The Whole World is Watching
The Whole World is Watching
DemLeft: How and when did you become interested in politics?
The first time that politics or at least public affairs grabbed my attention in a concentrated way was the spring and summer of 1968. I was nine years old growing up in a liberal family in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of
Later that summer we had the Democratic Convention in
The next summer my family took a big vacation that included a two-week stay in
DemLeft: We notice that you possess a doctorate in History but are not currently working as an academic. How have your educational and academic experiences both before and after college impacted your political ideals and activities?
Thatâ€™s an interesting and for me somewhat unpleasant question. Itâ€™s a mixed story. I had an unbelievably good (and highly privileged, to be honest) grade-school experience at the original John Dewey Laboratory School (connected to the University of Chicago) during the Sixties and I think it kind of spoiled me for the later, more mediocre schools I attended (and didnâ€™t attend). During the early 1970s, my folks moved to suburban Long Island and then (this was much better) to
Second â€“ and this might seem strange and not especially political â€“ I remember at some point around the same time there was this big ice hockey series between an all-star team from the National Hockey League (NHL) and the Soviet Red Army team. Iâ€™d been a big hockey freak growing up in
My original high school in
But one good thing â€“ this is the third big exception to the amoral indifference â€“ happened at the first high school: I developed something of a crush on my 11th grade American Literature teacher and I really got into her final assignment for the course. We were supposed to take our favorite novel from the class and write a new ending in which we tried to mimic the voice of our chosen author. I had read (and hung on) every word of Mark Twainâ€™s Huckleberry Finn and wrote a new final chapter (using the same title, â€œWhy They Didnâ€™t Hang Jimâ€) wherein the novel culminated in a slave insurrection that would have impressed abolitionist martyr John Brown. I captured Twainâ€™s dialogue perfectly (if I donâ€™t say so myself) and the paper came back marked â€œAâ€ and the words â€œAmazing! Paul You Are an Exceptionally Talented Writer.â€ The teacher in question read the paper aloud to all five of her sections, identifying me as the author. Nobody could believe it since I was known to be legendarily disengaged from academic pursuits. I was embarrassed and secretly proud at the same time.
I realized that there was a big piece of the â€œradical Sixtiesâ€ rattling around in my brain in the spring of 1975: I thought that Twainâ€™s novel and much else should end with a great radical insurrection. Itâ€™s like Iâ€™d been a latent revolutionary or something. The world was starting to look interesting again.
After high school my folks moved back to
The thing about my undergraduate experience was that there was very little field or area specialization. You could be interested in EVERYTHING including the present. We thought we had this big cool Marxist paradigm that we thought explained basically EVERYTHING and seemed really hot with all the New Left academic work coming out. I thought that capitalism and American imperialism were in their death throes and liked to hear that â€œhalf the world had already gone socialistâ€ (as one of my professors liked to say). I was also somewhat peripherally involved in political efforts over nuclear power (after Three mile Island) and about campus issues (we had a sit-in to keep the library open past midnightâ€¦there was a radical cause) and for the Citizensâ€™ Party. Stuff like that.
Then things started to narrow and â€œadultâ€ responsibilities and the need to â€œmake a livingâ€ took over. Nothing in graduate school ever came remotely close to the mind-liberating excitement and related sense of political engagement I recall from the undergraduate years. By the time Reagan became president, I was, pretty apolitical (and in retrospect amoral) again. The more guild/profession-centered professors had gotten their hooks into me and I was becoming academicized. My energies were focused on academic â€œcareer development.â€ I still called myself a â€œMarxistâ€ but increasingly this was just totally sucked into exhausting academic in regard to digging up aspects of past conflicts and struggles. I had to â€œpick a fieldâ€ and I chose â€œAmerican labor history.â€ As the country seemed to have gone to the dangerous right, I retreated into the past and blind pursuit of the purported pleasures of academe. Reagan was busting PATCO with permanent replacement strikers but I didnâ€™t care because I was basking in the excitement of the rise of the labor movement during the 1930s.
