Reviewed: Before Church and State

Jones, Andrew Willard. Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX. Steubenville: Emmaus Academic, 2017.

 

In his new book on the social structures of thirteenth-century France, historian Andrew Jones proposes a reevaluation of Louis IX’s kingdom on its own terms. Jones maintains that when historians have approached medieval French society with modern categories they have produced work that is genealogical rather than historical, and they have done much more to explain the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than to explain the thirteenth century. The two modern concepts that Jones shows are not present in medieval France are the secular-religious divide and sovereignty. Quite distinct from most modern political systems which separate Church and State, “thirteenth-century France was not a world of the secular and the religious vying for power, but a world in which the material and the spiritual were dependent on each other and penetrated one another at every level.” (20) Jones wants historians to abandon using terms such as “religious,” “secular,” “Church,” and “State” in their modern contexts when discussing the Middle Ages, for these categories did not exist then. This also means that the popular narrative of various kings vying with the papacy needs nuance, for the secular and religious, were often so entwined in medieval kingdoms that anything but a cooperative relationship between king and pope does not compute. Also, modern conceptions of sovereignty which posit that the state holds a monopoly on violence cannot be found in the Middle Ages. Louis IX’s kingdom was conceived as a kingdom of peace, but one that was consistently rent by sin and violence.

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This work taken from St. Louis Bible depicts Louis IX (right) and his mother Blanche of Castille (left). Blanche acted as regent of the realm until 1234.

Jones arrived at this alternative historical approach to the thirteenth century France by incorporating the work of various disciplines. Though his dissertation was on the kingdom of Louis IX, he often felt that as a historian his work was isolated and that he was missing many things. In the years since completing his Ph.D., he has been dramatically influenced by the work of theologians, philosophers, and sociologists of the Middle Ages. Jones especially draws from theologian Henri de Lubac’s idea of the “complete act,” meaning that a world makes sense on its terms. Just as modern society is a complete act and has its explanations of its origins, thirteenth century France also had its ideas of itself and formed a complete act. It is this complete act that Jones seeks to reveal to the modern reader. Throughout the book, Jones wishes to counter the secularization thesis put forward by scholars like sociologist Philip Gorski who maintain that medieval kings and popes were entirely distinct. On the contrary, Jones reveals that thirteenth century France was a “most Christian kingdom,” not a state with a Christian ideology, but a fundamentally Christian entity. (33)

 

Essential to understanding the complete act of thirteenth-century France is the concept of negotium pacis et fidei, the business of the peace and the faith. This was the “name used for the activities of the Crown, the Roman Church, and their allies in the South of France.” (49) Jones offers a rereading of the infamous Albigensian Crusade through an explication of the business of the peace and the faith. Historians have typically interpreted the crusade as an endeavor to wipe out the heretical Cathars, but Jones complicates this reading. The south of France was full of rebels as well as heretics, and they were constantly fighting and seizing land and property. In 1226, French law codified that “heretics were rebels and rebels were heretics, and both were excommunicated.” (77) Rebels and heretics both upset the peace of the king and were both subject to the excommunication of the church. Both crown and church worked together to end these dual threats. The 1229 Council of Toulouse which stated that “Anyone who broke the peace or made war was to be excommunicated and everyone was to make war on them and their lands,” confounds reading the times through modern categories. (82) The business of the peace and the faith was a pursued jointly by King and Church.

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Expulsion of the Cathars from Carcassonne in 1209. Cathars were a neo-Gnostic and theistic dualists religious movement within Catholicism that gained influence in Southern France during the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The group was the primary target of the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229).

Historians have traditionally illustrated the conflict between the secular and religious in Louis IX’s kingdom by contrasting the Church’s inquisitors with the royal enqueteurs. Louis appointed the enqueteurs to travel France and right wrongs perpetrated by him or his forefathers. They primarily investigated property confiscations and “conducted thorough investigations of whatever they found and compelled the royal officials to make restitution.” (99) Most historians draw a sharp distinction between the inquisitors and enqueteurs, but Jones argues that they often did the same kind of work. Not only were most of the enqueteurs monks, but one of the first enqueteurs, Gui Foucois, later became Pope Clement IV. Since most property confiscations involved the seizure of heretics’ property, “the enqueteurs needed to determine whether the person from whom a confiscation was made was a heretic or somehow associated with heresy.” (132) The work of the enqueteurs therefore closely resembled the work of the inquisitors, and often they were the same people. Jones concludes that the sharp contrast between the two institutions is unfounded: “There was not a legal, an institutional, a personal, or a conceptual hard break between the inquisitors and the enqueteurs.” (149)

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Sketch of Pope Clement IV (Gui Foucois). Before his ascendence to the papacy, Foucois was  one of the first enqueteurs under the employ of Louis IX. Photo credit: Amazonaws.com 

The other glaring difference between the modern world and medieval France lies in sovereignty. In our world, the State is the “source of organized and legitimate force.” (181-182) Historians usually tell the story of medieval France as a conflict between the Church and the King about who will be the ultimate sovereign, the source of legitimate force. Jones argues that there was no conception of sovereignty in thirteenth-century France, and that “There was a great deal of space and thousands upon thousands of unique actors with masses of disconnected rights and liberties.” (225) Instead of the sovereignty of power, there was justice, which different actors tangibly held depending on context. The king had no exclusive claim of violence, and the right to force was sub-divisible. What governed society was consilium et auxilium (advice and aid), networks of friendship between various lords, nobles, churchmen, and the king.

