Thursday, 29 January 2015

Hurling the Little Streets Against the Great: Marshall Berman’s Perennial Modernism

Marshall Berman, c. 1970s

Marshall Berman was an inspired visionary, indeed a prophet of modernism, which he understood as the deep story of the last century and a half—not only its uprisings and its arts but the experiences and problems of everyday life. He thought there was plenty of life in the beast: that through indirections and detours, theses and antitheses, modernism might yet take us into new territories even as it was haunted by ghosts of the past. Again and again, Marshall posed the question of how to find hope in a ruthless, berserk world. Ever attuned to the potential for responding to grotesque power, he rightly understood resistance as integral to the modern zeitgeist.
Modernity, he understood, was twisted into a Möbius strip of creative destruction and destructive creation. Creative destruction had been celebrated by Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 as the essential dynamic of capitalism: capital was always, necessarily, a wrecking ball. If you didn’t like it, too bad; history would wreck you too. Marshall saw the whole edifice that capitalism had built, and was still building, as a destructive creation. A civilization that had figured out how to power the engine of growth by burning the remnants of dead life—using so-called fossil fuels—could only be inherently self-destructive. It could generate unimaginable wealth, while simultaneously making the world as we know it unlivable. Yet the ability to look around the corner and see, deep inside modernity, the insurgent spirit at work was precisely Marshall’s gift.
Marshall was quintessentially a citizen of unfinished New York, a world city of immigrants (36 percent today, about the same as before the First World War). New York City shaped his intricate encounter between modernism and Marxism, both of which aspired to finesse modernity into a society worthy of the best in humanity.
Marshall was a New Yorker rooted in the uprootedness of his Jewish immigrant grandparents and the ideals of the socialist left, a condition he shared with many born just before or during the Second World War. While his surroundings at first appeared auspicious for such an upbringing, this changed. New Deal liberalism and the expansion of the welfare state were rebuffed when national health care was defeated in 1948; Marshall was then eight years old. Then came McCarthy. Marshall came of age after the resounding defeat (and self-defeat) of the Marxist dream of a unified proletarian movement. The latter had shriveled into sectarian irrelevance at best and Soviet apologia at worst; sometimes, both. A good deal of the working-class-in-itself was integrated into an American celebration, as C. Wright Mills called it, and the putative class-for-itself did not exist. There were uprisings to celebrate—the civil rights movement chief among them—but there was no crescendo of history.
An intellectual of the left with an original cast of mind, an energetic student of the indeterminacies of history, allergic to determinism, passionate but unafraid of irony, would logically be a dangling intellectual. Dangling was the only place left for an independent soul. This was not only a tactical decision but a case of elective affinities, for Marshall was a free spirit with definite Luftmensch tendencies. He was an omnivore. He devoured books, movies, music, theatre—everything that fed the life of the free-floating mind at loose in a dynamic world that, however poisoned, however warped, however frozen, was never devoid of promise.
Modernity, Berman understood, was twisted into a Möbius strip of creative destruction and destructive creation.
But Marshall had another brilliant move in his repertory. If the class that theory had designated the universal class of the future was quiescent, if perverted Marxism in power was a monstrosity, Marshall would look to the streets. If utopia betrayed itself in power, modernism would have to take to the streets, which would not simply serve as a proscenium for power but become power itself—the power of collective self-creation.
For Marshall, modernism was fired up and ready to leap to the rescue of the modern, radically displaced individual, because it celebrated energy and incompleteness, disruption and overcoming. But modernism would celebrate these breakthrough aspirations without the illusion of click-of-the-lid closings. Marshall was partial to his teacher Lionel Trilling’s remark that the upheavals of the 1960s amounted to “modernism in the streets.” While it’s uncertain if Trilling ever celebrated this eruption of what he came to call “adversary culture,” it is clear that Marshall, along with millions of his generation, did. The streets were where modernism needed to be for its own development.
Marshall didn’t say so, but the truth was that museums, libraries, universities, and publishers, among others, had let modernism down. They were cultural repositories but they were also sarcophagi. Modernism was—as perhaps was appropriate—homeless. The street was where it belonged.
So when modernism took to the streets in a vast web of ’60s performances—New Left rallies, guerrilla theater manifestations, countercultural collectives and every other manifestation of freedom and insouciance—Marshall was seized with the idea that this was more than a style; it was an identity and a crucible for creation. Moreover, it did not come out of the blue; it had a lineage. Modernism, the opening up of the present, was unfolding in human time. In the interest of modernity’s capacity for “perpetual self-critique and self-renewal” he mustered a ragtag army of moderns. He defied the left-wing critique of cold war modernization theory as a disguise for imperial conquest. For Marshall, modernization was the irrepressible drama of history. It was no longer a choice, it was an ecology. And modernism was adaptation. He defined modernism as “any attempt by modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization, to get a grip on the modern world and make themselves at home in it.”

I want to take a closer look at his definition.
First, become subjects as well as objects. Modernity was no longer a choice, it was a condition. The question was, who was to master it? The ideal was invoked and in some ways embodied in his heroes, Rousseau and Nietzsche. With them, Marshall was accompanied down the divergent paths—sometimes simultaneously—that moderns had offered to accomplish this apparently self-contradictory project. He found promise in wildly different forms inside Marx’s revolutionizing relations of production, but also inside the conflicted, agonistic human soul as conceived by Freud and his fertile precursor, Nietzsche. Nietzsche staked out epigrams like “we ourselves are a kind of chaos” and also wrote: “We moderns, we half-barbarians. We are in the midst of our bliss only when we are most in danger.”
But let’s stay with Marx for a moment. For Marshall, Marx was the master among masters. What was at play was both more and less than a class struggle. It was less so because unities were desperately hard to assemble. (Most of the rebellions of 1848 were crushed.) But it was more so because, largely after Marx’s death, struggles for democracy around the world became the lodestone. Perhaps now, at last, these struggles could hook up toward resolution. Marxism, after all, promised a resolution—or did it? In the revolutionary year 1848, it certainly looked that way. There seemed to be a Hegelian tendency at work, a teleology on its way to the realization of “species being.” Marx and Engels launched their manifesto with proto-Wagnerian fanfare:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large—
And then came that funny little phrase: “—or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Marx didn’t dwell on the prospect of common ruin, and just as well, for it undermined the Enlightenment Whiggery (in Hegelian guise) that he inherited and embraced. But it was a moment when Marx acknowledged, if briefly, that history was not only a dialectic but also a tragedy—as Part II of Faust embodied what, in All That Is Solid, Marshall called the “tragedy of development.”
In other words, while moderns were trying to take command of the often hellish forces of growth and transformation, Marx asked: What is the promise of modernity without teleology?
There were uprisings to celebrate—the civil rights movement chief among them—but there was no crescendo of history.
Second in Marshall’s trinity of modern tasks, get a grip meant two things: First, it referred to the relationship between the arts and the world. We had to approach the arts not as weapons (Marshall did not welcome agitprop), but as implements by which we could get a grip on our cultural moment, however elusive it may seem. In fact, the dynamos of modernization were ungraspable and this was terrifying. History seemed to offer a choice of waking nightmares: too tight a grip gave us Darkness at Noon, and no grip at all gave us doomed Weimar.
But also, getting a grip required intellectual work, not least of which was creating concepts. In Marshall’s view, the twentieth century had witnessed a decline from the big modernism of the nineteenth. There had been “a flattening of perspective and shrinkage of imaginative range.” The twentieth century successors had “lurched…toward rigid polarities and flat totalizations. Modernity is either embraced with a blind and uncritical enthusiasm, or else condemned with a neo-Olympian remoteness and contempt…Open visions of modern life have been supplanted by closed ones. Both/And by Either/Or.”
His modernism centered on Both/And, on lives and works moved by “a will to change…and a terror of disorientation and disintegration, of life falling apart.” The place where this happened was the modern city, which was always at once under construction and under destruction. Modernity was not only a condition but a movement—in fact, many movements and many maelstroms—jostling against each other in the city. Modernity was made of “agitation and turbulence, psychic dizziness and drunkenness, expansion of experimental possibilities and destruction of moral boundaries and personal bonds, self-enlargement and self-derangement, phantoms in the street and in the soul.”
This meant more problems. For one thing, it seemed that the modern arts had broken away from modern lives, and we now failed to recognize ourselves as “participants and protagonists” in it. This problem opened into another one: How do you make a home in chaos? And if bliss entails danger, even the danger of absolute destruction, who will sign up? But on the other hand, what was the alternative?