I went to graduate school at the State University of New York at
By the mid-1980s, I was out of graduate school and back in DeKalb, which was nicely located between my two main dissertation research sites (
At Del Monte Plant 111 in the late 1980s, I used to try to get my fellow proletarians to join me in chanting â€œThree Cheers for Industrial Capitalism!â€ My foreman, a 6 foot 7 former Marine found me doing this one day. He told me to take my high-pressure water hose to the edge of the plant and â€œguard the perimeter.â€ Later the same summer, I almost got my face burned off in a cleaning accident that foreman caused by pushing people way too hard.
At some point in the early 1990s I got SUNY-Binghamton (which was changing its name to
Hereâ€™s why it wasnâ€™t. I trimmed it down and sent it off to Northern Illinois University Press, which was run by a woman named Mary Lincoln and where there was an â€œAcquisitions Editorâ€ named Dan Coran. Coran said they would definitely consider publishing my manuscript but they had to send it to two established historians for a â€œpeer review.â€ Coran said I could give NIU Press a list of ten names from which to choose my two â€œoutside readers.â€
I wrote up a list that made a point of leaving off one big name in particular â€“David Brody. Brody was then one of the two leading editors of a Working Class History Series at University of Illinois Press and I knew that this series was working with another revised dissertation on the same exact topic â€“ the Chicago packinghouse workers in the 1920s and 1930s (a very good study all things considered). Crazy me: I didnâ€™t think it would be appropriate (or in my interest) for Brody to be reading my manuscript while working with a manuscript on the exact same topic over at a competing press.
My manuscript went out to unnamed readers. The first review came back real fast, signed and basically saying, â€œgo with this book; itâ€™s really smartâ€¦.Thumbs way up!.â€ Coran sent me the positive review and I got this big happy feeling, thinking â€œI, former juvenile delinquent and bus-driver and Del Monte worker will now be an author and an historian. My eleventh-grade American Literature teacher was right after all!â€ The first outside reader sent back his copy of the manuscript full of helpful markings and suggestions. Outside readers are always supposed to return the manuscripts.
Months and months went by and the second review didnâ€™t come in. Finally, about a year later, an anonymous and short review arrives, â€œdonâ€™t do this book; the topic is already being done.â€ At one point in the review, the â€œanonymousâ€ reviewer made reference to his â€œown 1964 book in labor in the meatpacking industry.â€
Now, that marked Brody as the reviewer, since he published a 1964 book titled â€œThe Butcher Workmenâ€ â€“ the only book written about labor in the meatpacking industry that year. Apparently it takes just one thumbs-down to kill a book submission in academic publishing. At least thatâ€™s how this one worked out.
I dropped a line to Mary Lincoln saying â€œwhy did you send this to Brody? I left him off the list and this is whyâ€¦â€ She got all pissed off and called me, wanting to know â€œhow [I] knew it was Brody.â€ I said there was no way to miss it since he made a reference to his â€œown 1964 book.â€ It was an ugly experience. And Brody never sent the manuscript back. For all I know he still has it, if heâ€™s still alive.
I went to another press where they "lost" the manuscript and apologized after it was too late to care. Later an editor at the second press told me an early in-house reader saw that I had made a criticism of an academic author (Lizabeth Cohen, who I donâ€™t think I actually criticized except perhaps in the most indirect and partial sort of way...I thought she wrote a great book, titled "Making a New Deal") he â€œreally likedâ€ and â€œthat was it. It got buried.â€ By that time I'd moved on to "current events" and had forgot how to care.
