset during the buildup to censure. He writes that McCarthy “had begun to think in terms of a third party movement with Joe McCarthy as the presidential nominee. He wanted his enemies to see this groundswell, and he needed to see it himself” (485-6). This assertion, while certainly good for the story, appears unsubstantiated and never again addressed. On the contrary, in the book’s conclusion Oshinsky states that McCarthy “had no desire to lead a movement, to run for higher office, or to formulate a program that went beyond the simple exposure of Communists” (507). These two seemingly contradictory statements, which are presented not as possibilities but equal truths, leaves the reader wondering which McCarthy they’d been dealing with the whole time: the scheming opportunist or the dedicated red-hunter.

The cliches that history repeats itself and that we can learn from our past to the benefit of the future are always appealing. Though, as British historian A.J.P. Taylor has suggested, trying to make judgments on the present and future based on the past is dangerous business. That said, if there is a moment where the past at least rhymes, the rise of a bombastic outsider in American politics whose arsenal consists not of actual votes or authority but bluster, smear, and vague generality devoid of evidence, it is today. In this regard, Oshinsky’s well-regarded biography, an accepted standard on McCarthyism for over thirty years, is worth dusting off, if only to show readers how far we’ve come, and how easily we can slip.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Public Enemy made me care about people who aren't like me

When I was very young, like 9 or 10, I discovered Public Enemy. An older kid in the neighborhood got me on hip-hop, and I was hooked.

Other kids in the neighborhood gravitated toward NWA. And for sure, NWA was really good. But for me, immediately, Public Enemy was what I wanted.

I'm not totally sure if I was a kid who listened to lyrics and thought about them, or if Public Enemy was a group that made me pay attention to lyrics, but however the relationship transpired (I think it was the latter), PE made me think about things that a white, middle class kid in the suburbs didn't think about naturally. The shit Flavor Flav was talking about in "I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Niga" was not exactly in the forefront in suburban Massachusetts, where minorities were legitimate novelties. In "By the Time I Get to Arizona," Chuck D forced me to confront the idea that not everyone thought MLK was awesome. PE's visual message was potent, too. Their Black Panther aesthetic didn't frighten me -- it resonated. Why were these people so angry? Everything where I was seemed pretty okay.

References in hip-hop by groups like Public Enemy made me scour my public elementary school library for what the "KKK" and "lynching" where. My teachers weren't very excited to tell me, but the librarian at Burrell Elementary School, whose name is lost to me but whose catch-phrase when classes entered -- "books on the book drop, bodies on the rug" will be emblazoned upon my memory through the later degrees of dementia -- was happy to help. There, in tiny chairs around long tables, I learned about America's history of violence and oppression. I learned that I liked history, and I felt the pangs of juvenile disappointment that Massachusetts didn't have any great battles in the Civil War to right the wrongs of my heritage. It was a long road to finding my state's role in abolition. It was a longer road to finding an appreciation in our road to independence. It was a longer road still to appreciate Boston's role in segregation well into the late 20th century, and that road led me to the social and political positions I now enjoy.

If I were to trace my growth as a person, my social interests, and my begrudging acknowledgement of privilege, I cannot say it was some great teacher I had, though it is true that I had great teachers. I cannot say that punk rock made me see them, though punk rock gave me a really personal view and helped me to relate to the struggles of others. If I was to point to what made me realize that life was easier for me for no reason at all, I'd point to Public Enemy. Those guys scared the hell out of people, but they did it with a voice that screamed equality and empowerment rather than violence and revenge. It is why, as a pre-teen, when my mother took away all my rap tapes because she was afraid of the message, I was able to convince her to let me keep Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Black. There was no misogyny there. There was no violence against innocence. Public Enemy was a call for revolution. It wasn't peaceful all the time, but it was never unjust.

25 years later, I still don't totally get how I can help stop injustice, but I do know that I am supposed to bring the noise. I know that because of Public Enemy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Value of the Internet Argument

When I was in my early twenties, I started dating the lady named Erin who would eventually marry me.