Third, what Marshall meant by make themselves at home was the most tantalizing and perhaps most problematic feature of his work. The outstanding question was: How do you make yourself at home in a maelstrom? However you try to do it, it has to be in public. You have to hurl the little streets against the great. You devise May Day and you celebrate it in a thousand renewals. But you also march into the great streets. You assemble there, you Occupy there, you assert public disorder amid the deadly order of the great and the grand. And you assert that disorder not only by what you write on your placards but by what you wear and who you sleep with and what you do with your hair and what drugs you ingest. For Marshall, the liberation of the sixties erased the differences between radical individualism and collective protest. It was no secret that he felt nostalgic for that decade of marvels and horrors. What he missed was the spirit of boundaries dissolving, limits being tested, connections being made. “When a critical culture breaks down or wears out or fades away,” he wrote in 1999, “sources of joy dry up.”
But through the 1970s, as he was writing the essays about Faust and Marx and Nietzsche and Baudelaire and Biely and Robert Moses that he gathered into All That Is Solid Melts into Air, he came to feel that the modernist renewal would not only take place in street demonstrations, in protests against gentrification and the abuses by police and plutocrats, but in graffiti and hip-hop, in ‘zines and flash mobs, anywhere and almost everywhere. He would come to think that the street as such was the resistance. He would celebrate the city itself against the forces that were tearing it apart and committing what he called “urbicide.”
The outstanding question was: How do you make yourself at home in a maelstrom?
The farther we passed from the grand carnivals of the sixties and its dynamic social movements, the more Marshall came to think of the street as the core of modernism. The street was not just the site where modernism was enacted; it was modernism incarnate. When the uprisings subsided, the City became the place to watch. He insisted that the greatest entertainment to be found in New York City was the life of the street itself, its profusion of types and tongues, its up-from-below spectacles, its neighborhoods where legions of intensity “transformed old and often sleepy streets into vibrant public spaces that never seemed to sleep at all.” The street was the assembly where the future would be staked out. It was where he hoped to find “traces, fragments, intimations of a new critical culture just around the corner.”
At the same time, Marshall was heading back to the pole where his thinking had begun, with “the politics of authenticity” and the celebration of radical individualism. But then there was also a new problem: How do you subvert a culture which itself consists of one subversion after another, a thousand cable channels of subversion, a million websites each sequestered into self-sufficient clubs? Does it, in fact, any longer make sense to consider the subversion of culture a political project at all? By the turn of the twenty-first century, American culture had fragmented to such a degree that diversity was the new norm. The culture of radical individualism was a welter of resistance—but to what?
Detached from the political dynamo of the 1960s, culture could not itself be politics. The faith that there existed a bridge connecting the articulation of desires en masse to institutions of governance was hard to come by. We learned this in the Occupy movement, whose faith was that assemblies in public spaces on behalf of the 99 percent would not only change the dominant discourse, but forge a new society. The exuberance of Occupy was unmistakable; so was its lineage.
What modernism promises, then, is not an end to tragedy, but an adventure, where love and decency are both constantly renewed and yet always at risk. Samuel Beckett’s Worstward Ho said it best:
Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still. All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
 See more at

Unite Queer

Bayard Rustin (Library of Congress) and Randi Weingarten (Julia Standovar)