 

Though his book does upend many historical narratives about medieval France, Jones does not want to delegitimize previous scholarship. He maintains that much of this work has been primarily beneficial for understanding our modern world. He does think, however, “that much work in this field has been handicapped by a matrix of categories and concepts that almost compels a certain narrative structure.” (32) By attempting to reveal the complete act of Louis IX’s sacramental kingdom, Jones hopes to free scholarship go in new directions.

 

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Plunkitt of Tammany Hall

George Washington Plunkitt and William L. Riordon. Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Palin Talks on Very Practical Politics, with an Introduction by Peter Quinn. New York, NY, USA: Signet Classics, New American Library, Penguin Group. (1905, 100th Anniversary Edition 1995)

I got this book about political ethics and philosophy out of a large pile of free books at the beginning of the fall semester, but you can find it on Amazon for between five and seven dollars depending on edition, or for free at marxists.org. That it’s on marxists.org is more a sign of that website’s plurality of resources than anything. This is not a Marxist text, and George Washington Plunkitt was not, in any traditional sense, a Marxist.

Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics is essentially wha it sounds like. My Signet Classics edition includes an introduction by Peter Quinn, and Amazon has a newer edition which includes a new afterword from Phillip Freeman, but the bulk of the brief book’s chapters are talks by George Washington Plunkitt, as recorded by William L. Riordon. Plunkitt was leader of the Fifteenth Assembly District in New York, Sachem of the Tammany Society, and at one time the holder of four public offices at once (though he had the good decency to only draw salaries from three of the four).

The first chapter is the talk “Honest and Dishonest Graft,” wherein the foundation of the political philosophy of George Washington Plukitt is layed out, perhaps best-summarized in the epitaph he proposes for himself, “He Seen His Opportunities and He Took ‘Em.” The crux of the chapter is that politicians’ first responsiblity is to help their constituents, but that it is fully wihtin their rights to make a profit on the side.

Throughout the book, the rhetoric is much the same. Plunkitt has very pronounced opinions and he expresses them on a range of topics which not only inform the political historical moment of the United States in the late-19th century but also implicitly explain some contemporary political machinery. The alleged political chicanery of the DNC conspiring against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential preliminaries (CNN, Politico), for instance, or the recent decision of the Democratic Party higher-ups to play against their base in the coming midterm elections (The Intercept) are both exemplary of Plunkitt’s declarations in “Bosses Preserve the Nation” (p. 76-78) that it is the job of the ensconced political class to pick the country’s leaders.

The book is a terrific historical artifiact; a primary source of remarkable value for anyone trying to reconstruct the nature of late 19th century politics in the United States, and New York especially. “Plunkitt’s Fondest Dream” (p. 62-64) is about his belief that Manhattan would be better served as a polity independent of Upstate/West New York which he considers a leech on his prosperous city. “Brooklynites: Natural-Born Hayseeds” (p. 40-43) is his denunciation of those folks form the then-recently-incorporated borough. A backwards sort of progressive ideology (or simple racially-tinged irony) is evident in the last sentence of its first paragraph, “Even a Jap or a Chinaman can become a New Yorker, but a Brooklynite never can.” It otherwise largely avoids the sort of casual racism and misogyny laced throughout older texts, right up until the final Plunkitt-orated chapter, “A Parting Word on the Future of the Democratic Party in America,” when he refers to the indigenous people of the Philipines as “the niggers in the pacific” (p. 83).

While Plunkitt is doubtless given to hyperbole, stretching the truth, or otherwise massaging facts, he is nonetheless consistent in expressing to his audience a representation of New York and U.S. politics that he considers appropriate, regardless of accuracy. To this man’s mind and voice, the Tammany Hall Society never did anything wrong; it only got good bills passed, provided jobs to constituents, and got qualified Democrats in office.

While we may have some misgivings about his financial ethics with regard to prior comments about turning a profit in legitimate business as a result of policy decisions, Plunkitt nonetheless has some sound political advice. The second chapter, “How to Become a Statesman” (p. 7-10) talks about developing the skill of cultivating the “valuable commodity” (p. 9) of votes. Chapters eight and nine, “Ingratitude in Politics” (p. 32-35) and “Reciprocity in Patronage” warns against forgetting the people that get you elected. Chapters eleven and twelve, “Tammany Leaders Not Bookworms” (44-47) and “Dangers of the Dress Suit in Politics” (48-50) stress the importance of getting to know your constituents and not putting on airs about them.

The last chapter might be the most remarkable, because it deigns to give credence to some earlier claims. Called “Strenuous Life of the Tammany District Leader,” (p. 85-92) it begins with a note from William L. Riordon that “this chapter is based on extracts from Plunkitt’s diary and on my daily observation of the work of the district leader.” For whatever his faults and vices were, he certainly did make a good show of being a man of the people.

