The Contours of American History (Modern Library Nonfiction #94)

(This is the seventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Promise of American Life.)


History is never the thrilling Zapcat powerboat ride it can and should be when we remain committed to oaring through the same exhausted legends about American exceptionalism and bogus democratic promise. Much as we may find new insights into human existence by tilting our canoes to the ripples contained within a storyteller’s cadences, so too may we discover more complete ways of contending with our historical contradictions through the viewpoint of a responsible revisionist armed with the facts and rejecting the hard establishment line.

The revisionist historian, that charming and sometimes infuriating rabble-rouser never to be confused with some creepy Holocaust denier flailing in a sea of empty Cheetos bags and crackpot pamphlets, often gets needlessly maligned in America. Before Annette Gordon-Reed offered conclusive evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings (upheld by a 1998 DNA test), Fawn Brodie was attacked by vanilla-minded legacy holders two decades before for pushing beyond James Callender’s tawdry trolling, daring to suggest that there was good reason to believe that our much heralded champion of the rights of man had skeletons in his closet that were vital to understanding his philosophy. Brodie’s book, despite its psychobiographical failings, led to a reckoning with our myths and assumptions about the Sage of Monticello, one that continues to this very day with college students demanding the removal of Jefferson statues on campuses.

Provided that their efforts do not involve going out of their way to Bowlderize troubling if incontrovertible parts of the story and the results are as expansive and as rigorous as their more timorous mainstream counterparts, revisionists are often vital reconcilers of the public record. It is the facile propagandist who ignores Rosa Parks’s radicalism to paint a roseate image of a meek and tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus (“small,” “delicate,” and “little,” as belittled by Bill Clinton in 2005) or who upholds the lie that Abner Doubleday created baseball.

In recent decades, many young students have ardently clutched their copies of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States with the taut adamantine grip of a Fallout 4 junkie reluctant to capitulate her controller. Zinn’s thoughtful volume has been vehemently denounced by some establishment historians who have questioned the perceived polemical emphasis of class conflict at the expense of other issues. But before Zinn, there was William Appleman Williams, a brash energetic troublemaker who was arguably a more rigorous scholar than Zinn and who was among the best and the boldest of the firebrand 20th century historians who emerged from a Charles Beard afterglow with ass to kick once the bubble gum supply ran out.

William Appleman Williams unpacked the economic motivations of American expansion and foreign policy in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and broadened this scholarship further with The Contours of American History, a punchy volume examining how imperialism and liberalism became a sordid double stitch intertwined in the American quilt well before the Sons of Liberty spilled massive chests of desperately offloaded tea into Boston Habor. Yet Williams’s often nimble analysis, riddled as it sometimes is with conceptual overreach, robustly articulates the ever-changing and contradictory American Weltanschauung that has motivated nearly every governmental decision since. He documents a worldview that started off with the relatively benign goal of creating and sustaining an economic nation that provided for everyone, but devolved under the autocratic yoke of Jacksonian democracy and Gilded Age greed to the corporate capitalist nightmare we are all trying to awake from today. And because Williams’s challenge to the so-called “American experiment” was so unprecedented in the mid-20th century, this historian was tarnished, besmirched, and condemned by other putative progressives who might have enlarged their rigid notions of national identity if they had been more willing to dive into the subtle words and actions directing the unshakable financial impetus.

Williams was harassed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, that despicably despotic body that ruined the lives of so many, with a demand to produce the unfinished Contours manuscript. The HUAC would order Williams to testify in Washington and then cancel the appearance by telegram once he’d hopped on a train to the Beltway. Even after he testified for ten minutes and the HUAC abandoned its witch hunt, the IRS harassed him in various forms for nearly twenty years. Williams was hounded by the neoliberalism critic Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., who dutifully condemned Williams as “pro-communist” to the American Historical Association’s president. Even as late as 2009, an academic called Williams an “idiot” before a Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations panel, decrying Williams’s approach to history as a crude retooling of Charles Beard’s infamous assault upon our Founding Fathers’s pecuniary predispositions.1

But Williams was far from a typical progressive. He was a registered Republican when he first came to Wisconsin. He voted for Nixon as the lesser evil in 1960. And even in Contours, he defended Herbert Hoover’s hands-off Depression era policies, seeing this as a necessary tactic to forestall property holders from creating a business-friendly fascism that could have had a more diabolical effect on our clime than the many Hoovervilles that had mushroomed across the nation. Williams argued that Hoover’s perceived failure to do anything represented a more active resistance against special interests than the Progressive Movement was willing to acknowledge or act upon at the time. And that’s the way this jazz-loving Midwestern historian rolled. As Williams was to write in a 1973 essay, the revisionist’s duty was to “see basic facts in a different way and as interconnected in new relationships. He is a sister and a brother to those who use old steel to make a zipper, as contrasted with those who add new elements to make a better steel.”

In my previous Modern Library essay, I castigated Herbert Croly for the historical developments that he could not see ahead of him, for erring too much in his perfervid belief in a central government and for diminishing the justifiable grievances of protesters. William Appleman Williams may very well represent the opposite problem: a historian who could see the implications of any action all too well, one who was willing to articulate any interpretation of the facts even if it meant being alienated by the jingoistic minds who needed to reconsider the other fateful historical trajectories upholding the status quo.

Williams’s highly specific examples very much allow him to sell us on his interpretation. In Tragedy, for example, Williams’s deductive prowess is in high gear when he examines how Woodrow Wilson’s March 1913 decision to refuse a government loan to China, one long coveted by American industrialists at the time (and later attempted privately), actually fell within the framework of the Open Door Policy. Many historians have interpreted Wilson’s pushback as a betrayal of American expansionism at the time, but Williams points to the lack of private capital available to fulfill the job as well as the possibility that any governmental loan, even one secured with the help of other financiers, may have been perceived as a very clear threat to neighboring Japan. The Open Door Policy, for all of its flaws and its needless sullying of China, was intended to provide a peacefully imperialist framework for a burgeoning American empire: a GATT or IMF before its time, though regrettably without much in the way of homegrown protest. (Rebellion would come later in Beijing with the May Fourth movement.) The ostensible goal was to strengthen China with fresh influxes of low-risk private capital so that it could withstand troublesome neighbors looking for a fight, even as the new obligations to American entrepreneurs forged hot rivulets of cash rolling back to the imperialist homeland. Wilson’s decision was, as discerned by Williams, a canny chesslike stratagem to avoid war and conflict, one that would keep China a servant to America’s riches. From the vantage point of the 21st century, this useful historical interpretation reveals Wilson to be a pioneer in the kind of venal and now all too commonplace globalization that morally bankrupt neoliberals like Thomas Friedman have no problem opening their old steel zippers for. Their free trade fantasies possess all the out-of-sight, out-of-mind justification of a revenge porn junkie ignoring another person’s real world humiliation for fleeting sociopathic pleasure.