Out in the Union:
A Labor History of Queer America
by Miriam Frank
Temple University Press, 2014, 240 pp.
Troll the annals of news analysis too long, and opinions morph into conventional wisdom. Especially in light of the 2013 and 2014 Supreme Court sessions, two such reigning orthodoxies hold that the gays are winning and unions are losing. Gay marriage is sweeping the country, President Obama has pledged to protect federal workers from discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender, and our parade is sponsored by Diet Coke. Meanwhile, union membership is dwindling, the fastest growing pool of workers have been dubbed “partial public employees” exempt from dues, and protections for workers are so abysmal that even the neighborhood barber has to sign a non-compete agreement. These stories aren’t unfounded, but they have been churned through the media with such frequency that to challenge them would border on heresy.
Enter Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, a surprising new book by Miriam Frank. Starting roughly in the 1970s and ending close to the present day, Frank chronicles a history of LGBT unionists transforming the labor movement by demanding union policies and then labor contracts that protected queer and trans workers from discrimination and substantially improved their material conditions. She draws on an impressive oral history archive to portray the vibrant internal dynamics of the labor movement as queer and trans members and leaders forced it to grapple with their rights and needs. Most crucially, Frank notes that in many places a union contract is the only thing protecting LGBT workers from discrimination, given the lack of federal legal protections and court silence on the issue.
This is the book’s single greatest achievement: arguing not explicitly but by preponderance of evidence that unions have been crucial to the growth and success of the modern LGBT rights movement. It flips our standard readings, while suggesting powerful ways forward for the American workforce. The hard work of organizing for fair conditions develops solidarity between workers, and the political bond reduces the divisive potency of sexuality and gender. Through their involvement in the labor movement, queer and trans workers have not only promoted their particular needs but engaged in a process of politicization that created a blueprint for the LGBT rights movement, and perhaps for social justice movements to come.
In many places, a union contract is the only thing protecting LGBT workers from discrimination, given the lack of federal legal protections and court silence on the issue.
Frank’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. As the courts and Congress are racing rightward, and our greatest hopes rest in the dubious realm of the executive order, Out in the Union reminds readers that the labor movement can be a powerful force for social and economic progress—at its best, facilitating a broader democratic surge upward from the grassroots. A notable example traces contract negotiations between Columbia University and an office worker chapter of District 65, United Auto Workers. In the 1985 contract, the union won a ban on homophobic discrimination as well as a 6 percent pay increase. This set the stage for further advances, but only when the membership made it a priority. Frank quotes a member of the negotiating committee, Sally Otos, describing how that first win led to a demand for domestic partner benefits: “You don’t get anything in the abstract. There has to be a need and a desire, so for our next contract, let’s try to do that. And nobody got up and said, ‘What a terrible idea.’” In 1988, at the height of the AIDS crisis, the clerical workers won extensions of bereavement benefits for “spousal equivalents” and, in 1994, secured benefits for same-sex partners.
Beyond these stories of triumph, Frank chronicles the often painful process of coming out as queer or trans in a union, as well as many successful campaigns to unionize workplaces of primarily queer and trans workers. The book is organized thematically and, while lacking a central argument, is rich with narrative.
In a sense, it reads like a greatest hits of the oral history collection Frank herself created. She began interviewing LGBT unionists in 1994 and has amassed an archive of over one hundred recordings. A few other books have touched on the topic of queers organizing within and on behalf of unions—Phil Tiemeyer’s recent book Plane Queer, for example, on the history of male flight attendants—but none has so completely centered on the voices of individual queer union members. At times one senses that any paragraph could be spun into its own journal article—a testament to the novelty of the subject matter and to Frank’s pioneering research. The full archive of her work is now housed at the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University, where Frank received all of her higher education and is now a Master Teacher in the school of Liberal Studies.
As the first book to tackle this subject historically, Out in the Union faces some challenges. Too many topics are squeezed into its 150 pages, without contextualizing details or synthetic analysis. At times, in an effort to produce a primer on the history of each, Frank oversimplifies the two movements, describing labor as purely economic and LGBT concerns as inherently individualistic and focused on sexual freedom. Neither is entirely accurate, as the book itself demonstrates. Consider labor’s crucial role in the civil rights movement, or the economic demands of queer liberation organizations in the 1970s. But like other pioneering works, the book raises innumerable questions for further inquiry: Did queer social ties connect union movements across disparate geographies? How did the experience of being gay influence an individual’s employment opportunities, or her desire to join a union? How successful were unions in combating anti-LGBT discrimination compared to other grievances?
Most unfortunately, the book comes up short on analysis of how class differences impacted the coordination of queer and labor interests. Perhaps this is partially due to the source base: the interview setting doesn’t lend itself to class polemics. But in a book about the labor movement, the absence of discussion as to why certain groups moved more quickly to the queer labor cause is deeply felt. Frank does not entirely ignore class analysis, but it plays like a subtle homage rather than a central theme.
Through their involvement in labor organizing, queer and trans workers have not only promoted their particular needs but created a blueprint for the LGBT rights movement.
Lacking that framework, Frank leaves readers with ambiguities verging on the realm of stereotypes. At one point, she contrasts the importance of LGBT–union coalitions in a tale of two states. In the presidential election year 1992, ballot initiatives in both Colorado and Oregon sought to eliminate the limited legal protections against homophobic discrimination on the books in each state. In Colorado, the organization defending the existing protections, Equal Protection Colorado (EPOC), looked poised to win, but it was undercut on the eve of election day by the efforts of Colorado for Family Values (including aggressive canvassing), and ultimately lost the vote. According to Frank, EPOC failed in part because it did not make strong connections to the labor movement in Colorado; “the majority of Colorado’s local unions represented blue-collar workers: the construction brotherhoods, the Machinists, the Teamsters. Gay organizing did not exist in any of these locals in 1992.” Service-sector and white-collar unions in Oregon, by contrast, had fought for pay equity for female workers and won contracts that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Long-standing ties between gay rights advocates and the labor movement allowed the coalition to handily defeat Oregon’s proposed amendment.
Frank’s framing of the two campaigns suggests that blue-collar shops were by nature more hostile to gay organizing than other workplaces. She characterizes unions such as SEIU as more progressive than their blue-collar counterparts (SEIU having been instrumental in the defeat of Measure 9 in Oregon). In Colorado, the gay-labor alliance forged during the Coors boycott had withered by 1992, so EPOC never reached out to potential labor allies; meanwhile, the labor movement in Colorado turned its attention to another ballot initiative that would slash public funding. Frank’s distinction between “blue-collar” and “progressive” unions may be inadvertent, but her casual characterizations of certain unions as more or less inherently open to LGBT issues threatens to descend into common stereotypes about working-class hostility to queer organizing, and undermines her argument elsewhere that “what unites the interests of both movements is their shared constituencies. Queer communities in America have always included a large working-class element.”
The same issues arise when Frank delves into the dynamics of organizing a mostly queer or trans workforce, using the unionization drive at GMHC to show that managers can be hostile to workers even if they’re all gay. This is the furthest she goes toward answering how class dynamics impact union and LGBT organizing. She describes, for example, how working-class lesbians organized in traditionally male jobs, but doesn’t speculate about why that’s important.
The question of class—and the political priorities related to it—animates current conflicts within the LGBT movement more than any other. Queer critiques of gay marriage hinge on disagreements over class, and the debate still rages although victory for the marriage equality movement is all but assured. The largest LGBT organizations are now turning their attention to workplace and public accommodations protections. That campaign takes on new urgency in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, as major LGBT organizations abandon the Employee Non-Discrimination Act for fear that religious objections will render it useless. The campaign will also undoubtedly bring class questions into stark relief. If scholars can build upon Miriam Frank’s work in Out in the Union as labor and LGBT organizations again join forces, perhaps history can be our guide.

The Central American Child Refugee Crisis: Made in U.S.A.

At a memorial for indigenous protesters killed by police in Guatemala, Oct. 2013 (Alba Sud Foto)