Outside research is probably necessary to fully-contextualize all of the advice and anecdotes in the book. It is as close to an unfiltered take from a politician as we are likely to ever get, and so George Washington Plunkitt probably was not overly-concerned in 1905 as to explaining what he means by “imperialism” and “the gas bill” and other such unqualified terms. It would be obvious to his readership then. It is nonetheless an interesting snapshot into a the United States on the rise, before The Great War, The Great Depression, World War II, and the other factors of the American Century. Equal parts innocent and illicit, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall is a quick page-turner; a breeze to read and of indubitable historical, political, and philosophical value.

Reviewed #4: Hillary Clinton’s Body (of Words): A Review of What Happened

 

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Cover of What Happened

 

Americans are living during an administration–and in a historical moment–that few could have imagined several years before. Except for the current chief executive, perhaps no one is more surprised at the current circumstances than Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believed she would be the forty-fifth and first female president. Last year, she wrote and published What Happened, a memoir of her experiences during the campaign. As she explains in her “Author’s Note,” the book is “is my story of what happened.”[1] It is not an exclamation or question asking how this all came to pass, as people on the internet have prolifically joked about, but rather a statement. Clinton wants to convey her narrative to present day and future generations, feeling that “we have a responsibility to history–and to a concerned world–to set the record straight.[2] What Happened is an early entry in what is likely to become an extensive popular and scholarly historiography of the 2016 presidential election. Thus, she offers this book, or body of words, up for scrutiny just like she, her record and even her body, were during the election.

What Happened is a primary source in that it was written by a participant in the events it covers. However, since it was written after the election concluded, it does have the bias and benefit of hindsight and is noticeably shaped by Clinton’s frustration at her loss (and at former FBI director, James Comey). She structures the book thematically, breaking it down into six sections: Perseverance, Competition, Sisterhood, Idealism and Realism, Frustration, and Resilience. Perseverance, Sisterhood, and Resilience focus on internal motivations, while Competition, Idealism and Realism, and Frustration focus on outside influence and factors in the campaign. Clinton’s female gender and the treatment of it were significant factors in the campaign, and it also a major theme of the work. Clinton even dedicates an entire chapter, “Making History” to the importance of her being a viable female candidate. She also addresses her belief that sexism and misogyny contributed to her loss. This is evident when discussing her motivations for running president, couching her desire to be president regarding wanting to improve the lives of Americans, and how her previous accomplishments would have helped her to the job. She remarks: “In short, I thought I would be a damn good president,” and is resentful of the media’s questioning of her motives that implied they thought she had “some dark ambition” and craving for power.[3] It is a given that anyone who wants to be president has ambition, it is not exactly an entry-level position. However, ambition is not viewed as appealing in females, and especially such a grand ambition as being president. Another common theme through the book is Clinton’s anger with James Comey, and it should be interesting to see if he rebuts any of her complaints in his upcoming memoir, A Higher Loyalty. Overall, the memoir is even-handed, considering the psychological turmoil Clinton must have undergone when losing to Donald Trump in the electoral college. Another instance of a qualified woman losing to an unqualified man.

What Happened was not the only work to address the issue of sexism in the 2016 election and Clinton mentions explicitly two works by historian that do: Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, and Mary Beard’s “Women in Power,” first published in the London Review of Books and later in Beard’s book, Women, and Power.[4] “Women in Power” first printed in March 2017, and examined women, relationships to power to unpack perceptions of women in power. Bordo’s book came out in April and examined how a negative narrative about Clinton shaped by sexism was a major factor in Clinton’s press treatment and eventual loss. Bordo’s previous book was The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, and she compares Clinton and Boleyn, as victims of gossip and false narratives, “a poisonous alchemy” that shaped views on both women. Bordo also points out how the seemingly unlimited things Hillary is blamed for or supposed to control, is reminiscent of the older, nontraditional woman as witch archetype.[5] These analyses represent an academic complement to Clinton’s memoir and support it by reaching similar conclusions on the role of sexism, conclusions that were apparent to many women during the campaign.

One prominent theme, if not necessarily a conscious choice by Clinton, is the importance of Clinton’s biologically female body and its contrast with the biologically male bodies of all other presidents, and most presidential candidates. The biologically male body, because it has a penis, conveys virility, i.e., strength, which have become concepts Americans expect in their president. A biologically female body, with breasts and a vagina all, meanwhile can imply multiple things at multiple times: fecundity, sexuality, a maternal nature, uncleanliness, weakness, and after menopause, lack of reproductive/sexual use. For Clinton, the perceived weakness of the female body, as well as its lack of virility were the most salient issues. Critiques of her fainting at the 9/11 memorial event were crouched regarding health concerns but reflected the belief of woman as the “weaker sex/weaker vessel,” when debating if she was strong enough to be president. Clinton’s female body was not always indirectly referred to; Clinton recalls that in his convention speech, her husband, Bill Clinton, mentioned her water breaking when she was pregnant with the couple’s daughter Chelsea in 1980 and that it was probably the first time that was said of a presidential candidate.[6]

Clinton’s femaleness also influenced how her opponent verbally and physically related to her. Trump remarked that Clinton did not have the stamina to be president and did not look presidential, and his chauvinist and misogynist rhetoric fed into and incite similar sentiments in his supporters. The oft-repeated phrase “Lock Her Up” reflected the desire to control Clinton, by physically imprisoning her. Trump supporters also used misogynistic language to sell products with slogans like “Trump that Bitch.” In What Happened, Clinton correctly cites real products that feature her as the severed head Medusa, held aloft by a victorious Trump as Perseus, but misidentifies the venue that sold them, which led to claims she was not truthful.[7] However, Mary Beard references the same products and their prominence online, noting: “[T]his scene of Perseus-Trump brandishing the dripping, oozing head of Medusa-Clinton was very much a part of the everyday, private American decorative world. You could buy it on T-shirts and tank tops. On coffee mugs, on laptop sleeves and tote bags (sometimes with the logo TRIUMPH, sometimes TRUMP.”[8] It is still available today. As Americans would learn during the release of a 2005 tape, Trump has no respect for the female body and the autonomy of the women to whom it belongs.