It was with Contours that Williams blew the lid off the great American lie, exposing the American liberal’s failure to confront his own implication in much of the lasseiz nous faire madness. Williams traced the origins of our mercantilist approach to Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury. In the 17th century, Shaftesbury was a political figure who opposed harsh penalties and absolutist government. He stood up for the nonconformists and called for regular parliaments, and would go on to found and lead the early Whig party in the wake of the British Exclusion Crisis. While traveling to Oxford to remove an abscess from his liver, he hit it off with a young doctor by the name of John Locke. (There weren’t as many cafes back then as there are today. In the 1600s, you had to take whatever mingling opportunities you could get.) Locke, of course, would later have many ideas about the social contract, a scheme about inalienable natural rights that would eventually find its way into a number one ditty penned by Jefferson that would become known as the Declaration of Independence.

But there was a twist to this tale. As Williams points out, Locke’s ideas were a corruption of Shaftesbury’s more inclusive and democratic efforts. Where Shaftesbury was willing to rebel against the King to ensure that courts and alternative political parties were in place to prevent the government from becoming an absolute tyranny, even going to the trouble of building a coalition that extended across all classes to fight for these safeguards when not putting together the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, it was Locke who limited Shaftesbury’s remarkably liberal contributions by undercutting individual rights. Locke believed that those who owned property were perfectly justified in protesting their government, for they were the ones who had entered into a social contract. But the rabble who didn’t own property could more or less buzz off.2 As Williams put it, “[I]ndividualism was a right and a liberty reserved to those who accepted a status quo defined by a certain set of natural truths agreed upon a majority. Within such a framework, and it is a far narrower set of limits than it appears at first glance, the natural laws of property and labor were deemed sufficient to guide men’s pursuit of happiness.”

Yet those who subscribed to these early mercantilist standards believed that this classically liberal idea of “corporate structure” involved a basic responsibility to provide for everyone. And the way of sustaining such a benevolent national juggernaut was through the establishment of an empire: a Pax Americana predicated upon the promise of a democracy promulgated by patriarchs who not so quietly believed that the people were incapable of it.3 Williams observes how the Quakers in Philadelphia, who opposed expansion and much of the onslaughts against Native Americans, were very much committed to noblesse oblige, setting up hospitals, education, and philanthropic endeavors to take care of everyone. But this generous spirit was no match for the free trade nabobs or the hard-hearted Calvinists who increasingly shifted such solicitude to the propertied class (one can easily imagine Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glenn Ross “Always be closing” speech spouted by a Calvinist), leading the great theologian Jonathan Edwards to offer righteous pushback against “fraud and trickishness in trade.”

Against this backdrop, post-Revolutionary expansion and the Monroe Doctrine allowed mercantilism to transmute into an idea that was more about the grab than the munificent results, with visions of empire dancing in many heads. By the time Frederick Jackson Turner tendered his Frontier Thesis in 1893, mercantilism was no longer about providing for the commonweal, but about any “self-made man” looking out after his interests. Williams points to Chief Justice John Marshall’s efforts to enforce safeguards, such as his Gibbons vs. Ogden decision regulating interstate commerce, against the monopolies that would come to dominate America near the turn of the century. Marshall’s immediate successor, Chief Justice Taney, expanded the flexibility of the Constitution’s Contract Clause with his 1837 Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge decision, permitting states to alter any contract as it saw fit. While Taney’s decision seemed to strike the death knell against monopolies, it was no match against the consolidated trusts that were to come with the railroads and the robber barons. Rather curiously, for all of his sharp observations about free trade and expansionist dangers during this time, Williams devotes little more than a paragraph to the 1836 closing of the Second Bank of the United States:

[Nicholas Biddle] did a better job than the directors of the Bank of England. Under his leadership the bank not only established a national system of credit balancing which assisted the west as much as the east, and probably more, but sought with considerable success to save smaller banks from their own inexperience and greed. It was ultimately his undoing, for what the militant advocates of lasseiz nous faire came to demand was help without responsibilities. In their minds, at any rate, that was the working definition of democratic freedom.

Talk about sweeping one of the greatest financial calamities in American history under the rug! I don’t want to get too much into Andrew Jackson, who I believe to be nothing less than an abhorrent, reckless, and self-destructive maniac who claimed “liberalism” using the iron fist of tyranny, in this installment. I shall preserve my apparently unquenchable ire for Old Hickory when I tackle Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson in a few years (Modern Library Nonfiction #36). But Jackson’s imperious and irresponsible battle with Biddle, complete with his Specie Circular, undoubtedly led to the Panic of 1837, in which interest rates spiked, the rich got richer, a fixable financial mess spiraled out of control and became needlessly dangerous, and buyers could not come up with the hard cash to invest in land. Considering Williams’s defense of Hoover in both Contours and Tragedy, it is extremely curious that he would shy away from analyzing why some form of central bank might be necessary to mitigate against volatility, even though he adopted some fascinating counterpoints to the “too big to fail” theory decades before Bernanke and Krugman.

This oversight points to the biggest issue I have with Williams. His solution to the great imperialist predicament was democratic socialism, which he called “the only real frontier available to Americans in the second half of the 20th century.” While this is a clever way of inverting Turner’s thesis, to uphold this, Williams cites a few examples such as the courage of Wendell Phillips, a few throwaway references to social property, and a late 19th century return with Edward Bellamy and Henry Demarest Lloyd to the Quaker-like notion of “a commonwealth in which men were brothers first and economic men second.” But while Williams is often a master of synthesis, he falls somewhat short in delineating how his many historical examples can aid us to correct our ongoing ills. If the American Weltanschauung is so steeped in our culture, how then can democratic socialism uproot it? This vital question remains at the root of any progressive-minded conversation. But now that we have a presidential race in which socialism is no longer a dirty word and the two leading Democratic candidates bicker over who is the greater progressive, perhaps the answer might arrive as naturally as Williams anticipated.

Next Up: Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition!


Amanda Vaill (The Bat Segundo Show #549)

Amanda Vaill is most recently the author of Hotel Florida.