When the long-simmering child migrant crisis bubbled over onto front pages in early June, Republicans predictably pounced on President Obama. The reason, they claimed, for the enormous surge in the number of child migrants apprehended along the United States’ southwestern border—an increase of 160 percent in less than a year—was the administration’s lax border and immigration enforcement policies. Never mind that Obama has deported more immigrants than any previous U.S. president in history or that, under his administration, border and immigration enforcement spending has reached an all-time high of $17 billion per year (which, rather than curtailing illegal immigration, has only made it more deadly). Republicans and much of the media also blamed a 2008 anti-trafficking law (signed by George W. Bush) mandating full immigration hearings—as opposed to immediate removal—for unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico and Canada. (Though detained migrant children often have no access to legal representation, the law at least provides them with limited due process rights and the opportunity to apply for asylum.)
In response to its Republican critics, the Obama administration has embraced some of their arguments, hinting that it may support changes to the 2008 law and asking Congress to approve an emergency $3.7 billion spending bill aimed at further strengthening border security and immigration enforcement. The proposed bill also calls for a public relations campaign to let would-be illegal immigrants know that they face prompt deportation if apprehended. But there’s little evidence to suggest that migrants aren’t already well aware of the risks they are taking—not just of deportation but also of theft, rape, mutilation, extortion, and murder on the way to the U.S. border. A recent survey of detained migrant children by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees indicates that very few—only 9 out of 404—believed that they would be treated well in the United States or benefit from permissive immigration policies.
A number of Democrats have aggressively rejected Republicans’ claims and emphasized the “push factors” or “root causes” driving child migration. The three countries that are the source of the majority of the unaccompanied child migrants—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—are all poor and have high rates of unemployment. They are also experiencing appalling levels of violence, higher than any other region of the world, outside of war zones. Gangs and drug cartels are responsible for much of this violence, but state security forces have also played a role, according to human rights groups. The confluence of these two factors—economic turmoil and violence—appears to be decisive in driving increasingly desperate citizens of these nations to the United States. Tellingly, the adjacent country of Nicaragua—though the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere—has relatively low levels of violence and few of its inhabitants are leaving the country. On the contrary, large numbers of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans are now also migrating to Nicaragua, as well as Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize.
The administration has meekly acknowledged this reality and promised “to help address the underlying security and economic issues that cause migration”—although this “help” is barely perceptible in Obama’s spending proposal. Only a small number of U.S. politicians have cast a critical eye on their country’s policy toward these three tiny nations—often referred to as the “Northern Triangle”—and dared suggest that it might bear some responsibility for the current crisis. In a July 10 statement, the Progressive Caucus (which includes sixty-seven of the more left-leaning members of Congress, including Bernie Sanders in the Senate), asserted that free trade agreements with the United States have “led to the displacement of workers and subsequent migration.” The statement cited reports by  human rights groups that the U.S. government is “bolstering corrupt police and military forces that are violating human rights and contributing to the growth of violence in the Northern Triangle.”
Indeed, the United States has had a long history of supporting security forces engaged in violent repression in all three Northern Triangle countries. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency campaigns, often targeting civilians, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and sparked the first major migratory wave to the States from El Salvador and Guatemala. In Honduras, too, hundreds of activists were disappeared, but the violence wasn’t as generalized and Hondurans didn’t flee the country in droves.
Briefly suspended after the 2009 coup, U.S. funding for the Honduran military has since reached its highest level since the early 1990s.
Today, the situation in Honduras has changed. The country has by far the highest level of homicides in the world (again, outside of war zones) and has become the largest source of unaccompanied children fleeing to the United States and other countries. Honduras also offers the most striking illustration of what’s wrong with the U.S. government’s current policies toward the region and how they’ve contributed to the child migrant crisis. In the Spring 2014 issue of Dissent, I described how the Obama administration—opposed to Honduran president Manuel Zelaya’s leftward turn—helped whitewash his illegal ouster by the military in 2009 through its support for flawed and illegitimate elections later that year. After having been briefly suspended, U.S. funding for training and assistance to the Honduran military was resumed and reached its highest level since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the widespread military and police repression of the country’s peaceful resistance movement in the months following the coup gave way to frequent targeted killings and attacks against activists of all stripes as well as those seeking to fight or expose state corruption, human rights abuses, and organized crime activity.
Among those killed have been dozens of LGBT advocates, over one hundred land rights activists, more than thirty journalists—most recently, TV reporter Herlyn Espinal on July 21, 2014—human rights lawyers, labor activists, and at least twenty opposition candidates and organizers. Although state security agents are often prime suspects in these incidents as well as in numerous extrajudicial killings of young people who may or may not be involved in gang activity, Honduras’ broken judiciary system fails to investigate or prosecute these and other crimes. Indeed, the extraordinary level of violence in Honduras—with homicides rising 50 percent after the 2009 coup—is only matched by the overwhelming rate of impunity, generally estimated to be above 90 percent. In addition to being rife with corruption and critically under-resourced, the Honduran judiciary’s independence was subverted in December 2012 when the congress, controlled by the ruling National Party, illegally replaced four supreme court judges in the middle of the night.
While U.S. security assistance has continued to pour into Honduras, law enforcement—perhaps more aptly referred to as lawless enforcement—has become increasingly militarized. Since 2011, military troops have been deployed regularly for policing activities and, at the same time, police units have made use of increasingly lethal equipment and military style tactics. In late 2013, a hybrid “military and public order” police force was created and quickly became the government’s banner crime-fighting force. With U.S. support, Honduras’ security apparatus has become more sophisticated and far-reaching. In 2012, for instance, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding that formalized U.S. assistance in developing Honduran authorities’ wiretapping capacity for intercepting telephone and Internet communication nationwide. As a Honduran human rights defender recently put it at a meeting of U.S. advocacy groups in Washington: thanks to U.S. support, Honduran security agents are developing a “more technically advanced ability to advance crime and corruption.”
Even in cases where police and military units aren’t corrupt or infiltrated by organized crime, children and teenagers that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are often suspected of belonging to gangs and killed.
Militarization and brutal mano dura (iron fist) crime-fighting methods have also been making a reappearance in El Salvador and, even more so, in Guatemala, where 40 percent of security posts are reportedly in the hands of active and former military officers. The last half-decade of re-militarization of the Northern Triangle, funded and promoted by the United States in the name of the “War on Drugs,” came with the promise of enhanced citizen security. Instead, in many communities, the fear of repressive security forces—often jokingly referred to as fuerzas de inseguridad (insecurity forces)—is now nearly as great as the fear of gang violence. Even in cases where police and military units aren’t corrupt or infiltrated by organized crime, children and teenagers that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are often suspected of belonging to gangs and are summarily attacked and killed. Child rights advocates who oppose the systematic criminalization of youth end up attacked as well, as was the case with the director of Casa Alianza Honduras, José Guadalupe Ruelas, who was brutally beaten by Honduran military police troops in May of 2014.
