Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: The Associated Press and The New York Times offered special reports on Obama’s legacy. Here are a few selections from their analysis series.

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This week: The Associated Press and The New York Times offered special reports on Obama’s legacy. Here are a few selections from their analysis series.

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. The Obama Era
The New York Times | 2016 and 2017
“The Obama Era [explores in six parts] the sweeping change that President Obama has brought to the nation, and how the presidency has changed him.”
Also see: Obama enters the final weeks of his presidency

2. Obama racial legacy: Pride, promise, regret — and deep rift
By Sharon Cohen and Deepti Hajela | Associated Press | Jan. 4
“[H]is presidency did not usher in racial harmony. Rather, both blacks and whites believe race relations have deteriorated, according to polls. Mounting tensions over police shootings of African-Americans prompted protests in several cities and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Also see: Some key moments related to race during Obama’s presidency

3. As Obama accomplished policy goals, his party floundered
By Lisa Lerer | Associated Press | Dec. 24
“The leadership of the one-time community organizer and champion of ground-up politics was rough on the grassroots of his own party. When Obama exits the White House, he’ll leave behind a Democratic Party that languished in his shadow for years and is searching for itself.”
Interactive: The Obamas’ legacy in race, civil rights, social media, and more

4. Michelle Obama: A first lady who charted her own course
By Darlene Superville | Associated Press | Dec. 26
“As she navigated her way through, the woman who grew up on the South Side of Chicago discovered a talent for television and a comfort with Hollywood A-listers, haute couture and social media. And she used all of those elements to promote her causes — childhood obesity, support for military families, girls’ education — with at least some success.”
Also see: For girls, Michelle Obama is an empowering example
Also see: Michelle Obama: Life’s ‘greatest honor’ was being first lady

5. Michelle Obama loved fashion and the fashion world loved her
By Jocelyn Noveck | Associated Press | Dec. 26
“[U]nlike some past first ladies who favored one or two big-name designers, Mrs. Obama has spread her fashion choices among a huge stable of them — often promoting lesser-known names, and taking care to promote American designers at such high-profile events as inaugurations, conventions and state dinners.”

6. Obama makes his mark as first ‘social media’ president
By Kevin Freking | Associated Press | Jan. 6
“Obama’s two terms in office played out like a running chronicle of the trends of our times.”
Also see: President ending reign as pop culture king

7. 8 ways the US job market has evolved over Obama’s 8 years
By Christopher S. Rugaber | Associated Press | Jan. 6
“The unemployment rate is 4.7 percent. Jobs have been added for 75 straight months, the longest such streak on record. But many other trends, not all of them positive, have reshaped the job market over the past eight years. …”

8. In realist foreign policy, Obama found limits
By Bradley Klapper | Associated Press | Dec. 24
“Over eight years, Obama ushered in a new era of diplomacy, re-establishing the United States as the driving force behind fighting climate change and reducing the threat of nuclear weapons.”

9. Handing Trump a broad view of war powers
By Josh Lederman | Associated Press | Dec. 5
“After eight years as a wartime president, Barack Obama is handing his successor an expansive interpretation of the commander in chief’s authority to wage war around the globe. And that reading has continued to grow even as Obama prepares to pass control to Donald Trump.”

10. A quiet mission to export gay rights oversea
By Josh Lederman | Associated Press | October 2016
“The U.S. has deployed its diplomats and spent tens of millions of dollars to try to block anti-gay laws, punish countries that enacted them, and tie financial assistance to respect for LGBT rights. … Yet the U.S. encountered occasional backlash, including from some rights groups that said public pressure by the West made things worse.”

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: Henry Kissinger / George Washington and whiskey / Scorsese’s love for the Rolling Stones / Beyonce’s hot sauce / The drama of gravitational wave detection

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This week: Henry Kissinger / George Washington and whiskey / Scorsese’s love for the Rolling Stones / Beyonce’s hot sauce / The drama of gravitational wave detection

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. The Dawn of a New Era in Science
By Matthew Francis | The Atlantic | Feb. 11
“By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.”

2. Shut Up and Press Play
By Mary-Louise Parker | Esquire Classic | September 2006
“If you want to rock this girl (or yours), these are the songs you need to know”

3. William Shatner Opens Up About Deathbed Rift With Leonard Nimoy and Their Long Friendship
By Katie Wilson Berg | The Hollywood Reporter | Feb. 12
“Shatner spoke … about his respect for Nimoy as an artist and the mystery of why the man he calls ‘the only friend I ever had’ shut him out in the last years of his life.”

4. A History of Martin Scorsese’s Love Affair with the Rolling Stones
By Dan Reilly | Vulture | Feb. 12
“‘My films,’ the man himself once said, ‘would be unthinkable without them.’ ”

5. We All Need Beyonce’s Hot Sauce
By Goldie Taylor | The Daily Beast | Feb. 8
“It’s a flavorful essence — proud, black, and full of social justice.”