Author: Amanda Vaill


Subjects Discussed: Household accidents, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” and various claims attesting to its authenticity, staged photography, Capa’s origins, Ernest Hemingway’s bluster, his journalistic weaknesses, Virginia Cowles’s bravery, the dubious qualities of To Have and Have Not, John Dos Passos, journalistic skepticism, Hemingway’s disillusionment with the Spanish Civil War, Martha Gellhorn, Gellhorn’s 1983 interview with John Pilger, Gellhorn’s condemnation of government, Gellhorn’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, Gellhorn making up the facts (fabricating a Mississippi lynching) for her news story, “Justice at Night,” Henry Luce’s attention to Robert Capa, what coverage of the Spanish Civil War was real, Spain as the front line against Hitler, constraints of journalists on the Nationalist side, whether or not any amount of art and journalism could have averted the fate of Spain, the Non-Internvention Agreement, American isolationism, the civil war within the Civil War, left-wing factions squabbling against each other, Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel, Barea as a late bloomer, Barea’s stint as the Unknown Voice, confidence and post-traumatic stress, how to determine the precise words that floated through someone’s head or mouth from seven decades ago, Hemingway’s The Fifth Column, The Spanish Earth and the current print status of Spain in Flames, Archibald MacLeish and Contemporary Historians, Inc., orphan business entities, the brawl between Orson Welles and Hemingway during voiceover recording sessions, the fight between Hemingway and Max Eastman, what women thought of all the needless male fighting, George Seldes’s reception in the Spanish Civil War, Henry Buckley’s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, the legend of the luggage that Martha Gellhorn took to Spain, Joan Didion in El Salvador, Love Goes to Press, the American matador Sid Franklin, Ilsa Kulcsar, Gellhorn’s bravery and influence upon Hemingway, the recent Russia press gag on bloggers, comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and Syria, photographs as Instagram in slow time, whether there’s any Hemingway again, and contemplating J.K. Rowling going to the Crimea to write a novel.


Correspondent: You’re doing okay, I take it.

Vaill: Except for my broken finger.

Correspondent: Oh, you broke your finger?

Vaill: Yes, I did. I had one of those household accidents. I tripped over my shoes.

Correspondent: And, of course, it’s the right hand as opposed to the left hand.

Vaill: Of course it is. So I cannot write and I cannot shake hands and I cannot sign my name. Except that it is getting better so I can now do that.

Correspondent: Although you have a good shot at taking over Spain.

Vaill: I hope so.


Correspondent: The Spanish Civil War. We have many characters and many figures and I’ll do my best to get to all of them. But let’s start with good old Robert Capa. One of the fascinating and oft argued issues in photography is, of course, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” — the picture of the militiaman on the Andalusian hill falling to his death in battle. Some have contended that it is fake. Some have contended that it is real. Some have, as you have, tried tracking down interviews. You tried to find an NBC Radio interview with Alex Kershaw on October 20, 1947 in which Capa claimed to have killed the miliciano. But the purported truth of the story behind the photo is almost as murky as the purported truth of the photo, which in turn has us contending with the purported truth of the War. So how do even begin to come to terms with the photo — in terms of scholarship, in terms of authenticity? And how does the struggle affect our ability to wrestle with the complexities and the ideological involutions of the Spanish Civil War? Just to start off here.

Vaill: Well, that I could write a whole dissertation on. And people have. But let’s start first of all with the word “fake,” which is a…

Correspondent: Staged.

Vaill: Yes. There is a big difference. Something that is faked is in some way manipulated so that something that is not true can be made to be true. Something that is staged is something that is perhaps not quite as extreme as something that is faked. And you have to bear in mind that in 1936, when this photograph was taken, there was no history of war photography at all. No one had taken live action photographs on a battlefield. Matthew Brady took pictures of corpses, which he manipulated and moved around so that they would be in a pose that he liked. In World War I, you couldn’t go on the battlefield. You were not allowed. And furthermore there was no equipment that you could take on there. You have big cumbersome cameras and slow film. And it was only in the 1930s, when you had 35mm film and cameras that could accommodate it, that you could take your camera onto the battlefield. So there was no rulebook for how you handled photography in wartime and no one was used to allowing photographers to be where there was combat. So when Capa and Gerda Taro, his lover and cohort in photography, came to Spain, they at first were not even allowed to go onto the battlefield. They were only given access to troops behind the lines and they tried to make them look good. But this was just not happening. They couldn’t get anything that looked like real battle. And finally, when they were near the area of Córdoba, on the Córdoba front. They had this chance to take photographs of a group of soldiers and Capa has told many stories about what happened and how he got this shot. He was an inveterate tale-teller. He was a real entertainer, Capa. He loved to charm and entertain people.

Correspondent: He felt compelled to create his own legend.

Vaill: He totally did. And he did. He created his name. He was born Andrei Friedmann in Budapest. So he created a whole persona of Robert Capa, the famous photographer, and he created not just that, but this legend of himself that he felt perhaps compelled to live up to. In 1936 though, remember, he’s 22 years old. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know what he’s doing really. And it is my belief, based on interviews — they aren’t even interviews; conversations that he had with those close to him at times when he, in fact, was not on. The conversation that I base most of my reconstruction on this incident on is one that was with a friend. He wasn’t trying to entertain this person. He wasn’t showing off for an interviewer. He was confessing something. And what he confessed was that a real man had been killed by something that he had done and he was conscious-stricken about it, which is the kind of thing that really squares with the portrait that I received of Capa. That Capa was a very kind, very generous, very loving person and easily hurt by things and didn’t want to give pain to others. And that this thing had happened, I think, was horrifying to him.

Correspondent: Since we are talking about various artists who came to Spain and essentially either set themselves up as legends or became legends later, let’s move naturally to Ernest Hemingway. For all of his bluster about being a “real man” and a “real journalist,” he didn’t actually cover Guernica in April 1937. And he didn’t mention this devastating battle in his dispatches from Spain. Virginia Cowles, on the other hand, she headed into the Nationalist zone and not only covered it, but did so when a Nationalist staff officer said, “You probably shouldn’t be writing about this.” So you write in the book that Hemingway may not have thought this important enough, but why do you think he ignored it? Was he just not that thorough of a reporter?

Vaill: Well, actually, I hate to say this, but he wasn’t that thorough of a reporter. For all that he had a great background as a gumshoe reporter back in the day, when he was at the Kansas City Star, when he was in Toronto, he was a newspaperman. He was on the city beat and he was the cub reporter sent out to cover fires and God knows what all else. But by the time he went to Spain, he had become a legend. And he was a legend, in part, in his own mind, as much as in the minds of others, and I think he got to the point where what he really wanted to do was to sit at the big table with the big boys and get the big story, and let somebody else worry about all the little details. And in this case, Guernica happened in the Basque Country. It was in a zone that it was almost impossible for him to get to without great difficulty.

Correspondent: But that didn’t stop Cowles.