We were really different: she was from Texas, a preacher's daughter, shy, quiet, a great listener. I am not those things. For whatever reason though, we hit it off. Being with her, I was put into close proximity to the kinds of people that I had previously disregarded entirely. I had not had much interest in spending time with people who weren't like me, and didn't have many friends who were Christian, or southern, or gay, or anything but white suburban transplants that listened to punk rock and liked comic books. I certainly read a lot, and that reading shaped my views, but there was very little practical life experience to back up my thoughts on a lot of things.

Erin didn't have those hangups. She was just nice, and very patient. Because of this, though she is not religious, she still maintained relationships with people she had met through her parents' church. One of them -- probably her closest friend from church -- was a lesbian who had also lost her faith. We'll call her Annie.

Annie lived in Portland, and was just beginning to live as a gay adult in an America that wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of her having any rights at all. This unfortunate national position was compounded by a complete lack of sympathy or support for her by much of her family. Those things, along with her general demeanor and college-aged angst, made her a very emotional and stubborn person. This was a person who was much more naturally like me, but who had a serious and difficult societal barrier that I did not have, nor did I understand it.

But whatever, I'm a liberal! I support folks! Sure, I thought (and still think) that economic inequality was the main problem with society, but I'm willing to support anyone in their struggle for rights. All I required (and require) is to understand why a change is required, and I will support said change. This is what I asked of a gay woman when she started talking about trans people and bathrooms when we went to visit her for the first time.

I used that age-old trope about sexual assaults and keeping people safe. Annie kind of lost her shit about it. She got really angry. I think she yelled at me. Erin was in an awkward position, and didn't really understand the issue, either. Thankfully, this argument erupted at the very end of the visit and we were actually at our car. We sort of makeshift made up, and then Erin and I were on our way.

On the way home, I was incredulous. "How am I supposed to support an idea if I don't understand it?" I railed. Erin was good enough to just let me explode. She said that Annie was struggling with a lot of stuff, and probably wasn't up to having to deal with my constant challenges on her political ideas. This didn't really appease me. "If people want the support of non-interested people," I exclaimed, "they need to make their reasons clear." Yes, I know. I actually talked like that. I was young and VERY pretentious.

Now, looking back on this incident, I feel kind of stupid, but also pretty grateful. Back in 2005, I had to look a person who thought this issue was important for PERSONAL REASONS (Annie was dating a trans man) and argue with them about the issue of trans people using the bathroom they identified with as opposed to the bathroom they were born to. Like gender-assigned bathrooms were an integral part of western civilization or something. At the time though, I wanted to be right. Immediately afterwards, I wanted to understand. But I had no one to tell me, and I didn't know where to go, so I just kind of forgot about it.

Fast forward to now again: laws in North Carolina and Alabama are going after trans people over bathrooms, and I'm hearing the same people who I disagree with on literally every issue saying exactly what I said to Annie 11 years ago. "If you let trans people into whatever bathroom they choose, what's to stop a sexual predator from putting on a dress and going into a woman's bathroom?" Except now, I've been corrected of this logical fallacy. I don't know when it happened, but at some point between then and now, someone said to me "rapists are already breaking the law by raping. Why do you think they wouldn't just go into a woman's bathroom dressed as a man? And what about male sexual predators that target men and boys?" This very basic logic convinced me I was ABSOLUTELY wrong about the issue of trans people and bathrooms, and by the time it became a major legal issue, I was long past feeling like the sexual predator argument had any merit. Now, and for a long time, I've been with Annie on this.

So what does this have to do with the internet argument? I don't know who said the above, but I do know that I saw it on Facebook. It was one of those blowout partisan arguments that you see in your feeds all the time -- the kind of argument you have to tell yourself not to engage in. Someone was being terrible and stupid and hateful, and someone else was being terrible and stupid and hateful on the other side, and then some people were chiming in with non-sequiturs. And in that rough, somebody said something responsible.