 

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Trump As Perseus, Eyeimagined, Red Bubble.

 

Even before the release of the Access Hollywood or “Grab ‘em by the pussy” tape, Clinton’s team prepped for the possibility that instead of the traditional handshake between men, Trump would attempt an embrace or kiss. This gesture would be performed “not out of affinity or chivalry, but rather to create a moment where he would tower over me [Clinton], making it clear he was a guy and I was a girl.”[9] Trump’s height would imply as a male that he was tall and strong, and Clinton small and weak. More sinisterly, a successful kiss or hug would imply the traditional idea of men as sexual actors, and women as the passive sexual objects. Mercifully, no kiss or embrace was attempted. However, given Trump’s continued obsession with Clinton and his popular vote loss, as well as his alpha male tendencies, I think he retains, at best, an infatuation with her, and at worst, a primal urge to vanquish her completely, i.e., sexually. To Trump, Clinton is a combination of the worst kinds of women, those who reject his sexual advances, and those who reject what he views as his male superiority. She is beyond his mental and physical reach and control

 

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The author and Hillary Clinton, Oct. 2016.

 

The female body also came into play when opponents of Clinton reduced the diverse reasons (cis)women supported her to genitalia, with the lovely term “vagina voters.” I am sure plenty of men voted for Trump and Bernie partially out of a shared gender, but you never hear the term penis poll-goer, do you?  “Vagina Voters” also erases the other groups of people who supported Clinton and the fact that there plenty of serious reasons one can want a female candidate because she is female, such as the ability to have a personal understanding and stake in fighting gender discrimination and women’s reproductive health issues. Additionally, it is hard to understand how deeply meaningful having a female president is, especially to older women, when all the others have shared your gender, and if you are white, your race. As important as Clinton’s body of words and work are to her success and losses, it is incorrect to discount the role her female body played in her loss. I am half-joking, half-serious, but if a president is allowed to allude to having a “bigger nuclear button,” which we all know is a phallic allusion, can Clinton or another female presidential candidate possibly do a rousing speech and similar gesture to what is seen in Showtime’s The Borgias.  Visually and forcefully, Clinton or the hypothetical female candidate could assert that, yes, she does not have a penis, but that does not mean she is weak. Just because Caterina Sforza never did it historically, doesn’t mean they cannot, though over the pantsuit may be best.

Submitting her words, and by extension herself, Clinton’s goal in publishing What Happened merely is presenting her version of events, aware that it is unlikely to change opinions about her. The reception of the book proved this, with devotees lining up or shelling out lots of money to meet her, and detractors mercilessly mocking its title and contents. As she expresses in her book, Clinton is committed to remaining politically active, even if she does not run for office again. This desire and her erstwhile opponent’s fixation on her makes it certain that she will remain the United States’ most famous/infamous woman for many years to come. There is still plenty that can happen in her life.

 

[1] Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2017), xi.

[2] Ibid., xii.

[3] Ibid., 39-40.

[4] Clinton, What Happened, 126. See Susan Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton (New York, NY: Melville House, 2017). & Mary Beard, “Women in Power,” in  Women and Power: A Manifesto (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Co., 2017): 47-92.

[5] Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, 14-19.

[6] Clinton, What Happened, 144.

[7] Ibid., 126.

[8] Beard, “Women in Power,” 76.

[9] Ibid., 106.

Reviewed #3: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

I have only just now finished Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff, named for a vague threat Mr. President made toward Kim Jong-Un and North Korea. Released a week ago today – and inadvertantly recommended to me by a former-teacher that compared its content to the horrors of a Stephen King novel – the book tells the story of the first year (or first three-quarters of the year) of the Trump White House. In this nonfiction story of novel-quality entertainment, Wolff shines a light on the happenings in the United States and the world at large by showing us the role of the Donald J. Trump U.S. Presidential Administration as catalyst of, and reactor to, these events. Taken all together, in a near-summary form with elucidating scenes and quotes from private interviews, it is not nearly as jarring as following the news every day has been. One could say that this is the blessed serene value of history; even the most incredible and terrifying events are more-calmly understood and analyzed with the luxury of time for reflection. But whether one would call this oral history (I might), popular history (I probably would not), a journalist exposé (eh), or something else entirely, what it is is a factual recounting of a brief and trying time in U.S. history; a truly inside view of something so incredible one can hardly believe it to be real.