Vaill: Well, it didn’t. Because, of course, she was still building her reputation. I think Hemingway felt he didn’t have to pry. I also feel that he didn’t think it was that important. And he didn’t think it was that important because the very contemporary news reports of it were very dismissive at first. It really wasn’t until people like Cowles found out what had gone on there that it became evident that there had been a horrific disaster. So Hemingway just basically thought, “I’m going to give this a bye. It’s too much trouble. I’ll risk my neck getting there. I don’t need it. I’m heading back. Screw it.”

Correspondent: I will confess that your book had me finally, after many years, reading To Have and Have Not.

Vaill: (laughs)

Correspondent: I had been avoiding this for a long time and, as it turns out, rightfully so. Brilliant in parts, terrible in others. I mean, was Hemingway just not up to snuff during this particular period?

Vaill: I think he was struggling. And I think that many writers do. They reach a period where they’re trying to break through to some other level and they’re not comfortable. The instrument isn’t sharp in the way that they want it to be sharp to do the work that they suddenly have decided they want to do. Hemingway after writing two extraordinarily well-received novels and an amazing bunch of short stories and maybe two of his, I think, finest works — “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” I think he was looking to do something different. The ’30s were a period of great relevance. The engagé writer was what you were supposed to be and he hadn’t been. And even though he scoffed at a lot of this stuff and said that he didn’t want to get that involved in politics and he didn’t want to hue to any -isms of one kind or another and all he really believed in was freedom, he couldn’t help noticing, particularly when his friend John Dos Passos ended up on the cover of Time Magazine in the summer of 1936, that writers who were writing about the big political themes were getting a lot of attention, the kind of attention he had always gotten, and I think he was looking for some way to do that and To Have and Have Not represented that kind of fiction for him. He wasn’t comfortable writing it, I think, and I think that was the problem of it.

Correspondent: Speaking of Dos Passos, I felt tremendous sympathy for this poor man. I mean, he comes to Spain. He’s looking into the mysterious disappearance of his friend, Jose Robles Pazos, and he’s spurned by Hemingway.

Vaill: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Hemingway is well-connected with the Loyalists and he tells Dos Passos, “Don’t put your mouth to this Robles business. People disappear every day.” Which is an extraordinarily callous statement. Why did Hemingway have difficulties getting around his romantic vision of the Republicans? Why couldn’t he ask the difficult questions that Dos Passos had no problem in investigating?

Vaill: Well, I think it goes back to Hemingway’s wanting to be at the big boys table.

Correspondent: And he was.

Vaill: And he was. We’ve seen some of this same problem with journalists in our own day. The New York Times‘s Judith Miller, for example. And other writers writing about our involvement in the Iraq War, they wanted to just take the story that somebody wanted to hand out. Because that person was well-connected and high up in a tree.

Correspondent: And that trumps any journalistic integrity.

Vaill: Or any journalistic — I think it would be — doubt. Just the feeling that, oh wait.

Correspondent: Skepticism.

Vaill: Maybe I can take this story.

Correspodnent: Questioning.

Vaill: Your skepticism instrument is just not working when that happens. It’s lulled into some false quiescence by all this access that you suddenly have. And I think that’s what really happened to Hemingway here. He was so in love with the access he had and he was so taken up with his passionate identification with the cause of the Spanish Republic, which I can certainly understand. They were the democratically elected government of Spain and a bunch of right-wingers wanted to nullify an election and just take things back to the way they were before.

Correspondent: So in order to get over the crest to For Whom the Bell Tolls, an absolute masterpiece, he had to go through all these needless romance and this big review point and then he had to have his heart crushed.

Vaill: And then he had to be disillusioned. And I think the problem for him was — yes, exactly, he did have his heart broken in a way. And For Whom the Bell Tolls came out of that feeling of disillusionment. He called not just what had happened in the Republic, but also what happened at Munich — the whole thing and the dismissal of the international brigades from Spain. All that to him was what he called a carnival of treachery on both sides. And that’s pretty strong language.

The Bat Segundo Show #549: Amanda Vaill (Download MP3)

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The Forgotten Tower

The first fallen structure that I ever admired was a 237-foot tower that once stood at the intersection of Market and Santa Clara Streets in San Jose, California. It was known as the Electric Light Tower and was hurled into the real from a newspaperman’s idealistic vision. James Jerome Owen knew that electric lighting was the future and, on May 13, 1881, he wrote an editorial in the San Jose Daily Mercury calling for the construction of an enormous tower looming over two streets, an electric landmark that would stub out the gaslights, showering evening luster onto the city with the same indomitable force as the sun. It took only seven months for the idea to seize the imagination of locals, and the tower was constructed and lighted by December 13, 1881.

electriclight1The tower never produced the searing glow that Owen longed for, but it served as a symbol of hope and progress to the people of San Jose. Electricity had only just arrived and the frame of the tower was juiced up by sizzling refulgence. Birds often smacked into its tempting bones, lured by the light, and it is said that policemen cadged a bit of pin money by hawking fallen duck corpses at local establishments. Drunkards often attempted to scale it. Moreover, San Jose had beaten Paris to the punch. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel pilfered the plans and, eight years after Owen’s gigantic tower was raised, Eiffel constructed his own version. This French treachery caused San Jose to sue Paris in 1989 for the century-long appropriation. In the trial, the architect Pierre Prodis claimed that the Eiffel Tower was merely a “trace job” of Owen’s vision. Paris triumphed in the court, but not without the famous engineer’s legacy sullied.

electrictower1I learned of the tower when I was five, attracted to the pointillist rings glowing on photos and postcards. I was smitten by the great circular aura shooting into the onyx skyscape from the six carbon arc lamps planted at the tower’s peak. And when my parents took me to Kelly Park, I became overcome with tumultuous wonder when my little eyes snagged onto a replica of the tower built in History Park. The replica was only 115 feet tall, recently constructed, and I remember asking the tour guide why it was so small. I had somehow remembered the height of the original, plucking it from some stray placard that most tourists ignored. What was the point of reproducing a tower if you couldn’t put it in the right place or match the previous height? The tour guide, sifting through his mental arsenal for general historical information to answer my question, told me how the original tower fell. Gale force winds had ravaged the tower on December 3, 1915. It was the deadliest part of a vicious storm. The center of the massive metal structure wended and wobbled and, just before noon, pipe and metal poured onto San Jose’s streets. I closed my eyes and began to imagine the beautiful tower destroyed, and I remember silently crying, knowing that the tower’s end was needlessly permanent. I don’t remember the tour guide’s exact words, but there was a peremptory tone in his voice, a suggestion that it was mad folly to build another tower and cause harm to future San Jose residents. San Jose still suffered from wintry winds every now and then. And there was still the possibility, especially given the freak 1976 snowstorm from a few years before, that the tower could do more damage.

