Posted in 20th century America, atomic bombings, death, journal articles, Ku Klux Klan, military, religion, terrorism, violence

Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field

Gage, Beverly. “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field.” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73-94.

“Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field” by Beverly Gage, appeared in the Journal of American History in 2011.  Gage sets the foundation for her argument by presenting historian Richard Hofstadter’s call in 1970 for historians to “remedy their ‘inattention’ and construct a history of violence that would speak to the present and the past.”[1]  She explains how the historical profession stepped up to the challenged over the course of the next forty years by publishing numerous studies on “racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory,” yet, even though terrorism dominates American political discourse, historians have not effectively confronted the issue.[2]

In the early part of her essay, Gage shows that “terrorism” is difficult to define, although she does claim that terrorism tends to be a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[3]  Throughout the essay, certain examples are repeatedly cited as terrorist acts, such as Klan lynchings and labor violence like the Haymarket riot.

She also discusses political violence and social movements, and historians’ hopes of developing a general theory of terrorism through studying groups such as The Weather Underground and the Irish Republican Army.  But most of all, Gage contends that these historians sought to underscore the “illegitimacy of terrorism as a means of social change, a violation of state sovereignty and moral norms.”[4]  These historians afforded the state exceptional status rather than holding the government to the same moral codes as individuals.

There are many challenges to distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence, including determining whether formal “states” can be terrorists.[5]  Most specialists agree that the term terrorism needs to be “restricted to nonstate actors—specifically, groups or individuals seeking to challenge existing governments.”[6]  One of the big issues, though, was that the government funded many of the studies, so there seems to be a conflict of interest.  Chomsky and others emphasized the large role the United States government played in exporting a “state-sponsored ‘culture of terrorism.’”[7]  Such actions should not be ignored.

Since 9/11, there has been a boom of studies focused on terrorism.  Yet a primary focus of these studies has been based on a “new terrorism” framework, which Gage connects to sociologist Mark Jurgensmeyer’s work.[8]  In this framework, violence is always motivated by religion.  Placing the focus on religious motivations, however, pushes politics out of the discussion.[9]  Isabelle Duyvesteyn states that emphasizing religion tends to obscure the political nature of terrorism.  She offers Timothy McVeigh as an example and remarks: “[he] may have purported to love Christ, but he certainly despised the federal government.”[10]

I view the atomic bombings of Japan as acts of terrorism, so clearly I do not side with historians who wish to exempt the state from such considerations.  Bombing cities that were heavily populated with civilians aimed to send a very strong message to Japan and the rest of the world and therefore fits Gage’s assessment of terrorism being a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[12]  I do not necessarily think that there is anything for me to gain by labeling President Truman or other government officials as terrorists; however, my approach is to view the evidence from a guilty perspective.  What I mean by this is that I tend to analyze evidence without trying to justify the bombings.

Duyvesteyn’s point about religion is well-taken, but I also feel like religion is not the only lens that can obscure the political nature of terrorism.  Blaming the bombings on the American government’s racist attitudes, as some historians have, also distorts the truth.

I have read two of Jurgensmeyer’s books and a number of books on lynchings, Timothy McVeigh, Waco, Ruby Ridge, abortion clinic bombings, and about museum exhibits and memorials dedicated to these and similar themes.  The most frustrating issue I have found is that few authors (and even fewer public exhibits) seem to address the role American leadership plays in evoking and advocating these acts of terror.  The narratives tend to focus on demonizing the actor without effectively evaluating all of the contributing societal factors.

In her final paragraph, Gage writes, “The historiography of terrorism with its uneasiness about terminology, its political uncertainties, and its fractured discussions, is still struggling to find the proper balance between these imperatives.”[13]  I am not attempting to reach any definite conclusions about the atomic bombings or the definition of terrorism, but I hope that my project might help others in the field think about the issues and relationships in more creative and objective ways.

[1] Beverly Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 82.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 93.

[12] Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” 74.

[13] Ibid., 94.

Posted in 20th century America, capitalism, Christianity, conservative politics, racism, religion

To Serve God and Wal-Mart : The Making of Christian Free Enterprise

Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart : The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Bethany Moreton’s, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise examines Wal-Mart’s role in making free market and evangelical values mainstream during its rise as the world’s largest public corporation and the nation’s biggest private employer. Moreton offers a critical appraisal for how “Wal-Mart Moms” became a key constituency in shaping national values and how they helped to shape a global economic order founded on “Christian service” and “family values.” The main focus of the book is not on Wal-mart’s international appeal, but rather, Moreton focuses on the cultural roots of the Wal-Mart way of doing business, whose central employee and customer is female and Christian. Moreton asserts on the first page that one in five American women shopped at Wal-mart every week. And even as early as 1995, The Christian Coalitian understood the link between “value shoppers” and “values voters”—they could be reached from the pulpit or in the Wal-mart stores.