This book experience was very useful in de-academicizing me again. The notion of academic merit lost whatever remaining hold it had on me after that. When that disappeared, the desire to be a real academic pretty much fizzled out, though I continued teaching night courses to adults for many years. I was free to focus my moral and intellectual energies on current events and political affairs. Denied a â€œnormalâ€ career path into academic history by these strange publication experiences and by a generally bad academic job market (it didnâ€™t help that my sub-field of labor history seemed to have died out) and by a long period of time out of school (directly related to economic necessity), I was fortunate to fall into a job as a Research Associate on contemporary social policy issues â€“ specifically â€œmoney and politicsâ€ and â€œwelfare reform.â€ I worked for a prolific political historian turned liberal-left social policy researcher â€“ a really witty iconoclast who taught me a lot about researching contemporary social policy issues. To my initial surprise, I took to it all like a fish to water. I was actually sick of the 1920s and 1930s; I just didnâ€™t know it yet. One year working on (including writing) contemporary project studies and I couldnâ€™t even remember what I must have been thinking when I had wanted to spend all my time in archives and living intellectually in the past. I started writing op-eds in local newspapers, speaking on local radio and began writing pieces for In These Times and ZMagazine. And I started focusing on foreign policy and left media criticism in my off hours. I havenâ€™t been in an archive or a historical society in at least fifteen years.
At some point during the mid-late 1990s, while trying to understand post-WWII U.S. foreign policy in a way that I could communicate to smart adult students in night history classes I was teaching to grown-up engineers in the Chicago suburbs, I started (for the first time) reading Noam Chomsky. I was basically the one man adjunct liberal-arts and social-science (I taught a media an politics class one semester) department for the west suburban campus of IIT; I had bright adult students who paid their own mortgages didn't want to screw around with purely acadedmic bullshit and didn't mind talking politics or a professor with a definite perspective (who wasn't afraid to advance it..to profess) and I was completely outisde the normal acaddmic supervision (tha main campus was back in
DemLeft: You went back to Northern â€“ the place where you got radicalized in the Seventies â€“ and taught there for a year or so, right? What was that like?
I did do a year (last year) as a visiting professor back at my old undergraduate alma mater (NIU). But I found it pretty depressing, and a little scary. It was sort of an experiment on what I wanted to do after I rotated out of this big research job Iâ€™d had with a business-dominated, power-worshipping (post-) â€œcivil rightsâ€ agency in Chicago (The Chicago Urban League). It didnâ€™t go very well. In retrospect, I probably would to have done a final year at the League since you didnâ€™t have to work very hard there (the boss was never around and had retired on the job a few yerars before I got there...which is how I wrote a couple books under his [absent] watch) and NIU was just constant toil â€“ writing lectures for courses Iâ€™d never done before (though I sure learned alot about Immigration History and the History of Chicago) and grading papers and papers and exams and exams (I had more than 200 students both semesters). All the radical blood had died off at Northern â€“ the greatest and last of the history department old Marxist teachers (Marvin Rosen, an incredible classroom presence who pushed probably hundreds of students to socialism from the Sixties through the Nineties) had committed suicide a few years back â€“ and the students just didnâ€™t have a clue or a chance. I hadnâ€™t been in a classroom for five years and it was a shock to see how things had changed. Thereâ€™s no more â€œlittle red schoolhouse on the prairieâ€ (as the Wall Street Journal once described NIU) in DeKalb.