6. InstaTexas: The Stars At Night…
By Jordan Breal | Texas Monthly | Feb. 11
“Are big and bright — and ready for their close-up.”

7. George Washington, the Whiskey Baron of Mount Vernon
By Michael Beschloss | The Upshot :: The New York Times | Feb. 12
“It was not exactly in keeping with Washington’s public image to enter the whiskey trade.”

8. Gravitational Waves Exist: The Inside Story of How Scientists Finally Found Them
By Nicola Twilley | Elements :: The New Yorker | Feb. 11
“It took years to make the most sensitive instrument in history insensitive to everything that is not a gravitational wave. Emptying the tubes of air demanded forty days of pumping. The result was one of the purest vacuums ever created on Earth, a trillionth as dense as the atmosphere at sea level.”

9. Henry Kissinger: Good or Evil?
Politico Magazine | October 2015
“10 historians assess the controversial statesman’s legacy”

10. T.R.’s Son Inspired Him to Help Rescue Football
By Michael Beschloss | HistorySource :: The New York Times | August 2014
“T.R.’s intervention … helped lead to … the enforcement of new rules, which included the forward pass, a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage, another referee on the field and later prohibitions against brutal maneuvers like kneeing and punching opponents by using locked hands.”

Endless borderlands

Fifteen essays and books explore the borderlands field with passion and intelligence, daring their readers to leave behind their old worlds and follow them into new ones.

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Fifteen essays and books explore the borderlands field with passion and intelligence, daring their readers to leave behind their old worlds and follow them into new ones. A review essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

*****

Works reviewed in this essay

Adelman, Jeremy, and Stephen Aron. “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History.” American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (June 1999): 814-841.

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Barr, Juliana. Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Brown, Wendy. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books, 2010.

Chang, Kornel. Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-Canada Borderlands. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012.

Hämäläinen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

—. and Samuel Truett. “On Borderlands.” The Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (2011): 338-361.

Hoffnung-Garskof, Jesse. A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Johnson, Benjamin H., and Andre R. Graybill, eds. Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Lytle-Hernandez, Kelly. Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010.

McManus, Sheila. The Line Which Separates: Race, Gender, and the Making of the Alberta-Montana Borderlands. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Mora, Anthony P. Border Dilemmas: Racial and National Uncertainties in New Mexico, 1848-1912. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011.

Shah, Nayan. Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011.

St. John, Rachel. Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 2011.

Weber, David. Bárbaros: Spaniards and their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

*****

I. Introductions

The borderlands mark divisions of land on maps. They mark divisions of races, communities, economies, and families. But borderlands are also more than dividers. Borderlands are where culture and history collide, dance, and coalesce. They are where nation’s futures are conceived, where risks are taken, and where ideas are born. Borderlands cradle both conflict and peace, friction and abrasion, the past and future. Borderlands are gateways through which to view national, cultural, racial, and imperial histories with fresh and sharper eyes. Fifteen essays and books explore the borderlands field with passion and intelligence, daring their readers to leave behind their old worlds and follow them into new ones.

For the uninitiated, borderlands are dark landscapes. But lighting the way are Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Anon, Benjamin Johnson, Andrew Graybill, Samuel Truett, and the wonderfully-named Pekka Hamalanien. By combining three essays from 1999, 2010, and 2011, their analyses form a grand introduction to the field.

Graybill and Johnson ask why historians take the borders for granted. They worry that that the lines on maps imply inevitability. They fret that the borders do not evoke or inspire historical curiosity into the regions they cut through. They hold up borderlands studies as the antidote to that narrow vision and lack of curiosity.

Adelman and Anon explain that the borderlands approach was meant to challenge Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, which looked east to west, by turning the axis north to south. Rather than considering unilateral European conquest, the field considered how indigenous and European civilizations met and mixed, bilaterally conquering each other. It implied that nation-building did not end once the necessary territory was declared conquered. The borderlands approach, which inherently challenged historians’ traditional reliance on a nation-state perspective on the world, also embraced border zones once imperial lands became modern nation-states.

In 2011, Hamalanien and Truett critically noted that Adelman and Anon ignored other processes that affect borderlands — cultural shifts, warfare, malleable concepts of nation (like indigenous territories), and natural pressures on societies, like landscape changes and epidemics. They pointed out that borderlands inherently challenge master historical narratives anchored to centers of political and cultural power. Ascribing importance to borderlands questioned the supreme importance of those centers, and of nation-states as a whole. Borderlands historians were willing to consider that perhaps non-state actors made equally significant contributions to the overall political or social entity.