Gang violence in the Northern Triangle, cited by the UN High Commission on Refugees and other organizations as a major factor in child migration, is also to some degree a byproduct of U.S. policy. Many of the gangs of El Salvador and Honduras—in particular MS-13 and Calle 18—were first formed in the streets of Los Angeles and included children of Salvadoran war refugees. Since the 1990s, gang members have been deported massively to their countries of origin—though they retain few or no connections there—and have gone on to engage in extortion, drug trafficking, and forced recruitment of teenagers and young children.
Add to this climate of terror rampant joblessness and economic stagnation, and you have a perfect recipe for mass migration. Here, again, Honduras stands out. Since the 2009 coup, it has experienced dramatic increases in poverty, inequality, and unemployment. Some of this is likely attributable to the post-coup violence, but there’s little doubt that the ruling party’s neoliberal policies—including cuts to social services, anti-labor legislation, and privatizations—have also played an important role. The United States has accompanied the International Monetary Fund in promoting these policies even though the U.S. army’s Southern Command, in an internal memo, cited them as a potential cause of unrest. The memo noted that “should key social programs remain under- or unfunded, preexisting socio-economic cleavages between the poor and elite business sectors may be further aggravated and lead to an escalation in protests.”
The Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which entered into force in 2006, was billed as a game changer that would provide a huge boost to the economies of the region. “Together, we will reduce poverty and create opportunity and hope,” declared U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick in 2005. But instead the economies of the Northern Triangle have sagged—averaging only 0.9 percent annual per capita growth since 2006—and poverty has increased. The agreement has led to the displacement of workers, particularly small farmers incapable of competing with the exports of U.S.-subsidized agribusiness, and has in all likelihood been a major push factor for migration. In Honduras, workers’ rights have been trampled and labor leaders attacked despite minimal guarantees mandated under CAFTA, prompting a 2012 complaint by the AFL-CIO to which the U.S. Department of Labor has so far failed to respond.
On July 25, the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador met with President Obama at the White House to discuss what to do about the child migrant crisis. Obama asked his counterparts for their help in keeping refugees at home, in part through further militarization and enforcement of their own borders. In remarks made before and after the meeting, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández and Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina both placed blame where it belonged—on the U.S.-led “War on Drugs.” But Hernández also asked the United States for a “Plan Colombia for Central America” to mitigate the push factors driving migration. Plan Colombia, often touted by the State Department as a great success, involved a no-holds-barred military and police offensive against drug traffickers and insurgents that resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Colombian civilians and thousands of extrajudicial killings and other abuses by security forces. The initiative appears in fact to be a model for the United States’ 2011 regional security plan—the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI)—which has provided the Northern Triangle with hundreds of millions of dollars of security assistance in addition to millions in bilateral assistance.
Why criticize the drug war and then ask for more of precisely the sort of assistance that has exacerbated violence and insecurity?
Why criticize the drug war and then ask for more of precisely the sort of assistance that has exacerbated violence and insecurity? Both Hernández and Pérez Molina, an ex-military chief implicated in war crimes, have helped reestablish the military as key political actors in their countries, with the unflagging support of the United States. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, military control was seen as essential—by national right-wing elites and the U.S. government—for guaranteeing the elimination of potentially subversive leftwing movements. In 2009, the same priority reemerged in Honduras when Zelaya was ousted and a broad-based grassroots movement took to the streets to try to return him to power.
But an additional factor can be seen at play both in Honduras and Guatemala: the militarized defense of a neoliberal agenda that is being met with stubborn resistance by community groups. Increasingly, public and private security forces act in tandem to attack and intimidate small farmers or indigenous and Afro-indigenous communities that refuse to be displaced by agribusiness corporations or resource-hungry multinationals. Such is the case in San Rafael, Guatemala, where the community continues to oppose the San Rafael mining operation; in the Bajo Aguan in Honduras, where over a hundred campesinos have lost their lives defending land claimed by the Dinant Corporation; and in Rio Negro, Honduras, where a Lenca indigenous community has sought to prevent the destruction of their land by a hydroelectric project. Human rights defenders that have tried to assist communities in holding security forces accountable for killings and attacks—such as Berta Caceres of COPINH, Miriam Miranda of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, and Annie Bird of Rights Action—have been subjected to threats and attacks themselves.
Right-wing pundits here in the United States have asserted that the border crisis is “not our responsibility.” The evidence on the ground in the Northern Triangle suggests the contrary. The economic and trade policies that the United States has supported in Mexico and Central America have resulted in the displacement of millions of workers and economic stagnation. The militarized drug war that the United States has promoted and funded in Mexico and Central America has further unleashed repressive, abusive security forces and undermined the civilian institutions that might hold them accountable. It’s time to change our policies toward these countries in their interest and our own.
Human rights groups and progressives in Congress have made important policy recommendations, and the administration should listen. In terms of immediate action, the unaccompanied children—the majority of whom appear to have legitimate claims to asylum, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and other organizations—should be granted legal protection and reunited with family members and legal guardians in the United States. In particular, anxious Honduran and Salvadoran parents residing in the United States legally under Temporary Protected Status are understandably concerned about their children’s safety and should be authorized to reunite with them without resorting to human smugglers and other desperate and dangerous means.
In terms of addressing the root causes, the United States should allow Mexican and Central American governments to revise trade agreements so as to protect vulnerable economic sectors and prevent more jobs from being lost. U.S. security assistance programs should be curtailed—especially when governments fail to prosecute abuses perpetrated by state security agents—and, in the words of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-chair Raúl Grijalva, “we should reassess the aid we send to nations with corrupt police and military forces to ensure we are part of the solution, not the problem.”
Rather than empowering security forces with appalling human rights records, the United States and other countries should help these governments reestablish basic rule of law. Successful multilateral programs like Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity—which, since 2006, has provided international teams of attorneys to support judicial investigations of organized crime groups—should be strengthened and replicated in other countries with high rates of impunity.
Should the U.S. fail to revise its flawed policies toward the region, the humanitarian crisis in the Northern Triangle and Mexico will only grow, and children and their parents will continue to have few options but to risk the perilous journey across the U.S. border.