The prologue is called “Ailes and Bannon” and the epilogue “Bannon and Trump,” so it may be obvious from the outset that Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist and Trump-for-president campaign manager, is a key to how Michael Wolff sees this White House. He is probably a key to how we all see this White House, this alt-right ideologue that saved the floundering campaign. I expected he would appear quite a bit in the story, and he does; boisterous, angry, arrogant, and often profane. I did not expect I would occasionally empathize with him. Irrespective of his policy positions, he somehow comes across in the book as the most-qualified non-general in the administration, despite his relative-newness to official politics. This is – at least in part – because the Trump campaign did not expect to win the election, and when they got there they were – and apparently remain – unprepared to govern. They very much do not look like they know what they are doing, even less-so from this book than from our general perspectives. Frankly, the most optimistic conclusion from reading the book might be that they are far too inept to be engaging in any sinister conspiracies.

The Trump White House tried to block the release of the book, but they were unsuccessful. It is easy enough to see why. Michael Wolff highlights the infighting we all knew about, but gives it clarity. The book is truly insightful in the way that, from its outset, it exposes the incestuous networks of the super-rich and powerful, and the circular career cycles inside the Capital Beltway. The book does not overtly focus on the mating and socializing habits of the most affluent Americans, but they nonetheless are unequivocally a central part of the story, because this is the story of unqualified rich people attempting to run the federal government. We do learn early-on about Trump’s extramarital fornicating, of his platonic relationships with Rupert Murdoch (owner of News Corporation) and Murdoch’s former-protégé Roger Ailes (the former head of FOX News) among others, and of his ‘semiliteracy’. The current president of the United States is “proud of never going to class, never buying a textbook, never takinga note” (p. 188, from chapter 14, “Situation Room”), which at the very least makes me curious how he has a Bachelors in Economics. His feeling that there is little use in winning if you cannot give jobs to your friends reminds me a bit of the first chapter of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, “Honest Graft and Dishonest Graft,” about the practical virtue of patronage and the spoils system.

Besides not expecting to see Bannon as among the most intelligent and situationally-aware members of the administration (and it is certainly true that he is also an egotist and that any perspective of Bannon reflecting sober thought is relative and due to the simultaneously arrogant-and-insecure actions of his confederates), I did not expect to feel sympathy for Sean Spicer. Spicer, for all the distaste some of us might have for his mumbling lies in his time as White House Press Secretary, was one of many political operatives that reluctantly signed-on for the job out of a sense of optimism and – perhaps – civic duty. He was worn down – like many now-former members of the Trump camp – by the inability of anyone to handle the President. And, it turns out, the hiring of Anthony Scaramucci was seen as a boon for him; a floatation device, a parachute. Interestingly, Bannon predicted that Scaramucci – a press secretary that did not have to answe

“Jarvanka,” a term coined by Bannon to refer to the centrist-Democratic couple holed-up in the White House, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, are at times sympathetic because of their initial drive to draw DJT – as the President is sometimes regarded in the text – away from his Bannonite base toward the center. Unfortunately, their general ineptitude and inevitable selfishness – engineering the Comey firing to protect their business interests, for instance – lands them in the same pile of fools as the majority of characters the book’s audience is introduced to. They are also a problem because they are representative of the broad disorganization of this White House; one without a clear chain-of-command. Reince Priebus was supposed to be Chief of Staff but Bannon was a Chief Strategist that did not have to answer to him. The leader from the establishment right and the leader from the alt-right initially hated each other but bonded over “their antipathy toward Jarvanka,” (173, from “Bannon Agonistes) who – while technically only regular staffers, as John Kelly made a point to remind him on his appointment as Chief of Staff – had direct and unmitigated access to the President by virtue of blood and marriage.

Richard Spencer is mentioned, not as a Trump ally, but as a representative of the brand of ethno-nationalists claiming Trumpism as their ideology. Milo Yiannopoulos is also mentioned. Nearly everyone you can imagine as being reflective of or connected to the Trump campaign and administration is mentioned. Funnily enough, the Trump sons – mentioned very briefly in the first two chapters – are only close to critically-important in the chapter relating to the revelation of a meeting much of the family had with Russian businesspersons alleging to have damning information about Hillary Clinton. The only clear conclusion is that they tried and failed to do something foolish and underhanded, but Wolff offers some competing theories.

Without delving too much more into spoilers, it is clear that Wolff’s understanding of Donald J. Trump is that the man has no political principles. He just wants to be liked. He does not understand why he is not universally beloved. He lives for applause. He forgets some of the inadvisable things he tweets. He stays up late at night on complaining phone calls with various close friends and media acquaintances. “[W]hile he was often most influenced by the last person he spoke to, he did not actually listen to anyone.” (71) I have often speculated whether the real Washington DC was closer to House of Cards or Scandal or The West Wing, but it seems that is without a doubt closest to HBO’s Veep. Like that show, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is a tale of ambition and incompetence, vitriol and forgiveness, and – most of all – accidental presidencies.

If Michael Wolff or someone else had released a book of this content eighteen months ago, it would seem like an impossibly funny harbinger of doom. Instead, it is a darkly-funny reflection of political incompetence and infighting. It is a remarkable true story, with attributed quotes and acknowledgments of fact checkers and libel lawyers. One weakness of the book might be that it does not delve into economic conspiracy, i.e. many alarmist naysayers might have thought – or think – that Donald Trump’s every move regarding appointed positions has reflected only an effort at putting rich people in a position to become richer. However, that is rather a nitpick of someone seeking an investigation into the economic effects of Trump’s White House on the businesses of himself, his family, and friends. That was not the focus of this book, and I am nearly certain that such a book is forthcoming by some other author.