Perhaps historians, borderlands proponents argued, needed to listen with equal care to voices from both the centers and the margins. Power and national identity when viewed through that prism becomes ambiguous and historically revitalized. Borderlands become the alternative centers of nation and empire. The borderlands approach also acts as a spotlight to capture movements between political entities, societies, and cultures that were previously unknown or understudied. It spotlights the violence of that friction and abrasion that takes place between competing peoples desperate for food, water, legitimacy, or shelter. This array of introductory essays urged historians to challenge themselves to find these perspectives.

II. Imperial borderlands

Borderlands are born when two or more powers encounter each other. The Spanish New World burned with borderland dynamics. David J. Weber’s Barbaros explores the Indian-Spanish contact zones, details how Spain attempted to administer them, and concludes that even when the Bourbons reformed Spanish America, the region was never completely conquered. Reforms to the military and church networks were not fully implemented, control and structure never consolidated. Consequently, the borderlands region remained violent, dynamic, and, most importantly, influential to the entire bureaucracy. Indian action dictated imperial reaction.

Beyond the warmth of steady and strong Spanish control, colonists lived difficult lives. Dominant Indian powers manipulated colonial communities, turning them into supply depots or shelters, or forced them to pay tribute, while others simply ravaged poorly protected colonies. Reformers wanted the frontier turned into a borderlands region, where commerce, Christianity, and peace reigned, all on Bourbon Spanish terms, which were never achieved except on paper.

But Bourbons focused on building relationships with Indians, reforming them from barbarians into Christian men, thereby building cultural and economic bridges into stronger indigenous networks. As the Spanish elements grew stronger, enlightened attitudes reverted to racism, rejecting the gradual incorporation of Indians.

Pekka Hamalainen’s The Comanche Empire argues that the Comanches were “an indigenous empire.” They were an association of tribes, he claims, that gradually built themselves into a force that dominated what today is the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico, a force so powerful that it effectively obstructed the expansion of French, Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. power for almost two centuries.

The Comanche Empire, he explains, did not simply exist in an Adelman/Anon borderland of negated imperial power and enhanced indigenous influence — they created a new space where the indigenous Comanches dominated, embraced, and transformed the isolated colonialists.

Key to their steady growth and dominance was the willingness to open their culture to new ideas, languages, and religions, which provided them with new domestic strategies, intelligence on distant neighbors, and conduits into useful economic networks.

Acknowledging Comanche power and its crippling influence on Spanish and Mexican control, he asserts, explains how the young U.S. consumed half of Mexico in the late 1840s. The tragic irony is that the U.S. quickly turned its guns on the Comanches to consume their land and cleanse the landscape of non-whites and non-Christians. Comanche greatness required extreme measures to defeat it.

Juliana Barr examines in Peace Came in the Form of a Woman the gender and kinship expectations Europeans and indigenous faced when interacting with each other in colonial Texas dominated by Indian standards.

Women played central roles in virtually every equation. Spaniards scratching out communities in Indian-controlled territory initially refused to marry Indian women, losing out on the economic advantages Indians placed on kinship connections. Without kinship connections, Indians viewed Spaniards as outsiders. Only by marrying women from competitor French families did they finally tap into those economic networks. Spaniards captured Apache women when Apaches attacked them. When Apaches and Spaniards allied against common enemies, Apache women became the connections between both groups. Women from all indigenous groups symbolized peace offerings, peace emblems, and peace envoys.

Spaniards and Indians also communicated with displays of gender. Martial displays signaled masculinity. They shared masculine codes of honor. A military assembly signaled trouble, but when masculinity was paired with femininity, the assembly signaled peace.

III. Northern perspective

The Line Which Separates and Pacific Connections, respectively authored by Sheila McManus and Kornel Chang, highlight how the Canadian and U.S. power centers struggled to control their borderlands and underestimated the effect the borderlands had on those power centers. Both warn that in the historical search for the source of national character, the borderlands and the methods used to control those borderlands cannot be ignored.

Many excellent books in the historical borderlands field typically focus with a racial lens on the U.S. borders with Latin America. McManus and Chang make invaluable contributions to the U.S. borderlands field simply by focusing instead on the U.S-Canada border and the unique contests for its future. They construct their histories from opposite directions — McManus looking west from U.S. and Canadian capitals and Chang looking east from the Pacific region.

McManus argues that Canada and the U.S. post-structurally reimagined their respective western societies as proving grounds where potential national values were conceived, tested, and sharpened against unwelcome cultures and races, and held up for all citizens to adopt. Their border along the 49th parallel was key to those “nation-making efforts” because it politically delineated where one nation-state ended and the other began. It symbolized their capacity to control who crossed that border, who lived in those critical regions, and what values governed their lives.