CliffHouseStormI didn’t remember the snowstorm because I was an infant at the time. But like the Electric Light Tower, it had been captured in family photographs assembled in blue-covered albums identified sequentially by numbered stickers, so that I could trace the precise moment that the memories of my life aligned with the photographs. I had no memory of the snowstorm, but I had lived through it. I was forming memories of the electrical tower, visions that made it more real than any representation, yet I hadn’t been fortunate enough to be alive during the time of its existence. (I would have similar feelings for the Victorian version of the Cliff House constructed by Adolph Sutro in 1896, a magnificent multiroom palace with sharp gables famously captured in photographs during a thunderstorm. It burned to the ground on September 7, 1907 — another architectural tragedy, another great structure destroyed on a whim.)

electriclight2There hasn’t been a year when I haven’t thought about the tower. Yet I wonder how long I can keep its vision alive in my heart and mind. Nobody seems to remember it or care about it outside San Jose. Nobody wants to honor the tower that once attracted international attention. I can’t talk about the Electric Light Tower with anyone, especially on the East Coast. It is, like many funny ideas in the history books, an eccentric and possibly nonsensical idea. But for a decent stretch in history, it held one city together.


Simon Winchester (The Bat Segundo Show #527)

Simon Winchester is most recently the author of The Men Who United the States. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #87.

Author: Simon Winchester


Subjects Discussed: Becoming an American citizen, the diamond hoax of 1872, revisiting historical locations in contemporary times, driving over Donner Pass during a relentless blizzard, Clarence King, buying a tract of land in Montana, having Huey Lewis as a neighbor, attempts to buy chains from mysterious opportunists, avoiding the term “flyover states,” American Heartbeat, William Gilpin’s claim that the Western Territory of the United States could accommodate two billion people, New Harmony, David Dale Owen, Robert Owen, belief scams, the Hudson-Mohawk Gap, the construction of the Erie Canal, geopolitics, efforts to get at the truth about the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, 99% Invisible, standing up for the forgotten Ellis Chesbrough, The Jungle, leaving out historical figures, surveying and mapping the territory as essential elements of mapping the states, the Warren Map of 1858 as the definitive map of the United States, Roosevelt slicing a map of the States with a crayon to project his image of the U.S. interstate highway system, how American policy makers wavered from the norm, the “Yellow Book” basis for the interstate system, the military connections within the origins of America’s roads, Eisenhower as geographical observer, the UK Ordnance Survey vs. the U.S. Geographical Survey maps, rural electrification, Robert Caro’s LBJ volumes, “the pitiless arithmetic of capitalism” and its influence on areas of the States that didn’t get electricity, Samuel Insull, the real model for Citizen Kane, Roosevelt’s New Deal policies for the farmers, Western Ohio political ironies, Sacagawea, challenging Winchester on the lack of women in >The Men Who United the States, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the slavery debate, Ameila Earhart, risky book titles in an age of Jezebel, men and big ideas, Winchester’s crush on Donna Reed, ideas vs. physical links uniting the States, gender equality, John Wesley Powell’s extraordinary climbing claims, arguing over the legacy of Theodore Dehone Judah, the N Judah line and the 38 Geary, Ted Judah vs. The Big Four, Winchester’s six page love letter to NPR, NPR’s transphobia over Chelsea Manning, NPR on Iran, misreporting Gabrielle Giffords’s death, Democracy Now, This American Life, NPR vs. BBC and CBC, >Winchester’s 1981 thoughts on public radio, Bill Siemering and the origins of “All Things Considered,” the dormant exploratory impulse vs. guys who look at computers, metaphorical nation states, Winchester founding a newspaper, innovation vs. repeating the last two centuries of history. and Winchester’s forthcoming book on the Pacific Ocean.


Winchester: It’s lovely to see you again.

Correspondent: I was saying before. Last time we talked, you weren’t an American citizen.

Winchester: I wasn’t. It was in San Francisco.

Correspondent: Yes, it was.

Winchester: As I recall, I was enormously hungry and a little bit bad tempered.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Winchester: But this morning I’m very good.

Correspondent: No, no. You’ve been extraordinarily charming. Anyway, one of your strategies for this book involved revisiting many of the locations and taking in the sights as they are today. You encounter military installations on the Lewis and Clark route. When you visited Diamond Peak in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, the site of the Philip Arnold/John Slack diamond hoax of 1872, you express a certain kind of romantic disappointment that there isn’t a diamond for you to pick up and pluck.

Winchester: (laughs)

Correspondent: And there’s also, of course, your journey by car over Donner Pass, kind of getting a sense of what it was — because you were traveling through a blizzard. So my question first and foremost is: What advantages are there in visiting a place today when there is often no trace whatsoever of the original geography? Was this a peculiar criteria that you applied in selecting the locations you decided to write about for this book? What happened here?

Winchester: I don’t think they were criteria. Let’s go through them one by one. I was following the Lewis and Clark trail and they started, as you probably remember, in St. Charles, just north of St. Louis. And you turn left. You turn westwards and go up to the Missouri. And there isn’t a lot that’s very interesting until you come to this funny place called Knob Noster, which has to be one of the more peculiar town names in America. And I remembered when I got there and read Lewis’s account of being there and finding some sort of snake that gobbles like a turkey or a turkey that make noise.

Correspondent: Gobbles knobs.

Winchester: Yes.

Correspondent: We’re getting naughty very quickly. (laughs)

Winchester: Stop this. And I remembered that years before when I wrote an extremely unsuccessful book about the Midwest that I had been to Knob Noster because it’s the size of this enormous Air Force base. So I wanted to go and see how the Air Force base had changed in the thirty, forty years since I’d last been there. And of course, it has changed in a very important and significant way. The diamond field in Wyoming? Well, this all relates to the career of an extraordinary geologist called Clarence King, who happens to be a great hero of mine. The first ever director of the United States Geological Survey. He made his name by uncovering a fraud, the people you mentioned, which cheated a lot of wealthy San Franciscans — a great proportion of their fortune — by claiming to have found a field full of diamonds. They, of course, salted the diamond. They bought them cheaply in London and then put them in anthills. And so I went down to Diamond Peak, which is an extremely lonely place. And I’m walking along and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just uncover a diamond or an emerald or a sapphire?” But, no, there’s nothing left.

Correspondent: Were there any anthills at all?

Winchester: There were lots of anthills. Oh yes.

Correspondent: Because you didn’t mention that in the book.

Winchester: Well, there were.

Correspondent: I mean, come on. You’ve got to be grateful for second place, right?

