United States historian Eric Foner interviewed


This video from the USA says about itself:

Historian Eric Foner: Trump is Logical Conclusion of What the GOP [Republican] Party Has Been Doing for Decades

20 October 2016

For a historical perspective on the 2016 race, we speak to Eric Foner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and professor at Columbia University. His books include “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.”

By John Green from Britain:

‘The best antidote to bad history is good history’

Monday 10th April 2017

Leading US historian ERIC FONER explains to John Green why his books run counter to the depiction of the US past as cause for relentless celebration

Would you be happy to be described as a “Marxist historian” or is there a more accurate term for historians like you, Howard Zinn and others?

I tend to eschew labels. Marx is believed to have said: “I am not a Marxist.” In other words: “I don’t want to be assigned to a single school of interpretation.”

But no-one can understand history who does not have at least some familiarity with the writings of Marx.

I have been powerfully influenced by Marxist insights, especially those of the last generation of British Marxist scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm, EP Thompson and others.

But I have also been influenced by black radical scholars like WEB Du Bois, who himself was influenced by Marxism and also by other radical traditions and by feminist scholars.

You’ve argued that the past needs to be “usable.” What exactly do you understand by that term?

The idea of a “usable” past is often misunderstood. It certainly does not mean distorting history for political ends, nor ignoring less than appealing features of past movements with which one is sympathetic.

I do believe that for those trying to change society today, an understanding of where our current situation comes from is essential and knowledge of past social movements very desirable.

A usable past is a body of historical knowledge that inspires people to try to make this a better world and that cuts through much of the historical mythology with which we are surrounded.

In an essay you wrote some time ago, you discuss the role of docudramas on the small screen and their place in the public reception of history. You’ ve written that they tend to highlight individual rather than collective action and that this reflects the “peculiarly American strand of individualism.” Do you still stand by that assertion?

My historical interests focus on social movements and their struggles for greater freedom and equality in American life.

Even in my study of Abraham Lincoln and slavery, I devote considerable attention to Lincoln’s symbiotic relationship with radical Republicans and abolitionists, rather than simply portraying him as the “great emancipator.”

It is the combination of social movements and enlightened political leadership that brings about social change.

I have the impression that docudramas are less prevalent nowadays than they were in the 1980s when I wrote that essay. They straddle the line between historical fiction — such as the recent film Lincoln — and documentaries, which are not supposed to invent dialogue or recreate past situations.

But the larger point is that many people gain their “knowledge” of history from films that often distort the past in subtle ways.

To the extent that these genres encourage an interest in history is good. I hope that after seeing them, people will read a good book.

Learning about history and understanding our past is important in helping us grapple meaningfully with our present.

You’ve shone a light on those aspects of US history that have been largely glossed over or ignored, particularly the genocide of the native population and the historical narratives of collective action. Is such a position now more accepted than it was or is it still an uphill battle for historians like you?

I am only one of many historians who have highlighted these issues in the past generation.

And certainly more attention is devoted to them in history textbooks and introductory courses than when I was a student.

That said, most people tend to prefer an uplifting account of American history and biographies of great leaders are much more likely to appear on the bestseller lists than studies of, say, labour organising in the “Gilded Age.”

But I do think that our understanding of history has become more comprehensive and critical — which is one reason conservatives for years have been denouncing historians.

You say that Trump is not an aberration, but a logical extension of the way the Republican Party has been operating since Barry Goldwater. Why?

In terms of personality or temperament, Trump may be unique.

But his essential outlook and strategy — liberating business from “regulation,” opposing the rights of labour, appealing to white resentment against non-whites and native-born peoples, fears of foreigners and immigrants — have been standard Republican fare since Goldwater’s campaign of 1964 and Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.”

Trump gives all this a new twist but the basic ideology is the same.

In the face of the Trump administration’s determined efforts to rewrite history or change our understanding and interpretation of it, how do you feel historians can best counter that?

To paraphrase Jefferson, the best antidote to bad history is good history. In the current situation, writing what Nietzsche called “critical” history is itself an act of opposition.

Eric Foner’s new book Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History is published by IB Tauris, price £10.99. John Green’s Morning Star review of the book on February 13 is available at mstar.link/foner-battles-review.