Chang argues that the regions along the 49th parallel should not be seen as border zones but as transnational and transpacific crossroads. Chang expands the north south/east-axis of the McManus book to include multiple continents, empires, and commodity chains. Instead of Ottawa and Washington, D.C., or Alberta and Montana, Chang examines Seattle and Vancouver, recasting the Pacific Northwest and the Pacific coast as buzzing economic and imperial hubs. The nation-states’ challenge was to control that chaos to their advantage by employing institutions governing immigration, monitoring borders, and manipulating migration.

One of many rivers of migrants into Canada and the U.S. streamed from South Asia. An examination of cultural influences they brought with them would be fascinating enough. But Nayan Shah takes several steps beyond that in Stranger Intimacy to examine erotic, social, and economic relationships between the immigrants and a variety of other groups throughout Western communities of workers.

His South Asians brought with them into western U.S. and Canadian regions borderlands sensitivities as colonized members of the British Empire, as English speakers amid Mexican and Chinese workers, and as men who moved across racial boundaries put in place by the societies their labor was meant to expand. Using legal and police records produced by the clash of immigrant actions and their societies’ reactions — arrests for sexual activities, questions over immigration status, concerns over white public safety — Shah produces a network of racial and legal borderlands the immigrants overcame or failed to overcome.

Domestic racial attitudes against South Asians’ supposed demoralizing effects on white families tolerated white violence. That violence, coupled with legal surveillance and oppression drove immigrants’ contacts with each other into secret places, turning their stranger interactions into stranger intimacies with glances, movements, and other secret signals. The homosocial regions the legal system identified became border zones of state surveillance, racial oppression, and assumption of criminal activity between legitimate and illegitimate societies. The intensity of sexual oppression bolstered normative white identities and further emphasized the deviancy of foreign entities.

IV. Special cases

Euro-American control over the sections of former Mexico is a vital topic in borderlands studies. In Border Dilemmas, Anthony Mora focused on how Euro-Americans used literature and letters to steadily undermine their cultural, political, and economic control of New Mexico.

They portrayed New Mexican women as sensual beasts, businesswomen as prostitutes, and men as savages who could not control their society. Euro-American colonists, Mora explains, saw themselves as the ones to bring civilized order to this chaos. By sensualizing and dehumanizing the men and women, Euro-Americans justified their invasions of Mexican territory, their racist attitudes toward the Mexican inhabitants, and their attempts to dominate and transform the societies upon which they would build a virtuous American Eden.

By labeling Mexican businesswomen as prostitutes and ignoring the economic agency they enjoyed in Mexican society, Euro-Americans could strip from them any semblance of economic legitimacy or social value, permanently damage their community standing, and generally enhance the threatened patriarchy. By characterizing Mexican men as weak or corrupt, Euro-Americans could portray themselves as saviors of Mexican womanhood, now recast as victims of male Mexican vices. Charitable and heroic white men would save these women with marriage, absorb their Mexican blood (descended from quality European blood, surely) into their white bloodlines and families, thereby improving the overall New Mexican community while conveniently ignoring the insecurities in the white U.S. South over racial mixing with black slaves. Mora captures with subtle humor the ridiculous ironies and hypocrisies at work.

Euro-American attempts to enforce “gendered divisions of space,” Mora explains, were key to their control. Women belonged in the privacy and purity of the home. Mexican women also belonged in the home, but in the homes of white women, where they would learn under white tutelage how to become proper American housewives.

They would share the gendered space and occupy appropriate racial roles within domestic walls. Mora connects this racism to U.S. devotion to domestic power and, by extension, to civilizing power. As white women domesticated the home, they also domesticated (tamed) the white men taming the borderlands. They symbolized the white race reaching into the frontiers of their new empire, bringing domestic stability and the values of a proper white home to savages.

The values of white patriarchy only intensified the existing Mexican patriarchy. Mexican elites saw self-serving opportunities to play the Euro-American game over the New Mexican chessboard. New Mexican women were marginalized socially, sexually, and economically, with little or no role in society except as emblems and tools of the patriarchal nation-building enterprise their men purported to lead. Even the oppressed did their own heinous oppressing.

Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera sees the borderlands marking divisions in the hearts and minds of the people who populate them. The men and women who exist on the fringes of nation, religion, and race live with divisions within themselves. Anzaldua urges these borderland citizens to be proud: The Chicano borderlands are where national and racial futures are born. They are special places for homosexual men and women, Indians, the socially and intellectually liberated. It’s a place of many tongues, religions, and talents. Any minority will find a home there because they are borderlands themselves — they exist in multiple worlds simultaneously, always adjusting their gradients to blend in with the larger, more dominant colors. They are the future race of a better nation and society, without constructs, limitations, discriminations, or oppression.