The kids had just been shell-shocked by the 9/11 aftermath and four years of total Orwellian bullshit...not to mention the mind-killing consequences of suburban lives and crazy parents and bad K-12 educations by and large and the fact that more than half of them now worked a bunch of hours and commute between home, work, and school. I donâ€™t know how widespread this is but a lot of kids reported having been put on psychotropic drugs by their parents at remarkably young agesâ€¦like since second grade...This came up again and again in office hours with students explaining some of their problems following course materials. And there were moral issues I didnâ€™t remember on the same scale when I taught back in the 90s: I had a large number of plagiarism cases, with kids basically just ripping off stuff from the Internet and each other or pasting in stuff from published books and claiming to have written it themselves. And when I tried to talk about race in the past or the present, I really had to be careful. White kids from
Another thing I noticed that was gone at NIU was a geographically fixed student-campus community and the related collapse of public student space on campus. When I was an undergraduate at Northern, the big â€œ
It seemed like my studentsâ€™ lives were just chaos. The notion of taking or even having the time to read an entire book â€“ not to mention the daily newspapers â€“ seemed bizarre to most of them. The idea that they might be engaged in social change and politics and might have something to say about how the world was run was just bizarre to them. A student, a somewhat older guy actually walked up to me after one of my more political classroom days and said,â€œyou talk about this stuff like you think weâ€™re actually going to do something about it. I mean shit, Dr. Street, weâ€™re just a bunch of students. What the Hell are WE going to do?â€ they wanted to be entertained; they wanted to pass the test, and they wanted to get out of there. I used to be funnier, but I wasn't in an entertianing mood most of last year; the new acadedmic year started with Katrina. I did score some points for predicting a White Sox victory in the World Series.
At the old NIU I knew from the late 1970s radical teachers could plant some good ideas and then pass you on to seven or eight other left professors. During my year (2005-06) there I was pretty isolated. The only other left radical was completely depressed and she was under constant assault from her superiors; in fact the department was trying to use me against her me in one class (trying to punish her for taking a Family Medical Leave to deal with a sick child if you can imagine that). Iâ€™ve heard from a few other radical academic sorts that
The best moment was speaking and participating in a big immigration rights rally (that was attended by local immigrant workers, not just students) on May First. But trying to be an engaged radical on campus was a fairly futile endeavor. I think the academic authorities and most of the academics themselves saw a radically left professor who actually professed as a threat...as a disordered mind with perverse priorities who might bring unwelcome scrutiny (e.g. Ward Churchill) to their comfortable little world of lifetime job security and meaningless endeavors.
One liberal professor I didnâ€™t know put an anonymous note in my mail box, telling me that my â€œSegregated Schoolsâ€ book â€œwasnâ€™t very good. Jonathan Kozolâ€™s â€˜Shame of the Nationâ€™ is better,â€ he said (quite non-controversially, in my opinion). Another professor told me the note-writerâ€™s name and said â€œyou know he just HATES YOUâ€...for reasons that were not clear. I was flabbergasted. He just HATES you.â€ â€œOh really?...by the way, who is he?â€ It was like that.
The grossnesss of its all came to a head when big Walter LaFeber came to campus. During my last (second) semester there, NIU filled up this great old refurbished lecture hall (Altgeld Hall, where my grandfather taught in the 1940s)with hundreds of kids promised extra-credit by their history professors to hear the distinguished historian Walter LaFeber talk about â€œThe Idea of Imperialism in American history From the Colonial era to the Present.â€ Iâ€™d read some decent New Left diplomatic history by LaFeber back in the day and figured Iâ€™d better go hear that. He started out pretty good on the distant past but got harder to follow the closer he got to the present. He couldnâ€™t bring himself to make any direct reference to the rather imperialist nature of the imperialist occupation of
For whatever reason, LaFeber had been deliberately unclear and indirect at the end (heâ€™d been completely lucid on the 18th and 19th centuries). I thought it was pathetic: total, abject, unforgivable cowardice. LaFaber was up there with this big name, a featured â€œdistinguishedâ€ exert and he had 500 people in the room and his topic was the supposed living legacy of the â€œidea of imperialismâ€ in American history and we happen to be in the middle of a big fucking transparently imperialist war and none of the 10 kids who attended from my own U.S. History survey class could figure out that we was AGAINST the â€œunwiseâ€ occupation of Iraq; one of my kids thought that maybe LaFeber was FOR the war.