Fire and Fury reminds me of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series because it is engaging, about politics, and I read it on my Kindle. Moreover, perhaps Trump is comparable to King Joffrey Baratheon for his need to be adored and obeyed, as well as his short temper and general lack of decorum. Unfortunately, while that is a series of stories set in a make-believe world, with an executive council at least capable of making some productive decisions while the bored chief-executive is engaging in nonsense, this is a true story. While it is engaging enough to rise in me a similar anticipation for the next installment, upon reflection it also inspires rather more anxiety than excitement. This book is nothing if not an indictment of the people within and surrounding the most important offices in the highest place of government in the United States. Michael Wolff is as evenhanded as he could probably manage, aptly pointing out hypocrisies of the liberal elite when necessary. This is a book about politics, but it is in no way partisan. It is, at worst, generally skeptical, shining a light on the ludicrousness of the “swamp” that Mr. Trump seems to be having trouble draining. Mr. Wolff has nonetheless laid bare ample evidence that President Donald J. Trump was not prepared to take the White House as his home or the responsibilities that come with it, and that he has shown no capacity to grow into the role.

A Look Inside the Betsy Ross House

“A Look Inside the Betsy Ross House” by Tom Snow

In her article “How Betsy Ross Became Famous”, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich claims that the story of Betsy Ross making the flag is no more credible than the one of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. She goes on to complain how popular the legend has become, including the fact that the “supposed Betsy Ross House”, as she calls it, remains the third most visited historic site in Philadelphia. As someone who works at the “supposed Betsy Ross House”, I was frustrated that the article so badly misjudged the mission statement of the museum, which has little to do with the story of Betsy Ross making the flag. Lisa Acker-Moulder, the museum’s director, states that the purpose of the museum is to show visitors what life was like for ordinary people who lived during the Revolution. “The traditional behind-the-velvet-rope furniture tours of “dead white guys’ ” homes are becoming irrelevant”, she says, as they do not portray how people actually lived. “To break down these barriers, we must connect the stories that we’re interpreting to contemporary issues. A great way to do this is to encourage the visitors to make a connection to our sites by creating spaces that feel more authentic.” As a result, visitation to the Betsy Ross House has gone up every year, despite an overall decrease in the visitation of historic houses.

When visitors arrive at the museum, they have a chance to take a tour of the original house that was built in the 1740s. Before going into the house, visitors can first explore the gallery, where Collections Manager Kim Staub puts on a different exhibit every year. This year’s is called “Historic Threads: 250 Years of Flag Making in Philadelphia,” which, according to Staub, “tells the story of Philadelphia being a hub for flag-making since the Revolutionary period.” Staub says the exhibit is not just about flags, but also about the role women had in making them. “Women like Betsy Ross, women like the women who today still stitch and embroider flags at the Defense Logistics Agency,” Staub said, “the women who stitched in these private warehouses, you know, we have their names in a register, but otherwise they’re largely unknown.”

The first room visitors see when they enter the house is the parlor, which is where Washington allegedly asked Ross to make the flag. After that, tourists get to climb up the narrow, spiral staircase that was common in colonial row homes, and many appreciate just how difficult something as routine as climbing the stairs was for people back then. On the second floor, visitors can view Betsy Ross’ chamber and that of the owner of the house, Hannah Lithgow. Lithgow was an elderly widow who owned several boarding houses in the vicinity, and her room is currently being renovated to allow visitors to get a better view of her quarters. This will allow them to compare the lifestyle of an upper middle-class woman, such as Lithgow, to that of a working-class woman like Betsy Ross. In Ross’ chamber, tourists will notice a life-size replica flag, which depicts where she would have made flags to avert the attention of British soldiers or Loyalist spies.

After descending another spiral staircase, visitors get to see Ross’ upholstery shop and meet with a first-person interpreter of the woman herself. The interpreter of Ross tells visitors more than just the story of the flag, but also how to stitch bed curtains liked they did in the colonial period. What visitors seem to appreciate the most, however, is when the interpreter demonstrates how to cut out a five pointed star, which was allegedly one of the few alterations Ross made to the original design of the flag. Acker-Moulder insists that the purpose of having an interpreter is to make the Betsy Ross House seem like a “living, breathing home,” which will allow visitors to “leave here feeling a connection to Betsy and her story.”

The final part of the house visitors see is the basement, where an exhibit called “Woman at Work in Revolutionary America” demonstrates what domestic life was like during the period. As part of the exhibit, visitors can meet Phillis, an interpreter of a free African American woman who demonstrates how people did laundry in the colonial period. The purpose of this exhibit, according to Acker-Moulder, is to appeal to visitors of different backgrounds. “America is becoming more diverse”, she says “and some of these diverse populations don’t think historic institutions are telling their stories. I’m hopeful that the diversity – Betsy was a middle-class white woman, Phillis is a free black woman – will appeal to more audiences.” She also states that the exhibit in the basement is “something modern audiences can relate to. Everybody has to do laundry and shop for food.”