Winchester: (laughs) Indeed. Quite. But Diamond Peak was there, just as described. But it started to snow. It started to get very cold and very windy and we were a long way from anywhere and it was starting to get dark. So we thought, “Well, there are no diamonds.” So screw it. I’m going home.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Winchester: Sorry if I didn’t mention the anthills.

Correspondent: I was in suspense.

Winchester: I’m sure you were.

Correspondent: You disappointed me on that point.

Winchester: I’m so sorry. I beg your pardon. And then Donner Pass, well, that was some while ago — not on doing specific research for this book. But I bought a tract of land, which I’ve since sold.

Correspondent: Montana.

Winchester: So foolishly. Yes. On Route 93 in Western Montana. And I was hightailing it back to San Francisco because I had to catch a plane back to Hong Kong, where I was living at the time. And so I was going fast on Route 80. West. And all the radio stations were saying that the Donner Pass is dry and clear, to use the expression. But it clearly wasn’t. Because since I started leaving from Reno and going up the hills, it started to rain. There were flashing lights on the side of the road, saying DONNER PASS CHAINS REQUIRED. And then I got up to where the rain turned to sleet, then to snow, then to driving snow. And then there was a Highway Patrol barrier saying ONLY CHAINS REQUIRED. And, of course, inevitably, this being America, there were a couple of entrepreneurial chaps by the side of the road, saying, “Oh! You want chains? We’ll give you chains. We’ll sell you chains.”

Correspondent: No doubt you were Huey Lewis’s mark.

Winchester: Huey Lewis was next in the piece of land in Montana. He was my next door neighbor.

Correspondent: Yeah. I was stunned.

Winchester: Huey Lewis and the News.

Correspondent: I was wondering if he led you astray. Now I have the timeline absolute here.

Winchester: (laughs) No. But what did happen, which I didn’t put in the book, was that I paid my $75. I had the chains put on. I crossed the Donner Pass. It’s fairly dramatic during a horrible snowstorm. But the point of my telling the story is that the Union Pacific trains were roaring through it at the same time with no problem caused by the snow, illustrating that that was indeed the logical place for the Union Pacific route to go. But then I got over the summit finally. About two in the morning. Started going down the other side towards Sacramento. The snow turned to sleet. Turned to rain. I unbolted my chains, put them in the trunk of the car. Note I say “trunk” now, not “boot.” Because I am an American.

Correspondent: Good on you.

Winchester: Thank you. Drove over the Bay Bridge ultimately to the hotel I stay in, which is a very nice hotel. I’ve always stayed because I’m from Hong Kong. The Mandarin Oriental. San Francisco, California. And the chap at the door says, “Oh, hello. Good morning, Mr. Winchester.” He’s been there for so long. “Do you want these chains?” And I said, “No no no. Just put them aside.” So he took the chains out and labeled them. Every time that I have stayed in the Mandarin, in the twenty years or fifteen years since that moment, always on my bed are Mr. Winchester’s chains.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Winchester: As if I get up to something really unspeakable in my room involving chains.

Correspondent: Wow.

Winchester: Indeed.

Correspondent: This has all sorts of implications.

Winchester: (laughs)

Correspondent: This kind of strays from my original question about using the actual physical presence of Simon Winchester at these locations as a way of writing about them. But it seems to me that you are almost atoning for past peregrination mistakes in previous books. Is that safe to say?

Winchester: Well, one particular book.

Correspondent: Okay. Alright.

Winchester: So nice of you to mention it. Yes, thank you.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Winchester: I am perfectly happy to admit it. This book, The Men Who United the States, is my second attempt to write about the United States in book form. The first was in 1976 when I was based in America, in Washington, for The Guardian, and had this, what I now realize to have been, somewhat naive belief that the essence of America, the quiddity if you like of the country, could be found not in the effete East or the decadent West, but in the imperturbable, solid, rock-ribbed heart of the country. The Midwest. So I took six months’s leave.

Correspondent: Thank you for not using the term “flyover states.”

Winchester: I certainly would never dream. I did once actually. So I’ve got to confess that in case.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, you’ve really become a great American.

Winchester: Well…

Correspondent: A very, very noble one. (laughs)

Winchester: And also I happen to like the Midwest. So I didn’t rent a car. I drove my Volvo, I remember, and spent six months driving on I-35, which goes from International Falls, Minnesota, through Minnesota, Iowa, a bit of Missouri, where the Air Force base was, Kansas, Oklahoma, down through Texas, and finally ends in Laredo, up and down and up and down and wrote this book. The timing was for it to come out during the bicentennial year. 1976. And to be fair to the book, which was called American Heartbeat, it was credibly reviewed. I mean, people were very generous. But not the people who buy books. They were not generous at all and when the royalty statement came in ’77, or at least I couldn’t dignify it with the term “royalty,” it showed that it had sold twelve copies. So it was not a success.

Correspondent: Really?

Winchester: It was a dismal, dismal commercial failure.

Correspondent: Wow.

Winchester: So in a way you’re right to use the word “atonement.” This new book is, let us say, learning from the lessons of that failure. The one thing I was determined to do was to write a book that was in no way similar to the book that I’d written in ’76.

Correspondent: Wow. That’s incredible. Well, I mentioned the Diamond Hoax of 1872. But this is by no means the only fraud that you dig up in this book. There’s Samuel Adams — no relation to the beer, no relation to John Adams’s second cousin — he came close to milking $20,000 from Congress for an expedition he claimed he made in Colorado. William Gilpin claimed that two billion people could easily be accommodated in the Western Territory.

Winchester: Two billion. Please note that.

Correspondent: Yes. Two billion.

Winchester: Not million, but billion!

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly. The folly of New Harmony, with David Dale Owen. Is it safe to say that many of these efforts to unite America required a crazed belief culture or possibly a set of existential blinders with which to achieve ambition?

Winchester: Well, I have to hold you there. Your reference to David Dale Owen and to New Harmony. I actually think New Harmony was a story very creditable in American history. Just very briefly, this is a little town at the confluence of the Wabash and the Ohio Rivers. Initially, it was a utopian settlement built by a group of Suebians, Germans who were being persecuted back home. Very similar to the Pilgrim fathers and all that. They prospered. They sold this little community to the next utopian who came along the line, who was a man called Robert Owen. And he intended to build a community of fiercely intelligent intellectuals who would use it as a base for proselytizing intelligence for teaching. And he lured a number of Philadelphia intellectuals — most notably, a man called William Maclure, who drew the first ever geological map of this country in 1809, I think it was. And they all came down from Philadelphia by way of Pittsburgh on a boat, which was called the Boat Load of Knowledge and joined Robert Owen and set up this little settlement. Now it is true to say that the settlement, like so many utopian settlements, floundered because of schismatic arguments. I think there were ten subcults within about a year.