And the reasonable thing stuck. It changed me. It made me an ally to the cause.

People often say that your opinion changes when you know somebody who is effected. I think that that is often true. In this case, it wasn't. In the years that followed the initial meeting, Annie and I became friendly; even friends. We never talked about that argument again, except once, like ten years later, and even then it was veiled. But she wasn't able to convince me, because she didn't have it in her to make that argument for the zillionth time. And very probably it is not her responsibility to do so. But it's also very hard to make the case that every citizen needs to constantly research every slight, real or imagined, by every group. In both cases we are asking too much of people.

But in the case of the internet argument, there is separation and opportunity. The one thing that flare wars on social media do well is expose people as unreasonably mean or unacceptably uninformed. And to those people, you're probably not going to make much difference. What about the lurkers, though? What about those people who are watching? To see people melt down, to have something to talk about to mutual friends, to kill time waiting for the bus, or whatever reason? What about them? According to a 2015 poll, more than half of Americans get news at least partially from social media. In a world where well designed (or even really badly designed) memes can carry the same weight as the entire White House correspondent's bullpen, engaging in the nonsense you're seeing on line might be the only chance an otherwise reasonable person might have to see a differing view from their friends list and their partisan news outlet of choice.

The evidence I have for this is circumstantial. In addition to my own change in opinion on the issue of trans rights, I've done a lot of arguing with crazy people on the internet. Sometimes I say things I shouldn't say, but I'd like to think that more often than not, I'm making a point-by-point argument or asking questions to help me better understand a position. This has paid dividends in my own social media circle. About a dozen people have messaged me to tell me I'd changed their opinion on an issue. This is, to me, a very big gesture. It's hard to admit you're wrong. I certainly have trouble doing it. But people I barely know -- people that I mostly went to high school with (I went to five high schools) and who I have never had close relationships with, but who have been "friends" or "followers" since the early days of social media when people just blanket connected with anyone they'd ever known -- have told me they understood something better because I took the time to explain it.

I feel the same way about so many people I follow, though I certainly don't tell them enough.

Social media is often a place where people can be anonymous. It is a place where people can say absolutely horrible things that they would never say to people's faces. That's certainly what it can be. But it can also be what it was designed to be: a platform for discussion and for the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and arguments. When it works that way, social media is important, and very powerful.

Annie was right all those years ago, but she couldn't convince me. And she shouldn't have to. But now that I understand, I should feel obligated to carry the weight of arguing for justice at least some of the time. Rather than looking for reasons to say "no," I should be seeking reasons to say "yes." And when I see people making a case to prevent someone else from basic rights that we take for granted, I think it is my responsibility to ask them "why." After all, my rights are not being assaulted constantly, so I can use some of my bandwidth to work talk to people about other people's problems.

Sure, I might not convince the person I'm confronting. It takes a certain kind of person to share a meme that says "Transgender people have a problem with their head, not their crotch." They may not be easily swayed. But what about their friends and family? They might still be won over by rational argument. It's all of our responsibilities to make them from time to time. Otherwise, poor Annie is going to have a heart attack having to answer every apathetic acquaintance who can't be bothered to find out why they are being so wrong.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Does Cincinnati know how good it has it?

I didn’t really set out to spend time in Cincinnati, Ohio, and my colleagues were pretty confused as to why I’d asked for the time off to go there. An old friend of mine lives there. We’d previously lived together in Boston (where I still live), and she has since lived in Florida, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. My wife and I had visited her in all of those places, and had predictable responses to each (in order: vom; wow; cars-and-famous-people-are-everywhere). I’ve kicked around a lot of American cities over the years, and have consequently gotten pretty good at assessing places before I get to them. I had read up on blogs and Yelp, looked at maps, googled bars, cafes, and cultural institutions, and spied a Flcker account or two. I was not anticipating a particularly good time in the land of Johns Cranley & Kasich, and maybe those low expectations helped. But hot damn, if Cincinnati, Ohio isn’t one of the most promising places I’ve visited!