An academic I ran into later (someone who I once regarded as a radical) told me, â€œwell you know, in this environment today, professors have to be careful what they say.â€ I told him about a recent poll showing that most Americans were now opposed to the
There was an at once funny and pathetic moment at the end of the LaFaber lecture, during the Q and A. A kid stood up and said, â€œUh, let me see...Okay, Dr. LaFeber, like, what I want to ask you is this. Do you really believe all this stuff you just said in your lecture is definitely like you know one hundred percent true and do you mean it orâ€¦are these just ideas you are trying out and throwing up there to see if they stick?â€ I almost fell out of my chair.
There was some laughter and then hushed silence (as hundreds of undergraduates probably reflected on the fact that they barely understood â€œall this stuffâ€) and then LaFaber became indignant. He had â€œwritten a book on Michael Jordan and global capitalism,â€ he said (the
This really happened; I couldnâ€™t make it up.
Anyway, with all the unbelievable shit going in the country and the world â€“ including Katrina, the continuing illegal and mass murderous occupation of
DemLeft: Speaking at a recent ceremony to unveil the new monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. in
King would of course be horrified by Bush II on every level...foreign policy, domestic policy, race, class, you name it. King ended his life fighting for the working poor, describing himself as a democratic socialist and denouncing what he called â€œthe triple evils that are interrelated:â€ (a) racism; (2) poverty/economic exploitation/capitalism and (3) militarism/imperialism. He had a lot of issues with a proclaimed liberal Democratic president and society (LBJ and â€œGreat Societyâ€ America) on these â€œtriple evilsâ€ and it doesnâ€™t take a lot of imagination to imagine how incredibly repulsed he would be by the super-plutocratic neoconservative Bush administrationâ€™s efforts to deepen the inequality of wealth in the U.S., to further impoverish inner-city communities, to slash civil rights protections, to keep wages low, to repress dissent, to assault civil liberties, and to murder demonized nonwhite evil others abroad in the name of â€œfreedomâ€ and in pursuit of explicitly imperial oil agendas and the like.â€ He would observe that Bush was very good at basking in the glow of superficial civil rights achievements â€“ appointing blacks to key foreign policy positions in this administration, for example â€“ while advancing wealth-concentrating and white supremacist policies that work against the struggle for black equality. He would pay special scornful attention to Bushâ€™s reactionary appropriation of messianic Christian messages and identities to justify things that King found utterly contrary to the living message of Jesus as he understood him: war, empire, increasing socioeconomic and racial inequality. I suspect he would not have hesitated to describe Bush II in very chilling terms â€“ as representing something along the lines of an American â€œfascism,â€ something that you can see King worrying about in essential writings and speeches near the end of his life.
This is all pretty obvious to anyone who reads those writings and speeches and the best biographies of King (by David Garrow and Michael Eric Dyson). Whatâ€™s less obvious to liberal sorts is that King would probably also have been horrified by a corporate neoliberal like Clinton, who did all kinds of nasty things especially to poor black communities, including a vicious significantly black-targeting welfare elimination and federal three-strikes and related police funding and war on drugs policies that helped feed a 1990s epidemic of racially disparate mass hyper-incarceration and felony marking. He would have very attuned to various ways in which
DemLeft: The Democratic Party took both houses of congress in the recent elections. Anger and discontent about the occupation of
Equivocation and confusion and deception and disingenuousness and mixed messages and hypocrisy and cowardice.Thereâ€™s not one Democratic Party and thereâ€™s not one Democratic position on
The leading Democrats walk a thin line between declared commitments to withdrawing or â€œphasing downâ€ and/or â€œredeployingâ€ troops (rapid withdrawal happens to be supported by the majority of American people, the Iraqi people, and the rest of the human race) and the fact that they are opposed to the notion that Iraq should be free to do whatever its people and/or rulers want with all that incredibly strategic petroleum under its not-so sovereign soil. We know from recent polls by the British Ministry of Defense and the U.S. State Department that the preponderant majority of Iraqis have for some times supported an immediate
DemLeft: In September, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave a controversial speech to the UN in which he recommended Noam Chomsky's book Hegemony or Survival and sharply lambasted
I suspect that many of the UN delegates found the speech more amusing than controversial. Contempt for what is perceived as rogue state
Hereâ€™s something smart that John Pilger wrote about Chavez last May: â€œLike the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who based their revolution on the English co-operative moment, and the moderate Allende in Chile, he offers the threat of an alternative way of developing a decent society: in other words, the threat of a good example in a continent where the majority of humanity has long suffered a Washington-designed peonage. In the
DemLeft: What, if anything, gives you hope?