Anzaldua holds herself as the example. She is a gay mestiza who speaks not just English and Spanish but variations of both. She refuses to adhere to expectations of how a mestiza should behave, think, or live. She erases the borderlands within her by embracing what they are expected to keep separate.

Perhaps securing political legitimacy for the borderlands citizens begins there. Borderlands citizens must connect themselves somehow with the political cores of their societies, through moderate allies, social upheavals, or war. Only then can they change their nation from within. Society eventually changes to accept gay men and women, and to view men and women and all races equally. Those who refuse to change are the ones marginalized, dismissed, and rejected. An equitable and just society – perhaps that is the ultimate goal for all borderlands citizens. Buried in the ashes of their anguish are the elements of eventual social greatness.

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof’s A Tale of Two Cities follows Dominican people as they moved from the countryside to capital city Santo Domingo to the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights and back to Santo Domingo. Within these transnational currents he finds Dominicans navigating the fault-lines of culture, race, and economics in both the United States and the Dominican Republic. Dominicans in both cities were elements of the same transnational entity, confronting different manifestations of the same imperialist power, racially differentiating themselves from other minorities, and struggling to live up to their ideals of progress and culture.

Working-class Dominicans struggled to find and then improve their place in the Dominican Republic or the U.S. The book’s bottom-up approach is structured along two ideals: progress (certain actions would improve one’s life, social standing, and national well-being) and culture (perceived values and the standard that decided who belonged and who did not).

The author gives tremendous agency to Dominicans but also points out the irony in their outlooks. When modernization projects stripped economic opportunities from sugar plantations and ranches, rural people flooded Dominican cities to find new economic opportunities. They embraced the progreso/cultura ideals and demanded paved roads and sanitation in their barrios. Men condemned gangs and women condemned prostitution, but gangs were also seen as a potential defensive force against U.S. incursions and women asked prostitutes for sex advice.

In the U.S., Dominicans combined progreso/cultura virtues — improving their economic lives while also protecting their Dominican national values — by extending their sense of home northward to encompass New York. Dominicans saw little need to assimilate because in their minds they had never left the Dominican Republic. Dark-skinned Dominicans faced racial/ethnic discrimination from Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Anglos as they made their own distinctions between themselves and Haitians. Dominicans embraced the U.S. consumerism as they blamed the U.S. for the materialism and delinquency they saw in Dominican society.

V. The meaning of borders

Borderlands don’t exist without borders. Rachel St. John’s Line in the Sand offers a multifaceted biography of the western U.S.-Mexico border, from El Paso to the Pacific Ocean. The line is a consequence of military conquest, local warfare, political and economic ambitions, and state-sanctioned policing, much more than the natural divider of the Rio Grande.

The line changed in significance over time. For criminals it was the doorway to freedom. For lovers of vice, it was the gateway to illegality. For U.S. politicians, it was a triumph of a superior society over its inferior neighbor. Indian raids necessitated borderland security forces. Borderland commerce and railroads created twin cities. Nation-state efforts to define and enforce it symbolized the inherent weakness of centered-power perspectives ignoring the significance of borderland entities.

As for the force deployed to regulate who moves across that line and who doesn’t, in Migra! Kelly Lytle Hernandez considers the U.S. Border Patrol as part of state-sanctioned violence against Mexican communities naturally flowing through the artificially imposed borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico. Bi-national economic and political demands coupled with the individual demands of its personnel guided the evolution of the Border Patrol as a predatory borderlands entity. Examining this aspect of borderlands existence further illuminates how borderlands and their inhabitants are perceived and rejected or accepted by their nation-states, and the role of violence in attempting to assert the nation-state’s sovereignty over its territory and society. It also highlights Mexico’s postwar partnership with a foreign security force in an effort to control their northward flow of its own people.

The Border Patrol historically worked with borderlands businesses to ensure a steady supply of cheap Mexican labor while enforcing white standards of behavior among races and genders. Officers shaped official U.S. immigration policies to suit local situations and their own interests, interweaving border control objectives with community and economic life. The focus on Mexican rather than Canadian criminality has more to do with the communities dark-skinned people entered than with the actual act of undocumented crossing.

Wendy Brown examines physical borders and the borderlands they mean to enforce in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Wall-building projects throughout the globalized, Internet-dominated world, she argues, is a symptom of a larger insecurity over the loss of nation-state control over territory, people, resources, and security. The concept of sovereignty — of control — and its separation from what it means to be a nation-state is what drives pathetic construction work on the U.S.-Mexico border, and throughout the U.S.

What is to be contained is held up as pure, and then the potential foreign threats are identified, and then the wall is promoted as the solution. Even within the beacon of Western democracy, the rich seal themselves off from the poor, businesses wrap themselves in porous digital security blankets, and religious sects build compounds — retreats — in which to properly indoctrinate their flocks. The psychological comfort of walls, borders, lines, and zones infers a stable order is in place. Control is recovered.