I should clarify: I spent almost all of my time in Over-the-Rhine (OTR), which, I suppose, most closely parallels Boston’s Back Bay/Downtown. This comparison is far from perfect. “What about the other neighborhoods?” you might ask. “The higher end part of town is all well and good, but what about where people are struggling?” This is a fair question, and one that people I spoke to in OTR were definitely talking about. But let’s talk about what “higher end” means in Cincinnati: the friend we were visiting lives between the 12th and 13th Streets, flanked by Main and Vine. She walks to work, can walk to baseball and football games, art galleries and museums, cafes, bars, clubs, theaters, parks, the river, and an array of (mostly local) stores offering everything from freshly made dog food to high end appliances. The big complaint is the absence of a good grocery store (though there is a pretty terrible Kroger’s nearby). While the lack of a grocery store is a big problem, it is also one that the residents of Downtown Boston suffered from until a Roche Bros. finally opened up in Downtown Crossing just over a year ago.

The above amenities make OTR a desirable location by most urban living measurements. It is also a location she pays less than $800 for. Sure, her apartment is technically a “studio” with an attic and it’s below market rate, but it also costs less than half of what I pay for a below market apartment seven miles outside of downtown Boston, and while I technically live in a one-bedroom with an office, her apartment was actually bigger than mine, and if it were in Boston, it would be advertised as “huge open floor plan with secret office space.” Comparable apartments are available in Over-the-Rhine for around a grand, which will get you a room with some roommates in Boston. While the clear drivers of Boston’s housing discrepancy with Cincinnati are colleges and jobs, it’s worth noting that Cincinnati’s unemployment rate (4.5%) isn’t much higher than Boston’s (3.7%). It is also lower than the national average (5%). Boston’s glut of students, compounded by higher paid hospital workers, is causing a housing crisis. Meanwhile, Cincinnati has a sea of vacant buildings begging to be filled.

But let’s skip the economics for a bit. Let’s assume that you’re young(ish), educated, and employable. In Cincinnati, you can afford to live in the middle of everything, and despite what you might think (and what I definitely thought), the middle of everything is actually a lot in Queen City.

Day-to-day stuff to do

Neon's Famous Unplugged. Dogs welcome.
(photo credit: Neon's)
First, nightlife: There is a dizzying number of good bars and restaurants in OTR. Places like Neon’s offers a huge patio that welcomes dogs and giant Jenga games. Instead of a regular menu, owners invite different local restaurants to use their food prep space. We chowed on some excellent tacos there and drank a few Nati-native beers among punks and parents of more races and ethnicities than any bar or restaurant I’ve been to north of NYC. Motr Pub handed us live brass bands, turn-of-the-century hardcore, and beat poetry within a 72 hour span, all for free. There were tasty bowls of ramen, weird Mexican food-concoctions called “turtles,” and better pizza than I’ve had in most of Boston. Almost everything was available at later hours than anywhere in my current neighborhood is open. It's like closing before 1AM wasn’t allowed in most of the town. I also saw groups of ladies in dance club uniforms, so I assume that kind of thing is available, if you are into that sort of thing.

A Whirlwind through Arts & Culture

But how’s the culture game? Well, it’s stellar, actually. Cincinnati is crawling with art galleries and studios, featuring some really great stuff. Places like the Contemporary Arts Center may not be able to keep up with the MOMA or Boston’s ICA, but they do a pretty damn solid service, and they’re right downtown. Plus CAC is free. You know what else is free? The Cincinnati Art Museum. This place is genuinely impressive. While it also doesn’t quite have the star power of a Boston Museum of Fine Arts, it does feature some minor works of major artists. It’s real glory is in its major works of minor artists. While CAMs Van Goghs and Picassos aren’t going to floor you, the 30 Americans exhibit, featuring works by people I’d previously never seen or heard of, is more than worth a look. The Cincinnati exhibit is also aces, highlighting the city’s dedication to the coexistence of arts with labor and the importance of philanthropy. While it could be said that Cincinnati’s mayor and governor could both use a refresher course on those ideas, the same is being said in some corners of the art community about Mayor Walsh of Boston and Governor Baker in Massachusetts. All of them might consider taking in the message of Clement Barnhorn's Industry Protecting Art and Music, which beautifully and concisely captures the relationship between art and labor viscerally.
Industry Protecting Art and Music,
Cincinnati Art Museum.
(Photo credit: Wikicommons)