Cuban-Dutch ancient shipwrecks research


Admiral Cornelis Jol and his peg leg

Again, a blog post about Cuba. This time not about the birds I saw in Cuba (more blogs posts about that will come later). But about some twenty historical wrecked ships in Cuban waters; including some of Dutch buccaneer admiral Cornelis Corneliszoon Jol (1597–1641).

Cornelis Jol was nicknamed in Dutch Houtebeen=in English pegleg=in Spanish Pie de Palo, because he had one wooden leg. So, there is not just the fictional pirate Captain Hook, but also the real Jol.

Jol was an admiral of the Dutch West India Company. As such, he played an important role in making the Dutch important players in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery, which they had not been before. Jol conquered the Portuguese slave export port Luanda in Angola. He also played a role in the conquest of north-east Brazil with its slave plantations.

In 1640, a storm sank some of Jol’s ships off Cuba. Today, Dutch NOS TV reports that there will be joint Cuban-Dutch archaeological research into these shipwrecks.

There are also later Dutch shipwrecks near Cuba: like the cargo ship SS Medea, sunk in 1942 by a German submarine.

The research will start in 2018.

Ancient Mexican palace discovery


This video about archaeology in Mexico is called Palenque (New Documentary 2014).

From Science News:

Palace remains in Mexico point to ancient rise of centralized power

Ruler ruled, lived in, maybe even performed ritual sacrifices in 2,300-year-old structure

By Bruce Bower

3:10pm, March 27, 2017

Remnants of a royal palace in southern Mexico, dating to between around 2,300 and 2,100 years ago, come from what must have been one of the Americas’ earliest large, centralized governments, researchers say.

Excavations completed in 2014 at El Palenque uncovered a palace with separate areas where a ruler conducted affairs of state and lived with his family, say archaeologists Elsa Redmond and Charles Spencer, both of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Only a ruler of a bureaucratic state could have directed construction of this all-purpose seat of power, the investigators conclude the week of March 27 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The royal palace, the oldest such structure in the Valley of Oaxaca, covered as many as 2,790 square meters, roughly half the floor area of the White House. A central staircase connected to an inner courtyard that probably served as a place for the ruler and his advisors to reach decisions, hold feasts and — based on human skull fragments found there — perform ritual sacrifices, the scientists suggest. A system of paved surfaces, drains and other features for collecting rainwater runs throughout the palace, a sign that the entire royal structure was built according to a design, the researchers say.

El Palenque’s palace contains no tombs. Its ancient ruler was probably buried off-site, at a ritually significant location, Redmond and Spencer say.

United States, from Andrew Jackson to Donald Trump


Map about ethnic cleansing of Native Americans by President Andrew Jackson

By Tom Mackaman in the USA:

Trump turns to American history

The strange political afterlife of Andrew Jackson

21 March 2017

The White House, led by its fascistic top advisor Stephen K. Bannon, is attempting to cast Donald Trump as the reincarnation of the seventh American president, Andrew Jackson. Trump has hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office.

Last Wednesday, Trump visited Jackson’s Tennessee plantation, the Hermitage, on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Jackson’s birth. “Inspirational visit, I have to tell you. I’m a fan,” Trump said of Jackson. Speaking in Detroit earlier the same day, the president asserted that “my election was most similar to his.”

As a preliminary matter, Trump’s election more closely parallels that of Jackson’s opponent John Quincy Adams in the election of 1824. Like Trump, Adams lost the popular vote by a wide margin. But Adams gained the White House instead of Jackson after Kentucky Senator Henry Clay threw his support behind the candidate from Massachusetts in a House of Representatives vote on February 9, 1825.

Bannon, a student of Italian fascism who is closely tied to the “white nationalist” far-right, is behind Trump’s embrace of Jackson, who was elected in 1828 and served as president from 1829 to 1837. “[L]ike Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” Bannon said in November after Trump’s victory. Bannon and White House adviser Stephen Miller have reportedly given Trump books to study on the seventh US president.

Such historical comparisons always say much more about the present than they do about the past. The question is, of all presidents, why does the White House seek to drape Trump in the mantle of Andrew Jackson?

Jackson is an important figure, but no one could ever say of him, as Marx did of Lincoln, that he was “one of the rare men who succeed in becoming great without ceasing to be good.” Jackson, unlike Lincoln, was not known to exercise the quality of mercy. While Lincoln commuted more death sentences than all other American presidents combined, Jackson, in his pre-presidential career as a military commander, reveled in carrying out executions of deserting soldiers, Indians, and, in one case, two British civilians.