What makes the Betsy Ross House so successful is that it tells the story of more than just one woman. By touring the Betsy Ross House, visitors learn what life was like for ordinary people during the colonial period. While most museums let you see the kind of things people owned, the Betsy Ross House shows how people actually lived. Not only do visitors have more access in the house compared to other historic homes, but they can also meet first person interpreters who demonstrate everyday chores in the colonial period. By including woman like Phillis and Hannah Lithgow, the Betsy Ross House also appeals to a diverse populations in a way that other museums do not. That is why, in the end, the Betsy Ross House is more than just an exhibit about the woman who “allegedly” made the first American flag, but really a small sample of what life was like for most people living in the eighteenth century.

Bibliography

http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2017/02/17/new-betsy-ross-house-exhibit-highlights-the-history-of-flag-making/

https://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/Betsy-Ross-House-American-Flag-Renovation-411889945.html

http://www.philly.com/philly/living/20160302_Backbreaking_work_gets_attention_at_Betsy_Ross_House.html

http://www.phillymag.com/news/2014/10/17/betsy-ross-house-interview-carol-spacht-sew-flags-historic-philadelphia/

http://6abc.com/society/art-of-aging-women-bring-history-to-life/547501/

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. “How Betsy Ross Became Famous.” Common Place: The Journal of Early American Life 08, no.1 [October 2007] http://common-place.org/book/how-betsy-ross-became-famous/ [accessed December 27th, 2017].

On the task of historicizing 2017, a brief note

Trump official portrait

It is difficult bordering impossible to summarize an entire year without making a trite list. I have been struggling to complete this exact task for some time now. What I will attempt to do here instead of a trite list is to briefly discuss the challenge of historicizing the year 2017. The news cycle in the United States was dominated by President Trump – possible collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 election, repeated attempts to ban refugees from Muslim-majority countries, ineffectively managing disaster relief in Puerto Rico, antagonizing NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem, and so on. However, Trump’s actions and his response to the world’s happenings at-large are not the end-all be-all of 2017 as a year in American – or world – history. As nuclear missiles have not yet fired from North Korea to the United States, American historians still have time to figure out what this all means. Quite a bit of time.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to consider is how technology figures into the story. One day, we might all reflect that it was silly that people felt athletes should ‘stick to sports,’ for instance, and not use their platform to raise awareness of issues they care about like police brutality of minorities. We might think it was silly – or devious misdirection – that the President was so emotionally invested. What we will not be able to do is forget this all happened. There are without a doubt many Presidents who have done or said things privately or publicly in their time that would not be acceptable today (12 out of 44 owned slaves; they did not want women to vote for the first century of the nation’s existence, etc.). It is probable that some said things privately that were not acceptable in their time. However, history is beholden to the resources available to us to analyze. The communication and recording technology available in the nineteenth century pales in comparison to what we have today. This is our first President fully immersed in Twitter, the microblogging service that allows everyone’s thoughts to be broadcast as they would like. Everything Donald Trump says, we will have no choice but to remember.

Net Neutrality coming to an end is a huge story that will have far-reaching consequences for all of us – the FCC has given the okay to service providers to throttle service and charge websites and end-users with extreme prejudice. In conjunction with a tax reform policy that figures to move more wealth from the bottom to the top than has happened in the last thirty years, there seem to be signs that power and wealth consolidation and stratification are becoming [more so] the modus operandi of the United States in a very real way. But that is just one way to write the story.

Another historical view of 2017 will focus on racial politics, and how the results of the 2008 and 2016 elections revealed America to itself. One might focus on the “#MeToo” movement and the continued attempts by some to show that “rape culture” is a real thing and that the toxic masculinity empowered by the patriarchy is proof that it needs to be toppled. Some will find a return to good, wholesome American values. I am not sure from where they will pull this from, but there is some rhetoric somewhere that they can use as evidence. There is certainly evidence that the American value of nativism has returned.

The year 2017 may be seen as the last year that climate change deniers were taken seriously, or should have been. Time will tell, but consecutive years with record highs and record lows, and one year in particular where hurricanes wreck two major cities and their surrounding regions, as well as an island territory in the Caribbean, are evidence of something going on. California is on fire – the wine country in the central-northern regions dealt with wildfires in autumn; the trees in the mountains of the south were blazing in December.

Perhaps 2017 will be remembered as the beginning of the end for the two major parties, but it seems unlikely. Perhaps it will be seen as a time when the future of the Republic seemed in danger. Perhaps it will be known as true that the Republic was in danger. Perhaps it will be lost but not be mourned. The thing about trying to figure out how a year that just ended will be remembered in history is that it is impossible to say because it is so difficult to see clearly when our eyes are this close. Because of the historical moment we live in – with all of the information that has ever existed at our fingertips, and with everyone’s reaction to every public event available via social media – the historians of the near- and far-future will have more than ample resources to determine what 2017 meant. They will pour over it for decades, analyzing and reconsidering, searching always for deeper truth and meaning.

In the end they will find that the year was a collection of facts, a list of events and people and places, and that perception really is reality when deciphering space and time gone by. The uncertainty they are left with will cause them to posit theories and the friction that comes from these theories clashing – on blogs, at conferences, in classrooms – will create the fire that burns away the brush of untruth. Eventually all that will remain will be the products of compromise and concensus: the truth that 2017 was the product of all those years before it, and a key ingredient in all those years to come. It is a key piece in the puzzle of the world’s history, and we just do not know at the present juncture if this piece is any more or less special than the rest. Reflecting immediately, it seems like it was dramatically important.