Hamalanien and Truett encourage borderlands historians to embrace the inherent chaos in borderlands. That instability had unintended consequences and created unexpected opportunities. Indigenous groups play roles in creating empires or use their own to control their regions. Marginal groups influence the core. Ignored voices participate in the national discussion. New historical roots are discovered. These fifteen works demonstrate the value borderlands studies bring to the historical field. What may appear to be chaos to outdated historical views is beautiful intellectual symphonies to the cutting-edge borderlands lovers.

Torn in the USA

Life, liberty, and the doomed pursuit of happiness. A review essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

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Life, liberty, and the doomed pursuit of happiness.
A review essay by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

******

Discussed in this essay:

Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History. By David Allyn. (New York: Routledge, 2001. 400 pp. $26.96).

Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. 2nd ed. By Lizabeth Cohen. (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 568 pp. $25.99).

Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. By Jefferson Cowie. (New York: The New Press, 2010. 488 pp. $15.98).

“Resistance in the Urban North: Trumbull Park, Chicago, 1953-1966.” By Arnold R. Hirsch. The Journal of American History. (82, no. 2 [September, 1995]: 522-550. JSTOR [accessed Feb. 1, 2013] ).

In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement. Edited by Jama Lazerow and Yohuru Williams. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. 408 pp. $24.01).

Quixote’s Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, 1966-1981. By David Montejano. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010. 360 pp. $23.70).

Polio: An American Story. By David M. Oshinsky. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 368 pp. $16.95).

“Crabgrass-Roots Politics: Race, Rights, and the Reaction against Liberalism in the Urban North, 1940-1964.” By Thomas J. Sugrue. The Journal of American History. 82, no. 2 [September, 1995]: 551-578. JSTOR [accessed Feb. 1, 2013] ).

I.

The New Deal caressed with warm rays of hope the hearts and minds of millions of Americans grappling with the Great Depression. Shimmering ideals carved into the pillars of 1930s bureaucratic power re-invented the relationship between government and the people it represented. The New Deal also served for subsequent generations as a gateway opening onto a glowing era without racism, illness, or injustice. Citizens only needed to step towards the entrance to realize the core tenets – and challenges — of their American democracy: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Select academic and popular works from the past two decades beautifully illustrate how Americans dared to aspire for better lives, to reach out for democracy’s sweetest fruits, and to confront adversaries unwilling to share the treasures of freedom.

The aspiration for a better life often began with fair employment. Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal and Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive both focus on the journey the working-class endured throughout six decades of economic turbulence and doomed political alliances. Cohen sets the stage by exploring Chicago’s ethnic working-class communities from about 1920 to 1940. Before the Great Depression, companies corralled their workers into paternalistic corporate societies. Workers enjoyed picnics, medical care, education, and other key aspects of a full life, yet all existed in the company’s shadow, without leverage to demand higher wages or a significant voice to improve worker conditions. Corporate authority framed workers’ identities. Cohen’s tapestry of Chicago communities gradually changed their understanding of who they were – from automatons governed by heartless corporate machinery to autonomous citizens who could no longer look to their employers for economic protection. Just as they changed their outlook, the liberal Democratic Roosevelt administration grew in political power and effectiveness. They reached out for each other. Energized unions offered workers a new avenue towards their goals of economic security, social legitimacy, and a viable political voice. The Democratic Party valued union support, listened to workers’ needs, and institutionalized the view that government could protect workers from corporate manipulation and financial unrest.

But the freedom from corporate autocracy, Cohen explains, added to workers’ lives a new vulnerability to “new tyrannies.” Chicago workers, along with workers throughout the U.S., became so closely bound to Democratic policy that when the Roosevelt administration, faced with entry into World War II, moved closer to companies needed to make war materiel, workers had no choice but to endure the consequences of corporate-friendly agreements. Alliances with political groups, Cohen also points out, meant workers swam in deeper political waters, filled with large allies but even larger enemies. Workers savored their new political value, but their leaders also did whatever was necessary to hold on to that influence on parties, administrations, and elections. Political enemies like Richard Nixon targeted that desire and the frustration workers felt over advantages the civil rights movements afforded to minorities.

Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive examines labor after the New Deal’s light faded beyond history’s horizons. He focuses on the years between 1968 and 1982. The working-class identity in the midst of that postwar political dusk was still proud and hopeful, hand-in-hand with liberal determination to transform the working-class into a new segment of the middle class. Three decades later, the working-class identity was a mutilated and incinerated political corpse quietly spat upon and dumped into Ronald Reagan’s ashbin of history.