Correspondent: What amazes me was that one could get on the Boat Load of Knowledge. I mean, that name should have been the big tip off.

Winchester: You would have thought so. The Boat Load of Extreme Pretension.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Winchester: But nonetheless David Dale Owen, who was the son of Robert Owen and who was taught geology by this man Maclure, went on to become a real evangelist for early geology. And I know that geology in this country is ill-regarded. I try and do my best to get people to say that it was a great deal more than Rocks for Jocks. It quite literally underlies everything we can see in this room today. The metal for your tape recorder, the television, the paper, the paint, the wood. Everything comes from the earth as a result of geology. He, David Dale Owen, essentially started the Geological Surveys or triggered them in some way in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota. So the mapping and the discovering of the mineral wealth of these states could all be put down to the efforts of New Harmony. So I would completely repudiate your idea that in any way that that’s a scam. It failed.

Correspondent: A belief scam, I thought.

Winchester: Yes. A belief scam. I couldn’t agree with you more. But in terms of its legacy, it’s a very important place. And it is a shame — and I’m going to sound rather sort of not belligerent here, but I just think that it is a shame that more people don’t know of New Harmony. And it should be a shrine to the early phenomenon of learning in this country. It’s a very important place.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that you’re more pro-New Harmony and not so much Paradise in this book. That’s interesting. Since you had mentioned geology — and as an American, well as a fellow American, geology is not exactly one of my best spots. But I do want to discuss the Eastern American Fall Line and the Hudson-Mohawk Gap. Much of American settlement owes its existence to these two geographical realities. Explorers fell into this natural expansionist rhythm when pushing against this. But I’m wondering to what degree were the explorers aware that they were kind of fulfilling almost a geopolitical destiny here.

Winchester: I can safely say that none of them imagined. It is conceivable that in the construction of the Erie Canal there was a thought given to the geopolitical consequences. But let me just explain. All the people who you’ve talked about or alluded to journeyed into the interior of America from the Eastern settlements by river. And as you sailed and counted after fifty, sixty, ninety miles of paddling, suddenly the waters got rougher. There were waterfalls. There were rapids. Their progress was blocked. So they had to stay there and have a settlement from which they would portage. And those settlements eventually became cities. Richmond, Fredericksburg, Washington D.C., Albany. Then to circumvent those rapids, and to allow those communities to trade with the interior beyond the Appalachians, the settlers had to build primitive canals. So they learned how to build canals. They then, once they realized the economic importance of canals, once they had learned the technology of constructing them, then they started this mania of building them all over the country to connect places where there were minerals or work or whatever with the nearest ports. So that the Middlesex Canal in Southern New Hampshire led to the creation of the expansion of Boston. The important one — and this is where your geopolitical question, I think, comes to the fore — was the one that linked Buffalo to Albany through the Hudson-Mohawk Gap, which all of us at school in England when we were eleven years old had to know the significance of the Hudson-Mohawk Gap in world history. Because once that gap was filled with the canal and once trade could be brought theoretically from Lake Superior, Hudson, Lake Huron, Michigan, to the port Buffalo, taken down the Erie Canal, turn right and go down to New York City, then this allowed New York to prosper in a way that no other American city did at the time and to become a world port. The man who had the idea for the Erie Canal, which is the name of the canal between Buffalo and Albany, was a man called Jesse Hawley. And Jesse Hawley was a highly intelligent farmer in Canindaigua, New York who could not get his wheat down to the bakers in New York because the little canal that existed in the Mohawk Gap charged such extortionate rates that it actually drove him bankrupt. Drove him to debtors’ prison. He sat in a debtors’ prison for many months and, while there, studied European canals. Because he said, “What we really need is something that isn’t extortionately run which is a canal between Buffalo and Albany.” So he wrote the local newspaper called The Genesee Messenger from his cell in the debtors’ prison under the pseudonym “Hercules.” Fourteen extremely well-argued essays saying that if you, the State of New York, build this mighty canal, not only will you give New York City prosperity, but you will change America’s standing in the world. These essays were read by the then Governor of New York State, Governor Clinton, and he said, “This man Hercules, whoever he is,” — he had no idea he was in a debtors’ prison — “is right.” And he got the money through the Legislature. And the Erie Canal was built. And the first person to attend the ceremony of the wedding of the waters, where the Great Lake’s water was dipped into the Atlantic Ocean at the Verrazano Narrows, where the bridge is there — the first person to pour the first water was Jesse Hawley, now free from the debtors’ prison, who had this brilliant idea. So I’m certain that he, and probably he alone, had an idea of the geopolitical importance of the canal.

Correspondent: Got it. Well, while we’re on the subject of canals, I have to bring up the Chicago Sanitary Canal. The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to be quite precise. This was an engineering effort in the late 19th century to quite frankly rid the rapidly growing Second City of its escalating shit. Now 99% Invisible, this wonderful radio program, happened to actually do this wonderful show on the canal back in August, and host Roman Mars pointed out how Ellis Chesbrough — this Boston engineer now forgotten to history — was responsible for this canal and he had the audacity to jack up the street level in Chicago up ten feet. It took twenty years. It was amazing. But you didn’t mention Chesbrough at all. And I’m wondering about this. You claim that this guy Isham Randolph was the guy who came up with the Chicago Sanitary Canal. So why didn’t you include Chesbrough? And I’m wondering what research you relied on for the Chicago Sanitary Canal?

Winchester: Well, that is a good question. Principally, the editing process of this book — and I’m not blaming anything on the editor at all. When I turned in the manuscript, which was for 150,000 words — that was the contract — it was 195,000. Because I had found so many ancillary personnel, of whom Chesbrough was clearly one. He didn’t have the idea for the Canal. Isham Randolph was the central figure in the building of this canal. Chesbrough did, yes, that’s why when you go down Wacker Drive, all the underneath, that’s all part of Chesbrough’s achievements, which are laudable, but quite reasonably, I think, we had to strip down — and I remember I was in Bangkok in Thailand — and my editor said, “Look, Simon, this is wonderful. It’s full of wonderful stuff. But we’ve got to eliminate some people. Some ideas.”

Correspondent: (laughs) We’ve got to assassinate a few of them.

Winchester: We do. And I make no apologies for it. The book has got to be a manageable length. And you, I dare say, will come up with other people who you can say in an accusatory way, “Why did you leave him out?” Well, I’ll say, “I’m sorry. Life needs to be edited.” And so Isham Randolph to me is the important character. The other one, not so.

Correspondent: Well, what 99% Invisible pointed out was that Chesbrough didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

Winchester: (laughs)

Correspondent: And how he was just completely cut out from the great story of the Chicago Sanitary Canal! And I’m wondering. The sense I got, at least from that segment and from a few other things I read, was that actually Chesbrough was the real deal. And you say he’s not. And I’m wondering what books and what scholarship say that Randolph is the guy rather than Chesbrough.