Reviewed #2: A Match Made in Heaven? Race Laws in the United States and Nazi Germany

 

James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, Princeton University Press, 2017, 208 pp., $24.95.

 

Segregation, racial bloodlines, institutionalized violence, separate public facilities for different peoples, the illegality of mixed-race marriages. If any of these terms seem recognizable to those familiar with the Jim Crow era South, these constituted daily reality of African-Americans of the time. For many in this country, there has and always have been two Americas: the land of the free and the home of the brave, accessible to those with privilege on one hand. And on the other a legacy of slavery, racism, and violence to those without.[1] This heritage has been a troubling topic for American historians to grapple with. In Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, James Whitman, a professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale University, looks at the other America and how its foundation of racism inspired lawyers, judges, and lawmakers of Hitler’s Nazi regime.

In seeking answers to the ‘Jewish Question’, Nazi laws had already stripped German Jews of their citizenship and ability to serve in the army but were working towards creating the legal structure of their ideal German. As Whitman deftly points out in this book, in order to fully realize their dream of institutional racism directed at unwanted members of society, Nazi lawmakers looked at the model of legally codified racism for inspiration: America. Whitman adds an interesting perspective for historians because of his proficiency with comparative law. The purpose of a comparative approach in these case studies applies not only to the letters of the new laws, like the Nuremberg Laws, but also histories of legal jurisprudence in trials like Plessy v. Ferguson, which effectively create de facto laws that can be compared. Additionally, this comparative is appropriate because Whitman shows, through the writings and statements of Nazi lawyers, that comparing the two legal systems was not performed first by Whitman, but by those Nazis who sought established legal structures to justify their racial laws, and so began the comparisons themselves. Moreover, the most compelling argument made in the book that America indeed served as Hitler’s inspiration for his racial laws comes not from Whitman himself but from his primary sources. Statements made about America and their laws from Nazis were intended to be compliments. A key example in the book is from Hitler himself, who openly praised and admired America’s 1924 Immigration Law, which established entry quotas based on national origins (59). It is this earnest admiration that makes the comparison so jarringly effective in studying the connections between American and Nazi law.

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Die Nurnberger Gesetze” (Nuremberg Race Laws) laid out 4 racial categories regarding citizenship. The categories are in order of racial blood purity: “Deutschbluetiger” (German Blood), “Mischling 2” (Mixed Race 2 Grade), “Mischling 1” (Mixed Race 1 grade), and “Jude” (Jew). Credit: History Unfolded Project at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Whitman divides Hitler’s American Model into two chapters. The first one addresses the change in citizenship status for Jews in Germany, juxtapositioned by the de facto second-citizen status experienced by African-Americans. The second chapter addresses the most challenging comparison, the Blood Law. The decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Homer Plessy was not treated as a white man because of his 1/8th “octoroon” status. This inspired Nazi law codified on the basis of blood purity (127-128). Jews could not marry other Germans, and this parallel law existed in the United States in many states until Loving v. Virginia (33).

Yet Whitman also highlights the cautions that should be taken when using a comparative approach. For example, though the wording may be similar, it is difficult to directly compare results and methods. Though both relied on lineage and bloodlines, American racial laws were based around skin color, while German Jews “maintained their communal identity by their culture, not their color (129).” Though parallels are drawn between America’s racial classifications And ultimately, the Nazis regarded the American system as being “too harsh”, the race troubles “too different (131).” This conclusion turns on its head the notion that the Nazis were the sole makers of their heinous ideas. Though the murderous actions of the Nazis cannot be misattributed, the legal structure that supported and justified their racial classifications were inspired by the American system. Whitman concludes by showing that the Nazis identified America as the nation “that had achieved the “fundamental recognition” of the truths of racism, and taken the first necessary steps” with Nazi Germany to see the race problem answered beyond the steps taken by America (160).

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1935 Nazi Germany Bench that reads “Nur für Juden!” (Only for Jews) Credit: Weiner Library

Though Whitman ably compares American and Nazi laws, one area that invites further investigation is how courts in both countries reacted to racial laws. The book covers laws, codes, and legal theories such as legal positivism, but falls short in some areas of providing examples of practical applications in the court system outside of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases. Readers are able to gain valuable insight through the writings of Nazi lawyers and judges regarding race laws. Still, it would further benefit the comparative analysis to incorporate varied echelons of American and Nazi legal systems.

Hitler’s American Model appeals to several types of readers. Legal historians will find Whitman’s comparative approach between separate legal structures compelling. Readers who do not have a masterful grasp of law/legal history can also find this book accessible as an introduction to comparative law through an important (and relevant) case study. Historians of American history, especially those who focus on the differences between Nazi Germany and America, will benefit greatly by looking at the similarities rather than the differences between the two opposing sides of World War II. This book effectively shatters the idea of the Third Reich being a uniquely evil entity and, more importantly, encourages deeper reflections into our own legal jurisprudence through a comparative approach.

[1] A good example of this rhetoric can be found in Martin Luther King’s “The Other America” Speech, given in 1967 in the Aurora Forum at Stanford University.