The 1968 presidential election opened amid the cacophony of riots over the Vietnam War and years of unrest over the Great Society’s promised solutions to workplace, school, and social inequalities. Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged from Democrats’ circular firefight as the presidential nominee, with only the labor machinery at his side, Cowie writes, making labor the “big boss in the Democratic Party.” Richard Nixon, leading a united Republican Party, raced into the gaps in the Democratic ranks, slicing off white working-class workers with manufactured sympathy over their growing hostility to effete Northern “elitists,” the anti-war movement, women who refused to recognize traditional patriarchal authority, and empowered minorities disrupting workplaces and intensifying corporate hostility to labor’s aspirations for better wages and improved worker rights. Workers in 1968 and 1972 slipped into a warm electoral spa with Nixon, a python sympathetically caressing their dreams as his coils squeezed them to death. Nixon, Cowie deftly points out, was the last president to view the working class in the context of their New Deal legacy of political empowerment. He invented a new chess board on which workers were neutralized as electoral threats and absorbed into the net Nixon cast over the landscape of American voters. He lured them into his New Majority by targeting the cultural-vs.-material dichotomy in the workers’ outlook, appealing to their sentimental ideal of New Deal America and blurring the financial danger his party posed to workers’ dreams for better lives.

The danger Nixon directly posed to labor’s aspirations ended with his 1974 resignation. But Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory – secured in part with his own Nixonian seduction of working-class patriotic sentiments — worsened what Nixon began. His election followed four years of Democrat Jimmy Carter, who was never a stalwart labor ally and was hardly the mortar needed to rebuild the old alliances the civil rights and antiwar movements fractured. Economic problems sparked in the late 1960s intensified in the 1970s. Industries moved to regions that fought union organization and offered corporate-friendly employment laws. By 1980, Cowie wrote, “a unionized manufacturing job” was a precious drink of water for workers crawling across a blasted economic wasteland. The dire predicament worsened when the Reagan administration shattered the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) strike in 1981, legitimating conservative disregard for labor as a viable element of the political calculus and exposing workers, stripped of government allies, to corporate manipulation. Cohen’s workers embarked on a journey to build new and better lives. Cowie’s workers continued the journey but failed to overcome the obstacles that moved into their path. The menagerie of groups gathered under the New Deal canopy may have simulated solidarity but they also stimulated real (if not lasting) determination among labor, even if bitter divisions negated their triumphs.

II.

One of the New Deal’s sparks ignited the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. As the working class pursued better economic lives, blacks and Latinos throughout the United States pursued liberty. David Montejano’s Quixote’s Soldiers and Jama Lazerow’s and Yohuru Williams’ In Search of the Black Panther Party both portray inspired individuals striving for the dignity of equal treatment, but the authors also refuse to portray equally inspirational coalitions that overcame every level of institutional opposition. Internal divisions, as Cohen and Cowie illustrate with their labor histories, threatened the civil rights movements at every turn.

Montejano’s three-part local history explores the multifaceted Chicano civil rights fight in San Antonio from 1966 to 1981. Chicanos targeted the “gringo supremacy” that governed the city and region. They saw Anglos dominating the social scenes and annual Fiesta events. They blamed Anglos for limiting Latino economic mobility and quality of education. The Latino movement descended from World War II and Korean War Latino veterans who returned home with legitimate expectations, particularly “first-class citizenship,” from the society they fought to defend. Social activists tried to ease the ravaging effects of gang violence and drug use on youth culture by encouraging Chicanismo or “carnalismo” — a sense of Chicano brotherhood that appreciated Latino history and aimed to improve a Latino identity unfairly associated with poverty, ignorance, and violence. Latinos demanded better schools and textbooks, and they conducted school walkouts to drive home their displeasure. They marched in the streets to protest police brutality and housing discrimination. They formed organizations like the Mexican American Youth Organization to coordinate messages, register voters, and gather participants.

Montejano considers much of San Antonio’s Chicano movement a success. But with progress came resistance. Montejano points to U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, who saw the new fiery Chicano voices as a threat to his institutionalized power base. Like patriarchal labor leaders willing to deal with any political power that preserved their status, Gonzalez perceived Chicano protestors’ “aggressive nationalism” as disruptive to fragile local understandings and arrangements with the “gringo supremacy” and to his own ambitions. Chicanas demanded equality from the paternalistic community that expected them to remain subordinate to Chicano goals, tactics, and directions, and resistance to their demands also caused internal rifts. Women, Montejano writes, challenged male activists to extend the equality principle to their own households and “machismo” attitudes that oppressed Chicana expression and progress. The struggle echoes Cohen, who wrote that female members of the Congress of Industrial Organizations were not allowed in positions of union leadership because “the male breadwinner would represent the family’s interests in policy making.”