Moreton shows how Sam Walton built his retail empire from its farmer-oriented Ozark base starting with his flagship store that opened in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. Walton tapped into the reservoir of cheap white female Ozark labor to begin his enterprise. Moreton claims that these women did not mind the low pay or lack of advancement because they were just looking to supplement their husband’s income and they appreciated the flexible work hours that enabled them to tend to their children. Work was like being with family and appealed to the female workers’ Christian values to create what the author calls “servant leaders.” Yet surprisingly, Moreton also explains that Walton and his wife fall outside of the demographic the book focuses on: “[N]either Walton could be described as evangelical, born-again, Pentecostal, or fundamentalist, let alone as Christian activists outside their mainstream denomination.” Helen Walton supported Planned Parenthood and legal access to abortion. Their Presbyterian congregation was considered to be conventionally liberal.

I found the most interesting part of the book to be Walton’s role in infusing the gospel of Christian free enterprise into university business curricula and Walton’s investments in college scholarships for Central Americans during the Reagan/Noriega era. To counter free college scholarships offered by communists in Central America, the Kissinger Commission suggested that Americans offer 10,000 of their own scholarships to help these youths embrace American capitalist values. The Waltons donated $3.6 million. They eventually helped to establish hundreds of scholarships to Christian universities in Arkansas. Recipients overwhelmingly majored in business (and were pressured to do so). Graduates would then return home to spread the religious and economic gospel.

This book relates to Suburban Warriors with common themes of white Christian conservative politics, the important role of females in the system, and the connections to the Reagan presidential era. However, the power structures illustrated in this book seem a bit different. For example, in Suburban Warriors, Estrid Kielsmeier is a woman from the suburbs who runs coffee klatches to gather support for Barry Goldwater’s election. She was an example of an ordinary woman who found a way to effect change in her community and the world at large through networking with other like-minded women. Sam Walton and his wife Helen also found powerful ways to effect change in their community and the world at large through building a financial empire. They too networked from the ground up until they developed the financial and symbolic capital to influence politics from the top.

Posted in 20th century America, Christianity, Civil Rights, conservative politics, gender studies, Ku Klux Klan, marginalization, racism, religion

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Lisa McGirr’s book, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, is an interesting study of the grassroots conservatism that developed in Orange County, California beginning in the late 1950s.  The stories are both enlightening and disturbing as McGirr traces how this group learned to shift the conservative movement away from radical right-wing organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society to develop high levels of respectability for themselves—enough to successfully elect Ronald Regan to the Presidency in 1980.  The big turning point for these conservatives was Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat.  He lost support for opposing the 1964 Civil Rights’ Act and Social Security.  Another contributing factor was his campaign’s association with the John Birch Society.  Republican moderates were alarmed by Goldwater’s nomination acceptance speech where he stated, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”[1]  Following this defeat, but still concerned with “law and order” and “morality,” conservatives shed their extremist language to attract a more mainstream audience.[2]  The 1966 gubernatorial campaign for Reagan was their first real victory.

McGirr’s overriding question considers “how conservative political ideology, often considered an antimodern worldview, attracted a large number of people in the most technologically advanced and economically vibrant of American locales.”[3]  She shows that the Orange County  conservative movement embraced some aspects of modernity while rejecting others.  Right-wing evangelical Protestantism offered meaning through community and morality, and helped to ease fears of looming social upheaval (Communism, integration, birth control and abortion, to name a few).  It also embraced consumerism and entrepreneurial endeavors, which were key aspects of the technological economy that flourished in the region since the end of World War II.

McGirr’s resources included newspaper articles, interviews, sermons, magazines, poitical newsletters, McGuffey Readers, court proceedings transcripts, presidential election statistics, letters, ACLU papers, and the papers of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and other politicians discussed in the book.

This book connects with others on this site in a number of ways.  For example, Estrid Kielsmeier, a woman in the suburbs who ran coffee klatches to gather support for Barry Goldwater’s election, is an example of an ordinary woman who found a way to effect change in her community and the world at large.  She was part of a network of women who “organized study groups, opened ‘Freedom Forum’ bookstores, fill the rolls of the John Birch Society, entered school board races, and worked within the Republican Party, all in an urgent struggle to safeguard their particular vision of freedom and the American heritage.”[4]  And while I would not compare the integrity of the works of Estrid Kielsmeier to Ella Baker, both women worked hard for what they believed in.  “Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations.”[5]  And even though Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom, she dedicated herself to making the entire world a better place for everyone.

[1] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 140-141.

[2] Ibid., 186.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 4.

Posted in 18th century America, 19th century America, immigrants, marginalization, military, religion

Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831

Coller, Ian. Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

In Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, Ian Coller, whose historical research focuses on Europe and the Muslim world since the eighteenth century, offers a “historical triage” of European history with what he calls “an intentional act of seeing” (Coller 2). He does not focus on well-documented populations, such as Algerians and Moroccans; instead, Coller’s research concentrates on several hundred Arabs and their families who accompanied Napoleon’s soldiers to France in the early 1800s (Coller 42). By excavating neglected archives and reimagining a “lost” community through the “fragments, gaps, and silences” between historical documents, Coller unveils a community that was nearly erased from the historical record (Coller 5). Coller offers a new narrative of France that reveals how integral Arab France was to the birth of modern Europe.