The museums housed by the Cincinnati Museum Center may not have been quite so excellent, but even here there are praiseworthy moments, starting with the beautiful art deco building that houses them and including a reproduction of a city block of 19th century Cincinnati’s Main Street that literally lets you walk into a lost world. Where these museums fall flat (likely due to lack of funding for updates), the Cincinnati History Museum’s volunteers certainly step up. Both friendly and knowledgeable, they guide visitors to some easy-to-miss must-sees like a real shrunken-head or the operational 19th century printing presses operated by an equally ancient printer.

Bibliophiles will also find their havens throughout OTR. The Ohio Book Store is reminiscent of Boston's Brattle Bookstore, but in a much larger space, and lovers of the Atheneaum will find highbrow solace in the Mercantile Library, well hidden on the 11th floor of a business district building.

And can we talk about murals for a second? Being from Boston, I do not like them. Every once in a while we get a good one, but the conservative tastes of our City on a Hill have worked against interesting work with even a hint of perceived controversy (see examples here and here). Instead, Boston's walls are often left with neutral and often amateurish themes. While there is certainly a place for encouraging children to make art, that place might not always be on the walls of heavy traffic areas.

Cincinnati's murals do not suffer from these problems. Predominantly created by a group called Artworks, Cincinnati's murals touch on a variety of themes and figures, including one of local political semi-crank Jim Tarbell in a top hat. Having this figure on a main street seems, if I understand the local explanation of Mr. Tarbell correctly, would be similar to Boston putting up a monument of Maura Healey arm-in-arm with Vermin Supreme.

Cincinnati puts its fringe politicians and
championship boxers on buildings.
(Photo credit: Artworks Cincinnati)
These bright, well-executed works of art combine with colorful row houses to make virtually every street pop. Even on streets with multiple vacants, boards over windows and doors are painted to look as if they are occupied. It's a little thing, but it's the difference between feeling like you're in a post-apocalyptic city and one that is being lived in and improved upon.

The real win for Cincinnati

All of this stuff is great, but it’s also just a collection of the impressions of a tourist. The question I kept asking at these places was “can someone really live here.” That’s what I really wanted to know. It seems that the answer is “yes” for a certain kind of person: the I-want-to-do-something person.

From the coffee shops to the galleries to the stores, I found the same thing -- the owners were there and they were working. People in Cincinnati who want to do something seem to be able to do it pretty easily, or at least more easily than in Boston. With what seems like very little capital, people can start up shops and stops that may not be able to generate the revenue to be sustainable in the Brooklyns or Jamaica Plains of America. And whereas many cities don’t have the populations to support art galleries, specialty cafes, locally owned bookstores or letterpress shops in any form, Cincinnati appears to be in that sweet spot where people who want to do stuff can afford to and people who would enjoy that stuff are there in numbers large enough to support those makers-of-things. This is a rare and special special thing -- many cities never experience it and those that do can only do it for a few years. Cincinnati may be in that latter camp. Nothing gold can stay. But for now a good, hearty bronze crown is on the Queen City. It didn’t make me want to move there, but it certainly made me wonder why I was still here. When other cities could so illustratively offer so much more bang-for-buck, what's the incentive of the Bostonian to stay? Unless you're very rich, very connected, or have some kind of super-understanding I can't fathom, Boston seems to be pretty well shaped, its residents end up bystanders who pay top dollar for the privilege. In Cincinnati, a few bucks and a whole lot of hustle might just be enough to pursue your dreams, or at least your business. And that's worth quite a lot.