Between Israel and Social Democracy: Tony Judt’s Jewishness

French Popular Front rally for Leon Blum, 1936 (Parti Socialiste/Flickr)
On October 3, 2006, around 5:00 p.m., Tony Judt’s phone rang. On the other line was Patricia Huntington, the president of Network 20/20, a New York–based professional networking organization. Judt had planned to spend the evening speaking to the organization’s members about the influence of pro-Israel advocates over U.S. foreign policy, at the Polish Consulate on Madison Avenue. Huntington’s call freed up Judt’s evening schedule; the Polish consul general had cancelled the event.
The consul general’s decision followed a rhetorical assault by various pro-Israel Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, led by Abraham Foxman, and the American Jewish Congress, whose director David Harris had called the Consulate—“as a friend of Poland”—to highlight Judt’s allegedly anti-Israel advocacy. In the following days, Judt mustered a campaign against these apparent infringements against the historian’s free expression. An open letter to Foxman, signed by over one hundred of Judt’s colleagues and later published in the New York Review of Books, to which Judt was a frequent contributor, accused the ADL director of fostering a “climate of intimidation.” In response, Foxman described the original letter as an effort to “completely debase those values” of democratic speech that the undersigned themselves defended. 
Judt died four years later, on August 6, 2010, from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). If the cancellation of his speech at the Polish Consulate created a new climate of intimidation, Judt had hardly noticed. Obituarists, both familiar and unfamiliar, remembered the historian both as an eminent student of modern Europe—from 1995 until his death, Judt was the founding director of New York University’s Remarque Institute—and as a public gadfly on the topic of Israeli politics. Many discussed this latter status as a synonym of Judt’s Jewishness. Events like the Polish Consulate dust-up, or the controversy surrounding Judt’s 2003 partial defense of a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, defined both posthumous portrayals of Judt’s Jewish identity and, toward the end of his life, the historian’s own understanding of his bibliography. In a eulogy-qua-review of Judt’s collection of memoir-essays The Memory Chalet, Thomas Nagel described the historian’s essay on the one-state solution, “Israel: The Alternative,” as “a deliberately utopian fantasy that takes his rejection of identity politics to its limit.” In this telling, Judt’s last decade of public writing fully embraced the cosmopolitan, leaving little room for a provincial Jewish politics now fully in Zionism’s embrace. For a dying Judt as well as for his obituarists, the hawkish nationalism of many of Israel’s global advocates made contemporary Jewishness an ugly, reactionary enterprise.
Beyond Zionism and its discontents, however, Judt’s Jewishness was a vibrant companion of the historian’s aspiring cosmopolitanism. For Judt, the history of political cosmopolitanism— a politics that serves a common public, regardless of identity—was an outgrowth of a collective history of Jewish suffering. Fin-de-siècle and interwar France, the Nazi Holocaust, and Communist Eastern Europe—the epochs that weigh heaviest over Judt’s work as well as over the century-long destruction of European Jewry—were the predecessors of an increasingly egalitarian European state. The biography of Judt, a next-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors, is also the story of the political left: the imagination of the universal through the preservation of the provincial. Four years after the historian’s death, the tangled layers of Judt’s Jewishness also inform a contemporary left still struggling to reconcile its own politics of identity.
The biography of Judt is also the story of the political left: the imagination of the universal through the preservation of the provincial.
Tony Judt was born in 1948, three years after Allied brigades liberated the last of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. “I cannot recall a time when I did not know about what was not yet called the Holocaust,” narrates Judt in Thinking the Twentieth Century, a posthumously published dialogue with Timothy Snyder and the most expansive public record to date of Judt’s own biography. Judt’s father was Polish, by way of Belgium, and his mother’s family fled Chisinau, then a Russian center of anti-Semitic violence, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many of Judt’s relatives who remained in Eastern Europe during the Second World War died in the camp. Toni, the first cousin of his father’s for whom Judt was named, died at Auschwitz in 1942. “Tony” was a memento mori, a token of the family’s recent loss.
 The war turned North London, where Judt was briefly raised, into a dense hub for wealthier Eastern European Jewish refugees. The family’s move to Putney, a London suburb, was an “act of ethno-self-rejection.” In Thinking, Judt’s every memory of his Putney years is a reminder of the era’s fleeting Jewishness. Friday-night dinners, a common celebration of the Jewish sabbath, featured his aging grandmother, a stubborn champion of a spoken Yiddish culture nearly vanquished during the war. During family vacations in central Europe, an equally stubborn father tried his best to avoid all things German, a political culture then in the throes of de-Nazification. Trips to Belgium and Holland placed the family on the doorsteps of distant cousins with whom the Judts shared only their fortunate survival of the Holocaust. In its culture and its people, the Jewishness of his father’s and grandmother’s generations was decaying, if it could still be said to exist at all.
Like many young, mostly secular Jews of his postwar generation, Judt fashioned his early Jewishness against the backdrop of the infant state of Israel. He first visited Israel in 1963, as a new member of Dror, a socialist Zionist youth group. In an obituary to Judt, J.J. Goldberg, a former member of a Dror counterpart in the United States, described the organization as “a quirky mixture of doctrinaire Marxism and equally doctrinaire Greater Israelism.” Dror was a logical fit for the fifteen-year-old who, two years prior, had received Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky as a birthday gift. Between 1963 and 1966, Zionism was Judt’s primary window into both Jewish practice and left-wing politics. In 1966, fresh from a successful Cambridge entrance exam, he returned to Israel to pick oranges for Kibbutz Machanayim, in the northern Galilee region. In theory, the kibbutz was a living display of young Judt’s egalitarian politics.
Of course, this egalitarianism occurred alongside Israel’s growing segregation of its Arab citizens, a social reality Judt would only later confront. Judt’s continued involvement with Dror was as personal as it was political. In Thinking, the historian describes a cast of role models, romances, and mentors that drew him deeper into Dror: among them, Zvi and Maya Dubinsky, a pair of evangelists for Israel’s postwar kibbutz movement, and Jacquie Philips, later Judt’s first wife and a fellow Zionist whom he often visited in London during his first year at Cambridge. In the spring of 1967, Judt joined Philips and other young Zionists to muster British support for Israel’s looming war effort. During the 1967 war, Judt worked as auxiliary support for Israeli military units in the Golan Heights, the Syrian front of the regional conflict. After the war, the political remained personal, albeit in much less favorable ways. Judt describes post-1967 Israel as a revelation, in words that recall that venerable collection of ex-Communist confessionals, The God That Failed: “I had been indoctrinated into an anachronism, had lived an anachronism, and I now saw the depth of my delusion.” If close friends in Israel’s kibbutz movement had drawn Judt further into Zionism, their evident bigotry now repulsed him. For Judt, the xenophobia and militarism of a newly victorious Israeli society had been laid bare. The task of Jewish governance, now inclusive of Israel’s military force, had polluted an otherwise noble concept of communal labor.
Public details of the historian’s time in Israel beyond 1967 are scarce. It is not clear why, despite his apparent disillusionment, Judt returned to Israel in 1969, two years after his eye-opening encounter with Zionism’s intolerant underbelly. After 1969, Judt would not return directly to the topic of Israel, much less the country itself, for another three decades. In Thinking, he reflects, “Jewish political engagement had absorbed all my adolescent attentions. But once I dropped it, it was as though I no longer saw, much less engaged with, Jewish issues in my professional life.” The departure was a clean break. In the late 1960s, he stopped thinking about Israel, and at the turn of the millennium, he resumed.
On its face, Judt’s abrupt pivot appears total. As a student of French history at Cambridge, Judt turned from the orange groves of Israel’s kibbutzim to the research archives and social circles of Paris, where he spent a year-long graduate fellowship in 1970 and to which he returned many times in later years. Of course, the topic of Israel was never far; then as now, a firm opinion on “the question of Israel” was a shibboleth of the so-called public intellectual. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Judt’s closest mentors, George Lichtheim and Annie Kriegel, joined a heated French public debate over the young state’s impact on postwar Jews and Jewishness. Despite the apparent interest of his mentors, Judt opted out; his published work during the period exclusively addresses the rebirth and fall of interwar French socialism.