Jefferson, who knew Jackson, called him “a dangerous man” who was “most unfit” to be president, pointing in particular to his disregard for the law and his notoriously violent temper. “He could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings,” Jefferson said of Jackson. “I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage.” …

Jackson took office in 1829 after the end of the “Era of Good Feelings,” a period falling roughly between the War of 1812 and the end of the James Monroe administration in 1825. This was an era of profound social and economic change, marked by such economic and industrial achievements as the construction of the Cumberland Pike and the Erie Canal. The growing complexity of the American economy brought about significant changes in social relations, including closer links between the agricultural economies and market towns, increasing social differentiation, and the growing power of Northern industry.

Jackson was a reactionary figure whose modus vivendi depended on burying, as much as possible, the powerful contradictions building up during this period—especially those having to do with slavery—which would ultimately find resolution in the Civil War.

Jackson presented himself as a “man of the people.” However, parties and politicians must be assessed not by what they say about themselves, but by what they objectively represent.

His Democratic Party emerged out of the period of Republican domination stretching through the administrations of the Virginia Dynasty of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. The Democrats were a political union of the Southern slaveholding aristocracy, sections of American capitalism associated with state-level banking and the lucrative cotton trade, and corrupt big city political machines such as New York’s Tammany Hall that were emerging in the North. It was, in other words, a party of the most reactionary forces in American society.

The political art of the early Democrats consisted in their ability to hide the controversy over slavery behind a veil of nationalism, racism and populist demagogy, and thereby subordinate many farmers and workers of the North to a reactionary program largely dictated by the Southern planter class, of which Jackson was an extremely wealthy member.

The controversy over slavery, which first erupted with the debate over whether Missouri would be admitted as a slave state in 1819, was temporarily resolved through national expansionism, which the Democratic Party motivated ideologically with the concept of “Manifest Destiny.” It asserted the right, even sacred duty, of Americans to possess all the lands of North America, whether they were inhabited by Indians or claimed by Britain or Mexico.

The dispute over who would inherit the lands of the West—the sons of the slaveowners or the sons of the yeoman farmers of the North—could be thus delayed. Yet in the main, territorial expansion was designed to benefit the Southern planter class. This began under Jackson with the appropriation of the fertile lands of the southeast in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, taken from the so-called Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast—the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminoles—in a forced exodus to Oklahoma remembered as “the Trail of Tears.” In executing this policy, which today would be called “ethnic cleansing,” Jackson notoriously defied a Supreme Court injunction.

Then there was Jackson’s populist demagogy in the so-called “Bank Wars” against the re-chartering of the Bank of the United States. Jackson and the Democrats were not opponents of finance in general, but were aligned with state-level banks and favored decentralized and inflationary monetary policies.

Jackson’s phony anti-bank politics provided a false explanation for the first major financial crisis in US history, the Panic of 1819, which arrived simultaneously with the crisis over Missouri. Agriculture in the North had been given a great push forward by the Napoleonic Wars, increasing the prices of American food crops. This in turn drove up the price of land, feeding a speculative frenzy that burst with the Panic of 1819.

Thousands of banks collapsed, and many tens of thousands of overextended farmers and businessmen were ruined. The mysteriously powerful calamity, which hit like a force of nature, was little understood. The trauma even triggered the religious fervor that “burnt over” the rural areas in the 1820s, known as the Second Great Awakening.

Finally, Jackson and the early Democrats had to contend with the first stirrings of the working class. In the 1820s, together with the emergence of the slavery issue and the upheaval wrought by the panics of 1819 and 1825, the old guild system, by which apprentices learned a trade, advanced to the status of journeymen and hoped to one day become masters, collapsed.

Ancient methods and rites of labor vanished. Masters no longer worked side-by-side with journeymen and apprentices. They became rich employers of wage-earners, joined by growing streams of impoverished immigrants. The American Revolution’s promise of equality, for which the urban artisans had fought in organization such as the Sons of Liberty, allying with Jefferson and Madison against Hamilton and Adams, seemed to have been betrayed.

