Archive for December, 2019

Review: Second Founding

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

I enjoy Eric Foner’s work both because he is interested in the US Reconstruction and because he writes lucidly and thoughtfully about it. The Reconstruction informs the current form and slant of American society at the same time that the content of the story we tell ourselves about it varies completely with who is telling it. This is an exploration of the time that citizens imbue the national government with new powers and new roles at the same time that people begin making the myths that will continue to inform the discussions about them. In Second Founding, Foner frames those struggles inside the bounds of the constitutional amendments that people enact and interpret.

People often interpret the past as being more unanimous than it was. In thinking about the reconstruction amendments – 13, 14, and 15 – I’d bet that most people imagine a pretty unified support for the general ideas that recognize formerly enslaved people as citizens. Foner does an excellent job drawing out the various competing positions and the compromises that create the amendments and their interpretation.

Depending on what one believes – and the Reconstruction narrative they know – current discussions about the ability of the federal government to override state laws to protect voting rights or civil rights can be completely opaque. The false uniformity makes current actions feel like unethical exploitation of established law. If one’s mythology includes the idea that the 14th amendment recognizes rights of citizens and declares that the federal government must act to protect them, the 20th century has a flavor of betrayal to it. If one’s mythology views that amendment as a mechanism to secure a lasting voting bloc that supports moneyed interests, the 20th century looks more like a replay of a domestic power grab that hade been beaten back at the end of the 19th. Founding strips such false consensus away and opens a door to talk.

The reality, as Foner explains, is that the amendments were the results of a compromises between at least the 247 congressmen who wrangled over them. Some were pretty clearly motivated by ideals; some were pretty clearly motivated by power politics. Some were motivated by the financial interests of patrons. Some were driven by what state legislatures were willing to approve – a process that includes how the amendments will tilt powers and representation of states in the future. Most balanced combinations of those motivations.

Many of the arguments the representatives and pundits published at that time took root as the basis of the mythology of the emerging post-Civil-War central government. There are few arguments about these amendments that don’t date from their creation.

Foner chronicles the arguments and resulting language that defines them. He also holds the various interpretations of the arguments’ expression and resulting clauses up and connects them. He has a definite bias, but presents more than enough information to understand the process.

He then goes one step further and explores how the Supreme Court interprets the amendments. It is oddly comforting to see that political appointments and hidebound jurists are nothing new. Foner argues compellingly that the justices of the day did interpret the law conservatively – and commercially. (And President Johnson’s influence was considerable as well.)

Overall this is a clear and informed exploration of these Amendments and the people and stories around them.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: How To Hide An Empire

Sunday, December 8th, 2019

This is another joy from the work of Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei on the brilliant Throughline podcast that NPR supports. They credit Daniel Immerwahr’s How To Hide An Empire significantly in their Puerto Rico episode. I recommend that episode.

Empire itself is a strong history of the United States’ adventures acquiring and administering territory in the 19th century and the sea changes that WWII brings to that Empire. The two phases are fascinating in their own rights. The strange happenstances of expansion by a democratic yet slave-holding state before the war are fundamentally refined by changes in technology and geopolitics worked on and by the US. The US becomes a worldwide distributor of influence, goods, and arms and our foreign holdings reflect that in ways that surprised me.

The first half of Empire shows how the US’s Manifest Destiny mythology drives conquest and land acquisition, modulated – as always – by the internal struggles between Northern financial and manufacturing interests against Southern slave-driven interests. The expansion of the empire is also influenced by our best ideals. The geopolitics of the world also plays a role. Unlike European powers that were wresting land and resources from largely indigenous people, the US was largely wresting land from other colonizers. The interplay between the promises one makes to the colony and the improvements that appear when the uprising is over reveals a lot about human nature.

After World War II, the US needs foreign holdings less to pull in resources like rubber and guano (yes, guano) than to project influence and products. The underlying changes that drove those changes and what that means for the people in the colonies are fascinating. The trade-off between exerting influence based on democratic ideals and holding colonists in varying piecemeal states of rights and protections produces some remarkable verbal tap-dancing and outright doublethink.

One hopes this sort of history can make citizens think more deeply about how we act. Empire is a clear and accessible place to start.

Strongly recommended.