While Judt’s Jewishness was now tangential to his public work, the topics he engaged as a Zionist youth activist remained relevant to the young historian’s studies in and about France. Judt’s first three book-length publications are social histories of the modern French left. The first two, La reconstruction du parti socialiste and Socialism in Provence, each narrate the gradual expansion of French socialism from the seeds of nineteenth-century labor—that is, a fleeting mass politics both realized and tarnished by the coalition Popular Front government. Based on archival research in both urban and rural France, these works were an origin story of French socialism in the context of a deepening republican state. Both described how the French Socialist Party (SFIO), prior to its total dismantling by the Vichy regime in 1940, evolved from the material culture of French labor—its politics, its society, its means of production. The books were less concerned with the moral question of governance that occupied Judt’s third text, Marxism and the French Left. There, “the real difficulty for the Left. . . was the question of whether or not the Left ought to govern in France.”
This was not merely a matter of political wisdom; the moral possibilities of the French state were also at stake. The political parties of the interwar French left lacked a meaningful program of social and political change; when French socialists, radicals, and communists cobbled together the Popular Front government in 1936, their house was easily divided. Newly in power, the SFIO, which held the government’s prime ministry, struggled to sustain the ideological orthodoxy that guided the Popular Front’s early expansion of French social programs. Infighting among the governing coalition opened the left, and especially its prime minister Leon Blum, to right-wing assaults against the legitimacy of the Front’s governance.
For Judt, the history of political cosmopolitanism was an outgrowth of a collective history of Jewish suffering.
Judt became transfixed by the “tragic figure” of Blum. Blum, a Parisian Jew, bore partial if significant fault for the collapse of the Front coalition, a fact both right- and left-wing opponents noted in the ugliest of ways. In a 1996 essay on the French experience of the Second World War, Judt recalls a quote from a French paper affiliated with the Radical Party, a coalition member: Blum was a “a sexually polymorphous Rabbi” whose failures warranted the vitriol he received. Facing the “Scylla of Communism and the Charybdis of absorption into the Radical center,” Judt added a decade later in The Burden of Responsibility, Blum displayed political courage—moral responsibility, in Judt’s terms—and he was rewarded with ceaseless bigotry.
The anti-Semitism of Blum’s opponents was obvious and widespread, and the crisis of French Jewishness it represented increasingly took center stage in Judt’s moral tale of the Third Republic. The French Jewish community was not especially large—as across interwar Europe, the cultural and political influence of French Jews far outweighed the population’s numbers. Instead, the violence and discrimination visited on French Jews like Blum was a microcosm of the civic failure of the Third Republic. If, as Judt writes in Marxism, public debate was an indispensable feature of the politics of the era’s French left, the xenophobia of the Front’s discourse belied its egalitarian aspirations. The anti-Semitism of Blum’s opponents was not simply a tangent of the rotting French state; it was the rot itself.
As Judt gained distance from his “Jewish decade,” the historian’s Jewishness returned as a direct subject of his public work. Again, the personal intervened. During the early 1980s, Judt began a long separation from his second wife, Patricia Hilden. In Thinking, he describes a new friendship with Jan Gross and Irena Grudzinska-Gross, whom Judt met as a visiting sociology professor at Emory in 1981. The Gross couple were Polish expatriates, permanent refugees from the Polish government crackdown against Warsaw university students in March 1968. Theirs was the story of thousands during the final wane of Eastern European Communism: educated, high-culture dissidents who fled en masse from the violence of their respective regimes. Through the Gross couple, among others—Stanford’s Hoover Institution, a small community of Czech activists, a group of sympathetic British book smugglers—these dissidents became Judt’s new social circle.
In Marxism, the historian had begun to consider the plight of Eastern European Communism and its French fellow travelers; he continued this study in Past Imperfect, an impassioned analysis of the moral failures of the postwar French intelligentsia. Judt structures the work as a series of essays against fragments of a French public discourse: the self-justified violence of postwar retribution, political purges and show trials across the Eastern bloc, the anti-Americanism of those who opposed the new postwar order. If Judt had taken a circuitous route to the task of the public intellectual, Past Imperfect was his arrival. The tone of Past Imperfect is piercing and righteous, a vast departure from the cautious descriptiveness of texts like Marxism. A new moral vocabulary followed from Judt’s tone; Past Imperfect is as much about defining the terms of political liberalism as it is about the intellectual history of the Left Bank of Jean-Paul Sartre and his milieu. The moral oversights of the French intelligentsia were much more than a matter of the left’s political future, as they had been in Marxism. This history was a cautionary study of moral engagement—how the intellectual defines justice, and how they work to achieve it.
The sources of Judt’s new moral discontent appear obvious. The historian wrote Past Imperfect as a fellow at the aggressively anticommunist Hoover Institution, in the depths of his activism on behalf of Eastern European dissidents. During the late 1970s, “human rights” and associated concepts against the violence of the state became the partial territory of international activism against the Eastern bloc. Judt was cautiously supportive of the so-called “rights talk” of dissidents like Vaclav Havel, who also sought a new vocabulary beyond the violent obfuscations of authoritarianism. His support was not total; as Samuel Moyn observes in an obituary to Judt, the historian vacillated between enthusiasm and ambivalence over the question of human rights for much of the following two decades.
Judt’s growing engagement with questions of nationalism, less apparent than his anticommunism, also shaped his new vocabulary. As Judt’s activism expanded, new relationships with Eastern European dissidents revealed new political questions about the inclusion and exclusion of ethnic minorities in the Eastern bloc. These questions were more provincial than the universal language of Havel’s Charter 77 movement. Forty years later, Eastern Europe had not quite grappled with the political and moral consequences of the Holocaust, or of the massive demographic changes that the Nazi and Soviet “bloodlands” had wrought. The growth of nationalist politics following the fall of the Soviet Communism and its satellites made clear the ugly consequences of this oversight; the mass violence of the Second World War reemerged as a subject of public debate. Both the incendiary reception of Past Imperfect in France and a prominent post at New York University allowed Judt new access to publications beyond the academy. In the pages of the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, Judt addressed precisely these issues: how nationalism would shape a reunited Europe, and what it would mean for the slow recovery of the continent’s Jews and Jewishness.
During the mid-1990s, the historian wrote prolifically about the Holocaust, but rarely directly. The mass murder of European Jewry was a double bookend of the postwar era Judt would narrate in his magnum opus—first as history, then as memory. The suffering of Europe’s Jews and the continent’s subsequent catharsis pervades Postwar, from the ambivalent rise of the European planning state to the creation of its supranational supplement. Europe’s postwar order was constructed as a preventive safeguard against another Holocaust; in Postwar, the historian describes the influence of the recent memory of Nazism over Europe’s technocratic planners. The memory of the Holocaust survived despite the longevity and expansion of the new European project. “The new Europe, bound together by the signs and symbols of its terrible past, is a remarkable accomplishment; but it remains forever mortgaged to that past,” reads the work’s concluding essay. The resilient memory of a provincial history makes urgent a pluralistic politics, European or otherwise.
Most times, Judt preferred not to frame his work in these terms. As early as 1979, in an essay against methodological trends in the practice of social history, Judt opposed what he viewed as an academic cult of “identity politics”—the isolated historical study of womanhood, or indigeneity, or blackness. The academic pursuit of “cultural studies,” in his inelegant characterization, was “crap.” The historian viewed the provincial study of identity as an affront to “the goals of a liberal education,” as he wrote in a 2010 essay. Academic studies of identity, he continues, “[reinforce] the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine.” In Ill Fares the Land, a parting defense of a lost social democracy, Judt expressed nostalgia for a cosmopolitan public commons threatened by the privatization of goods, on the right, and the privatization of identity, on the left.
The diversity of Judt’s own Jewishness contradicts this rigid contest between the cosmopolitan and the provincial. In Judt’s public writing, the politics of the public commons is nothing more than the protection of its self-similar parts. For Judt, the question of Israel was an important tangent of the historian’s own provincial Jewishness. The memory of the Holocaust was a force for political cosmopolitanism in itself; the eventual myopia of contemporary Zionism was the conviction that this memory could only be enshrined through an exclusionary nation-state. This was the central observation of Judt’s defense of the one-state solution in 2003; it was also a logical finding of Judt’s fragmented three-decade history of the European public commons.
Of course, the present-day resilience of European anti-Semitism is a significant—and hardly unique—counterpoint against Judt’s hopeful cosmopolitanism, one of which the historian was plainly aware of. For Jews as well as for Roma, Muslim, and various Middle Eastern minorities, the protections of the European commons appear increasingly limited. But perhaps their inclusion in a common politics is a more moral goal than others’ exclusion.