Lazerow and Williams take a dispersed approach to the Black Panther Party’s accomplishments and contributions. In Search of the Black Panther Party uses fourteen essays to connect their battles to a wide array of revolutionary movements within and beyond U.S. borders. Contributor Jeffrey Ogbar’s piece on Black Panther connections to Latino nationalists best illustrates their struggle in a larger racial context. The Black Panthers inspired the Chicano Brown Berets and the Puerto Rican Young Lords and Latin Kings. The aggressively vocal “black demand for equality,” embodied by Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, also energized Latino youths who realized their demands could be heard by institutions that could address them. Black nationalist themes of “multinational alliances and cooperation” resonated with Chicanos who saw paralyzing U.S. colonialism in Central America and with Puerto Ricans in the U.S. who saw pervasive Caribbean poverty. The Black Panthers also played a uniting factor among strivers for liberty. In 1970, Ogbar explains, the Party “became the first major black organization to align itself with a women’s liberation movement,” which was seen as an Anglo cause. They later embraced the gay rights movement. The Panthers linked Latinas to bolder visions of social equality their patriarchal Chicano partners could not stomach, and they injected Black Power’s pride and dignity into the Latino movements, enriching the struggles as well as the rewards.

Social divisions often crippled the civil rights struggles. Arnold R. Hirsch’s study of white resistance to community change in Chicago from 1953 to 1966 and Thomas J. Sugrue’s study of similar disdain in Detroit from 1940 to 1964 both brutally underline the tragic consequences of unresolved racial differences among the New Deal’s descendants. Hirsch’s microstudy of a plan to move black families into Chicago’s Trumbull Park Homes and Sugrue’s local history of Detroit’s white working class illustrate how some Americans reached their economic goals and left other similar groups behind. In Chicago, whites refused to live with blacks in the same neighborhood. In Detroit, whites worried that rights for minorities threatened their workplaces, wages, schools, and communities. Social, personal, and material concerns, Hirsch and Sugrue demonstrate, mattered more than the moral struggle for equality and justice.

Americans pursued better lives and secure liberties. They also pursued happiness – fuller lives, longer lives, and healthier lives. The New Deal’s defeat of poverty and the World War II defeat of fascism primed Americans for victory in an old war at home: the fight for freedom from disease and, decades later, the fight for freedom from sexual oppression.

III.

David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story explores the national endeavor to eradicate the polio virus with a safe vaccine. Millions of dollars were raised. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also a polio victim, encouraged the multi-city celebration of his birthday to raise funds for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. He inspired women canvassing their communities for donations. Citizens and politicians worked together for the common good. A vaccine would help young and poor, of any race or religion, and prove the benefits of a democratic society free to fulfill its potential. It also showcased U.S. scientific abilities as the postwar era darkened into the Cold War era. Experts like Jonas Salk became the public face of American ingenuity. The 1954 vaccination trials offered tangible hope and a sense of progress towards an ultimate cure.

The polio story touches on race, ethnicity, and class. Before the vaccine’s development, Americans blamed immigrants for bringing disease and viewed lower-class slums as cesspools of infection. But rich and poor were struck equally. Scientists thought black Americans were less susceptible to polio, so they received less attention during outbreaks. By the mid-1950s, polio ravaged the lower classes who could not afford the three-shot-plus-booster combination.

Freedom from oppression is just as important as freedom from disease. David Allyn’s Make Love, Not War tenderly explores a sexual renaissance that ebbed and flowed from the 1960s to the 1980s, opening new social spaces for expressions of gay sexuality, experiments with group sex, sophisticated sexual education, the birth control pill, and an open sexual life.

Allyn argues that the sexual revolution changed the most important element of any sex life: the mind. Every phase of the revolution, from acceptance of sexual literature at bookstores to a woman deciding to have an abortion or control her fertility, prepared for the ground for more changes in Americans’ outlook on their times. Swinger parties were incorporated into normal suburban lives. Couples consulted illustrated sex manuals to improve their nocturnal time together. Gay Americans celebrated their desires in clubs that were no longer hidden away in shameful corners of the urban landscape. The revolution introduced to Americans a new freedom from fear, and that freedom still flourishes — and must still be defended — today.

The pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness eventually end for some as others begin the journey anew. Superior forces obstructed the revolutions’ progress. Tragic internal weaknesses, inherent or introduced at a later point, ripped apart movements’ ideological cohesion and lasting power. These works offer larger lessons and warnings to future revolutionaries and idealists: know where you want to arrive before beginning the journey, and bind yourselves tightly to your most unlikely of allies. These works silently demand perseverance, patience, and belief that the American Dream belongs to everyone. One must only fight for it, even if it means fighting other marginalized Americans. There may never be enough of the Dream for everyone.