Coller’s sources include secondary resources, such as books and journal articles, and a wealth of archival material that includes personal letters, petitions, poetry, and art. A number of engravings and prints are reproduced within the book, which he uses to support his assertions that Arab France was a common sight within France and that “cultural and racial conceptions of the Arab would be reconfigured, with disastrous consequences for Arab France” during the final years of the Restoration (Coller 163).

Coller’s project echoes Water Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where in Thesis VI, Benjamin writes, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Coller attempts to translate the untranslatable in order to bring meaning to overlooked and/or misunderstood customs and gestures (Coller 73). But his argument was weakened by presenting too much evidence. For example, in the chapter “Cosmopolitanism and Confusion,” Coller discloses the works of Arab intellectuals in Paris, which he describes as “numerous, varied, and rich–a whole series of published books and pamphlets, in addition to unpublished sources in Arabic and French” (Coller 159). However, this treasure trove of resources contradicts the lack of evidence for which he seems to be arguing.

Posted in 19th century America, 20th century America, African Americans, Christianity, class, immigrants, marginalization, material culture, racism, reformers, religion, sexuality, urban studies

Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940

Heap, Chad C. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Chad Heap, author of Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940, is an Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University. His academic work examines the relationship between sexuality and the city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Slumming, Heap explores how, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, affluent white Americans ventured into immigrant and mixed-race neighborhoods in order to ogle, lecture, and cavort with their social inferiors. This slumming not only created spaces that enabled middle-class whites to expand their own racial and sexual boundaries, it contributed to the emergence of a new social order where black/white and hetero/homosexual were being clearly defined. The act of slumming helped to reinforce notions of whiteness and social superiority, as did the post war exodus of whites from the inner cities to the suburbs.

Heap researched a wide range of documents, including local government records, sociological studies, novels, newspapers, and trade magazines. However, Heap claims that the most important evidence came from “the field reports of undercover investigators employed by private anti-vice organizations.” Several maps, illustrations, and photographs support the text.

Heap weaves together a variety of experiences into his definition of slumming. While many readers would readily recognize slumming as late-night dancing, drinking, and sexual exploration, Heap also includes missionary and reform activities into the mix. By adding the popular Protestant reform movements into his narrative, he shows how slumming provided middle-class white men and women with a useful way to define their own moral and social superiority. Heap shows how slumming enabled each dominant group to better define themselves: heterosexuals declared themselves against homosexuals, and whites defined themselves against blacks. In addition, even emerging populations, such as immigrant Italians and Jews, were able to use slumming to define themselves as white.

Heap’s argument differs from than Laura Wexler’s Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U. S. Imperialism; however, both books offer a fresh perspective on how whiteness (and heteronormativity) is constructed and reinforced through images of the “other.” Both books also suggest that images of domesticity play a leading role in normalizing dominant group identity. Wexler’s analysis shows that domesticity was used as a trope in actual photographs to offer evidence of civilizing Black and Indian cultures, and to downplay the violence of imperialist military endeavors. For Heap, images of domesticity can be found in the geographical containment of whites in the suburbs. The inferior other remains in the chaos and poverty of the inner city.

Posted in 19th century America, Christianity, Civil War, death, material culture, military, photographs, religion, rituals, violence

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Drew Gilpin Faust is a historian of the Civil War and the American South.  She is also the first female president of Harvard University.  Faust’s latest book, This Republic of Suffering, focuses on how the massive number of deaths that occurred during the Civil War (620,000) forever changed Americans’ understanding of death and their relationship with religion.  As Reverend John Sweet noted in his 1864 sermon that asked “What is Death?”: “There is not a household exempt from the universal lamentation which ascends from a grief stricken people.”[1]  The common belief in the “Good Death” was torn apart as thousands of loved ones faced violent deaths far away from home.  Faust compares letters written by dying soldiers to conclude that “[l]etters describing soldier’s last moments on Earth are so similar, it is as if their authors had a checklist in mind.”[2]  In addition to letters, Faust includes and analyzes political drawings and photographs that were published in newspapers and magazines, as well as literary works that grappled with the nation’s trauma.  Importantly, Faust shows the development of national responsibility for the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the ideals of the country.

Faust does an excellent job of showing how literate white Christian Americans and their families, Union and Confederate, were affected by the war and how the nation responded to their trauma.  African Americans were not completely overlooked, but free and enslaved people’s stories were not given the same nuanced attention as those of white soldiers.  American Indian soldier’s stories were not included at all.  Faust portrays a conservative white Christian understanding of what important factors contributed to the United States as a nation during and immediately following the Civil War.  Additionally, with Faust’s major focus on deciphering meaning from letters, tales from illiterate soldiers, of any color, were omitted.  Oral history did not appear to be an included research methodology.

[1] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 171.

[2] Ibid., 17.