In the 1820s, the beginning of “the Age of Jackson,” the first strikes and trade unions appeared in the cities. Then, in the late 1820s, came the sudden emergence of dozens of local political parties, generally taking the name Workingmen’s Party. The largest appeared in the two biggest cities, New York and Philadelphia, where they won broad support among workers and challenged the new Democratic Party for political control. [1]

In response, the northern Democrats, led by Jackson’s vice president and successor, Martin Van Buren of New York, attempted to dissolve the class issue into a vague anti-elitist and, for the first time in US history, racist politics. The northern Democrats acted through the new species of career politician, the sprawling “Penny press,” made possible by developments in printing technology, and the most popular form of entertainment of the day, blackface minstrelsy, which lampooned Whigs, abolitionists, free blacks and slaves.

Advertisement for blackface minstrels, 1843

The plausibility of the Democratic Party ideology was aided by the two-party system itself. Factory owners, seeking tariff protection from British competition and the promotion of infrastructure, oriented to the Whigs. Small numbers of free blacks and abolitionists repulsed by the Democratic Party’s shameless racism joined them.

This explains a striking paradox of American history. Just as the right to vote was extended in the North to all white men, without property qualifications—proudly championed by Jackson and the Democrats—it was denied or even stripped away from free black men. In many northern states, including Pennsylvania, African American men did not earn the right to vote until after the Civil War. So savage was the Democratic Party’s racism, blacks were denied the right even to settle in entire states, Illinois and Iowa included. [2]

The effectiveness of this politics made the Democratic Party the stronger of the two antebellum parties until the late 1850s, with the Democrats generally controlling the presidency, the legislature and the Supreme Court, and dominating most state governments, South and North. Jackson was a nationalist whose support for slavery did not stop him from opposing South Carolina in the nullification crisis of 1832, in which the planter elite of that state threatened secession rather than accept a tariff bill designed to support northern manufactures. Jackson’s threats to use military force against the state prevented—or rather, delayed—its attempted secession.

Bannon is not unique in trying to appropriate Jackson’s legacy. Until recently, Jackson was held up by American liberals as an icon, a characterization most famously put forth by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in his enormously influential Age of Jackson, which appeared in 1945. Schlesinger presented Jackson as a tribune of the people, and his Democratic Party as the party of “the common man.”

Like Bannon today, Schlesinger had political motivations. During the years the author researched and wrote Age of Jackson, Roosevelt’s Democratic Party shifted to the right, abandoning the New Deal and preparing to purge from its ranks left elements in and around the Communist Party, with which it had been allied.

The Harvard historian wrote about Jackson and the Democratic Party of the 1820s and 1830s in order to present the mid-20th century Democrats—the party that dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, interned the Japanese and suppressed the strike wave of the 1930s and 1940s—as a “peoples’ party.”

At about the same time the Age of Jackson appeared, the Democratic Party spearheaded the anti-Communist purges of the 1940s and 1950s, which began in the trade unions and later spread to Hollywood and academia. In essence, the attack was not against individuals, but against the idea, which had gained wide acceptance during the Great Depression, that there existed a class struggle. The consequences of the anti-socialist witchhunt for American intellectual and cultural life have been incalculable.

Schlesinger’s hagiography of Jackson played its role in all of this. The Harvard historian, a personal friend and advisor to John Kennedy, was a major intellectual representative of what has been called “liberal anti-communism.” Soon after the Age of Jackson, beginning in the late 1940s, state Democratic Party organizations began to hold “Jefferson-Jackson” fundraising dinners. …

However, the president and his political guru need only follow the history lesson a few years further past the Age of Jackson to understand Jacksonian politics’ total and catastrophic failure. The nationalism of “Jacksonian democracy” may have delayed the eruption of the colossal contradictions of the antebellum, but it did not prevent it.

Footnotes

[1] Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers, Labor in Nineteenth-Century America. University of Illinois Press, 1997.

[2] Leon Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860, University of Chicago Press, 1965.

In recent comments on American history, President Donald Trump conflated the era of Andrew Jackson with the Civil War and insisted that the latter, known then and since as the “irrepressible conflict,” could have been avoided: here.

LOOKS LIKE THE SECRET SERVICE CAN’T AFFORD TRUMP The agency tasked with protecting the president asked for an additional $60 million, about $27 million of which was to go to securing Trump Tower. The Office of Management and Budget said no. [HuffPost]