Oh, a lot of things.
One big positive inside the imperial â€œhomelandâ€ (thereâ€™s a lovely word) is the comparative speed with which ordinary Americans turned against the
Our wonderful foreign policy skepticism can combine with the growing tide of economic populism in this country â€“ that tide was the semi-hidden story of the 2006 mid-term election results (which were as much about economic inequality as Iraq) â€“ to spark a renewed effort to reverse what King called the nationâ€™s â€œperverted prioritiesâ€: its grotesque attachment to spending billions on military empire while millions of Americaâ€™s own children languish in poverty. King said that a nation underwent â€œspiritual deathâ€ when it spent more on â€œdefenseâ€ than on â€œsocial uplift.â€ (We should always remember that mush of what we call â€œdefenseâ€ is in fact what Pentagon insiders like to call â€œforward global force projectionâ€ [well, empire, including more than 700 military bases located in nearly every nation on earth] and that much of our military budget is in fact a huge taxpayer transfer payment to gigantic high-tech corporations like Boeing, Martin Marietta, Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon â€“ all of whom have made an absolute profit killing on all the human killing thatâ€™s been going on in the name of â€œthe war on terror.â€)
We are in a better position to act against that ongoing spiritual suicide right now than we were a few years ago. I think the population has woken up from the big reactionary post-9/11 nightmare that the in-power hard right exploited so ruthlessly for criminally insane purposesâ€¦.with no small help from dominant corporate-state media.
I reject the dominant centrist Democratic Obama-esque interpretation of the 2006 congressional mid-terms, which says basically that the American people reject any and all â€œideologyâ€ and now just want smart, practical, pragmatic, and passionless bi-partisan top-down policy fixers to make everything right without reference to broader questions of democracy, moral economy, peace, international decency and social justice. I observe that most Americans believe pretty in the basic core ideal of popular democracy and actually have a good sense of the great extent to which that ideal militates against both gross economic inequality (of the sort that both leading business parties have been encouraging within the U.S. in recent decades) and (all-too bipartisan) imperial militarism and of how that ideal is positively connected to the struggle for social justice.
Polling data gives me hope. Leading surveys show that Americans tend to actually have fairly progressive, even left opinions on how to conduct foreign and domestic policy. Their basic dominant ideology is democracy and this comes with a strong egalitarian commitment to justice and peace. Ordinary American people are mostly kind and decent sorts of folk, not generally vile racists or imperialists. To go back to the countryâ€™s founding era, they are much closer to Tom Paine than they are to Alexander Hamilton. But they often donâ€™t know how progressive they are (see the 2004 CCFR data I put in an appendix to this interview) and lack a good idea of what to do with their positive beliefs and best instincts. Thereâ€™s a huge democratic capacity gap â€“ a â€˜democracy deficitâ€™ â€“ in our societyâ€¦a lack of adequate outlets and mechanisms for translating popular beliefs into meaningful policy actions and sustained pressure for systemic change. We need to build the sorts of institutions and values and avenues of expression that capture the citizenryâ€™s anti-authoritarian, democratic progressivism, help make it better informed and inspired, and turn it into a force for revolutionary transformation.
We should get to it: the whole word is watching...and waiting. Itâ€™s like Noam Chomsky said forty years ago, reflecting on
*A Shorter version of this interview can be viewed at http://demleft.blogspot.com/2006/11/interview-with-author-and-historian.html