From Freedom Summer to Black August

San Quentin prison (Gino Zahnd/Flickr)

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, when thousands of mostly white college students from around the country traveled to Mississippi to contest segregation at its most violent source. Commemorations of the momentous civil rights campaign appropriately highlight the black political participation that has grown as a result of those heroic voter registration efforts and seems symbolically reflected in the two-time election of the nation’s first black president.
There is another anniversary of black protest this year that has received less attention. Thirty-five years ago California prisoners founded Black August, a holiday to pay tribute to African-American history in the context of an ever-expanding carceral state. In a kind of secular activist Ramadan, Black August participants refused food and water before sundown, did not use the prison canteen, eschewed drugs and boastful behavior, boycotted radio and television, and engaged in rigorous physical exercise and political study. Through Black August, prisoners sought to demonstrate the personal power they maintained despite incarceration.
Black August celebrations have always been somewhat subterranean, and all the more so in recent years when some prison officials have used reprisals such as long-term solitary confinement to punish those who organize for better conditions. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that prisoners in several states, including California, Pennsylvania, and Georgia—all states that have witnessed prisoner strikes in recent years—continue to honor at least some aspects of the holiday.
Whereas this summer has seen many celebrations of Freedom Summer’s influence on expanding black communities’ access to the institutions of U.S. democracy, Black August marks a less pleasant but no less dramatic reality of American politics. It points to the racialized exclusions that continue to haunt the American experience—especially in the form of the expansive prison industrial complex that makes the United States the world’s leader in incarceration. In remembering histories of black activism from the space of prison cells, Black August points to the ongoing failure to realize the promises of freedom and democracy that drove the civil rights activists of the 1960s.
A Prison-Made Holiday
Black August began in California’s San Quentin in August 1979. The men who founded the holiday wished to commemorate the rich, tragic history of prison protest over the past decade as well as the number of historically significant events in the black freedom struggle that have taken place in the month of August. “We figured that the people we wanted to remember wouldn’t be remembered during black history month, so we started Black August,” cofounder Shuuja Graham told me.
For the founders, the month of August was also significant for tragic reasons. In 1971 imprisoned intellectual and Black Panther George Jackson was killed in a bloody uprising. His seventeen-year-old brother, Jonathan, had been killed the previous August attempting to free three prisoners from a Marin County courthouse. Both events caused an already tense prison system to crack down on prisoner access to media and to the public. Their subversive study groups became more clandestine, as violence among prisoners and between prisoners and guards increased in frequency. And those who wished to press for social change from inside the prison faced steeper obstacles to participating in political organizations.
Black August points to the ongoing failure to realize the promises of freedom and democracy that drove the civil rights activists of the 1960s.
Then on August 1, 1978, Jeffrey Khatari Gaulden was killed during a game of touch football in the San Quentin prison yard. Someone pushed him too hard, and he hit his head as he fell to the ground. As the other prisoners clamored for medical attention, guards cleared the yard one person at a time, searching each person individually. By the time the prisoners were cleared, Gaulden had bled out. The thirty-two-year-old had been imprisoned since 1967, and was inspired by the likes of George Jackson to become a militant activist. He makes few appearances in the records of California’s prison movement before his death, though he was well known among Bay Area prison activists and well respected among other men of color in the California prison system. He was convicted in May 1972 for killing a civilian laundry worker at Folsom the previous September, allegedly in retaliation for Jackson’s death. The incident occurred just after Gaulden was released from solitary confinement, and he was returned there after his conviction.
To his compatriots, Gaulden’s death signaled the decline of what had once been a vibrant movement for prisoner rights. Black August was a way for them to honor him and other activists. As the holiday continued, adherents identified a variety of other significant events that had occurred in August. There were slave rebellions, from the beginning of the Haitian Revolution (August 21, 1791) to those attempted by Gabriel Prosser (originally scheduled for August 30, 1800), launched by Nat Turner (beginning August 21, 1831), and called for by Henry Highland Garnett (August 22, 1843). There were deaths (W.E.B. Du Bois, August 27, 1963) and births (Marcus Garvey, August 17, 1887; Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, formed in August 1914). And there were protests, from the UNIA’s month-long international convention of 25,000 people at Madison Square Garden in August 1920 to the 1963 March on Washington, from the Watts rebellion of 1965 to the 1978 standoff between police and the black naturalist organization MOVE in Philadelphia.
Black August was not the first protest of its kind. Prisoners in New York had organized “Black Solidarity Day” earlier in the 1970s in protest of racism in prison. But for a variety of reasons, Black August is the one that took hold. The early celebrations inside the prisons were matched with small protests at the gates of San Quentin. And social networks of activist organizations carried Black August from prison to prison in Illinois and New York, Georgia and North Carolina, and places in between.  But by the early 1980s, few people were paying attention to the worsening conditions inside prisons.
More recently, the history of Black August has been taken up in hip hop circles and other groups in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. In Oakland, the Black August Organizing Committee has held movie showings, organized summer programs for youth, and advocated for political prisoners. Other organizations, including the Eastside Arts Alliance and the Freedom Archives, have organized events showcasing the history of Black August in relation to contemporary racial justice organizing. The New York–based Black August Hip Hop Project organized annual events between 1998 and 2010, including “international delegations of artists and activists to Cuba, South Africa, Tanzania, Brazil, and Venezuela.” Black August concerts have included artists such as The Roots, Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey), and Erykah Badu, among many others. Black August has bled into the culture of a new generation. While it is difficult to track exact numbers, especially in California, where marking the history of George Jackson and Black August still finds prisoners facing disciplinary sanction, some dissident prisoners continue to honor the tradition alongside its extension into the world of hip hop. Black August, a celebration of black diasporic radicalism, has itself gone diasporic.
Unbloodied by History
In the 1960s, Mississippi wore its white supremacy on its sleeve. The Sunflower State took pride in its stark racial order, and the signs were everywhere to be seen, detailing which water fountains, restaurants, and restrooms were for “whites” and which ones for “coloreds.” These signs were not just visual: they could be heard in the bellowing pronouncements of the state’s segregationist officials and felt in the police truncheons and putrid cells of the notorious Parchman Prison.
By 1964 the visibility and vitriol of Mississippi’s apartheid had reached the national stage, and the state seemed to epitomize the backwardness of Jim Crow. With Freedom Summer, the Southern civil rights campaign reached its crescendo: the noble pursuit of basic human rights in the face of storybook villains who boasted of their cruelty was laid bare for all to see. That summer, and the landmark civil rights legislation it inspired, nurtured a definition of racism that revolved around dramatic spectacles of open violence in defense of an unjust and archaic system.
California, in contrast, not only looked peaceful but actively presented itself as far removed from racism and unpleasantness of all kinds. True, the 1965 Watts rebellion—which left thirty-four dead and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage—challenged that idyllic image. So did a series of ballot initiatives that kept in place housing and employment segregation. But as activists discovered across the country, often in the wake of uprisings and riots, attempts to defeat racism in the North and West were routinely stymied by the complex institutional factors upholding police brutality, residential segregation, employment discrimination, and educational inequity. Too many officials believed their cities and states to be exempt from the kind of evil so obviously perpetrated in the South.
At the dawn of mass incarceration, the creators of Black August saw that racism itself was being reinvented or at least being updated through the criminal justice system.
California perfected this kind of racial innocence. “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history,” essayist Joan Didion wrote in her memoir. “In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” That difference between Mississippi and California, the difference between an acknowledged bloody history and its disavowal, found expression in California’s prison policies. It is part of why Black August emerged there rather than in Mississippi or elsewhere.
After the Second World War, California had pioneered a liberal form of prison management called bibliotherapy. It was a philosophy that believed expanded literacy among incarcerated people would prove rehabilitative. Instead, it proved radicalizing, and the state prisons churned out people who were hyper-literate and militantly opposed to the racism they experienced in prison and in their home communities of Los Angeles and Oakland. Men such as Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Alprentice Bunchy Carter left prison and built the Black Panther Party; others, such as George Jackson and Khatari Gaulden, contributed to this black radical upsurge without ever leaving prison.
In response, state officials abandoned bibliotherapy. They placed new restrictions on the number of visitors and the types of publications people in prison could receive. They expanded solitary confinement units. By the early 1980s, they launched the biggest prison construction project in world history. As geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, California’s “prisoner population grew nearly 500 percent between 1982 and 2000, even though the crime rate peaked in 1980 and declined, unevenly but decisively, thereafter.” The state built twenty-three prisons, “thirteen community corrections facilities, five prison camps, and five mother-prisoner centers” between 1984 and 2007. California was early to experiment with the “three strikes” system and mandatory minimum sentences that contributed to the massive spike in the number of prisoners since the 1970s. After the Second World War, the state was seen as a leader in rehabilitative “corrections”; after consolidating the shift toward retribution that began in the 1970s, it has since the 1980s been a leader in punitive policing and imprisonment.
California has always fancied itself a place of reinvention. At the dawn of mass incarceration, the creators of Black August saw that racism itself was being reinvented or at least being updated through the criminal justice system. Black August commemorated histories of black radicalism and practiced ascetic personal discipline to call attention to the many ways that history continued to bloody the land—now in the form of prisons and ghettoes. Racism was not bad people nurturing ancient prejudice; it was solitary confinement and unfunded schools. A state that thought itself unbloodied by history littered the land with prisons, giving us the greatest human rights crisis now facing our country.
Remembering Freedom
Memory matters. What we remember, what we commemorate, says something about the kind of society we imagine ourselves to be living in. Of course, memory is selective; selecting certain details, people, events is always at the expense of other stories we might tell. As several commentators have noted, the Manichean story of nonviolent resistance to Southern segregation overlooks the prevalence of armed self-defense among black Southerners and others, traditions that later inspired the Black Panther Party to pick up arms. The “I have a dream” speech recycled every second Monday in January freezes Martin Luther King, Jr. in time, while his many passionate declarations for economic justice and an end to U.S. militarism are overlooked. The list goes on and on, every memorial a well-intentioned act of forgetting.
The stories now being told about Freedom Summer righteously celebrate the bravery of the thousands of civil rights workers who brought down Jim Crow segregation. Their contributions to bringing democracy to the United States deserve our highest praise and deepest reflection. But such commemorations should not lull us into the false sense that their mission has been completed. A popular civil rights slogan during the summer of 1964 demanded “Freedom Now.” With some attention to Black August and its surrounding histories of prisoner organizing, especially in light of such high-profile police murders of unarmed black men, this summer’s commemorations might point out how much work is left to do before we can say that the United States has let freedom ring.