Winchester: Well, the history of the Chicago Canal by a lady who, I think, her last name is Kelly. I don’t have the bibliography in front of me at the moment. [NOTE: Winchester’s bibliography lists Libby Hill’s The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History. This is likely the book he consulted.] And my friend, and the husband of my agent, who has written a book called The Third Coast about the development of modern Chicago. The history of the Armour Meat Company. Upton Sinclair’s book on Chicago, which I’m sure you’ll remember the title.

Correspondent: Yeah. The Jungle.

Winchester: The Jungle. All of these taken together helped me in this late 19th century, early 20th century construction of Chicago. And if they don’t mention Chesbrough, then I don’t mention Chesbrough.

Correspondent: Even though the newspapers of the time mention Chesbrough.

Winchester: I am not going to sit here and justify every omission in this book.

Correspondent: Alright.

Winchester: There are bound to be some people who are going to fall by the wayside. It’s like being cut and ending up on the cutting room floor. I’m in no way defensive about it. I’m simply saying that, in my view, Isham Randolph was the more important figure.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, I was curious how you came to that view.

(Loops for this program provided by sintheeticrecords, proecliptix, leoSMG, boogieman0307, and progressbeats5.)

The Bat Segundo Show #527: Simon Winchester (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Holly Tucker

Holly Tucker appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #388. She is most recently the author of Blood Work.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why his bank statements come back bloody.

Author: Holly Tucker

Subjects Discussed: Early philosophical notions of blood, ill humors, whether science without the scientific method can be adequately called science, the Royal Society, William Harvey and the discovery of circulation, Descartes and mind/body dualism, the ethics of unmitigated animal torture, Sir Christopher Wren’s city plan and the Great Fire of London, the connections between architecture and medicine, Claude Perrault, Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, the physiology of architecture, Wren’s animal experiments at Oxford, early scientific interest in the brain, French rejection of English scientific theory in the 17th century, medical theory and medical practice, questioning everything as a sport, prostitutes vs. Protestants, claims that the English are liars, royal censorship and Henry Oldenburg, the medical culture wars between France and England, monarchies and clear ideas, staving off espionage issues while pursuing science, the Parisian medical elite, the role of women in 17th century medicine, Jean-Baptiste Denis, the remarkable sacrifice of Antoine Mauroy, throwing a scientific temper tantrum, the charming nature of megalomaniacs, whether early scientists took delight in making dogs miserable, Robert Hooke’s tracheotomy experiments, writing about dogs being muzzled and experimented upon with a dog sitting at your feet, remorse in early medicine, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Arthur Coga, experimenting upon the poor and the vulnerable, Bethlem Royal Hospital, the shifting nature of medical consent over the centuries, and the relative “grisliness” of medicine.


Correspondent: I know bloodletting. And I know bleeding. Not personally. But I do understand that its historical basis was based off of trying to release the ill humors out of the blood. And all that.

Tucker: Absolutely.

Correspondent: The big question I think we should start off with, so that people know what we’re talking about, is: How did such a primitive approach to blood become something? Why did people start thinking, “Oh! We could probably use this for transfusion purposes! We could probably use this for transferring one blood to another!” It seems, in light of its early use before the 17th century, that there was nothing in the cards to suggest that human beings would come up with something like this.

Tucker: No. The fact that they did in the 17th century is, in itself, the story that we’re telling. Because for millennia, they believed that the body was just this mix of fluids. As you said, humors. Blood, phlegm, bile, black bile. Ill health was when those fluids were out of balance. And good health was when they were in balance. We laugh now about bloodletting. Because we think it’s the most gruesome and horrific thing. And it was. But it made total sense to them. That they would need to — well, that and purging and laxatives. So what you tried to do was rid the body, where you could, of all these foul humors. So you’re going to ask me about how they got to blood transfusion.

Correspondent: Yes.

Tucker: I’m trying to make my answer nice and compact for you.

Correspondent: Oh, I see!

Tucker: Because what happened — I will go for the next ten minutes.

Correspondent: Well, go for a protracted answer. Protracted answers, by the way, are welcome here.

Tucker: So when you start dozing off, you tell me.

Correspondent: Oh no. No, no, no.

Tucker: And jump in with questions.

Correspondent: There won’t be any dozing here. I assure you. I’m fascinated by the subject. We’re talking about blood! We’re talking about gore!

Tucker: Gore.

Correspondent: We’re talking about viscera. Okay? You note that some of the natural philosophers were so duped by their own success that they couldn’t actually judge the results objectively. Edmund King reported that sheep he had infused with milk and sugar were more than ordinarily sweet. I’m curious, just talking about the Royal Society. We’ll get into the French later. What were some of the chief factors that made the Royal Society carry on with these things without this scientific oversight that we now know in the 20th and the 21st centuries? Can we really call these early efforts “science” if there was — well, first of all, they lacked the vigorous oversight. But, second of all, the unmitigated torture of animals, which we can also get into.

Tucker: Well, I would say that what they were doing was science. They believed that what they were doing was science. In fact, early blood transfusion happened because of one of the biggest and most important scientific discoveries in medicine, which was the discovery of blood circulation, right? And William Harvey was very methodical about how he went about discovering blood circulation in 1628. So he was really confused by this idea of humors. He shouldn’t have been. Because it had been the dominant way of viewing the body for millennia, as I said. He said that there has to be a better explanation. Or at least there has to be a good scientific explanation about how these humors work. And he was suspect about the whole idea that blood was produced in the stomach and then was distilled into the liver and moved up to the heart, where it burned off like a furnace, and that breathing was a way to stoke fire and also blow off the fumes. And that’s what they believed up until Harvey. So he started to do some detailed methodical experiments by, first, dissections. Animal and human. Looking at how much blood was in the heart. And then he noticed in a human heart that there was about two ounces of human blood in the heart. Multiply that by the number of heartbeats. He found this obscene number. Forty-one pounds of blood would have to be produced in a half hour. So he said, “This cannot be.” So then he started doing experiments on live animals. Particularly coldblooded animals. And he said, “Aha. No. Blood is circulating.” So you know, for as much as we look back and, yeah, there’s a lot to laugh about in previous periods.

Correspondent: A lot to laugh about. Torturing animals? A barrel of laughs.

Tucker: Okay. A lot to laugh about as far as how they understood the body. And the way the worldview dictated the questions they could ask and the answers they could then get. Because it’s a completely different philosophical, economical, and political framework that we have now. Yeah. Torturing animals is not a cool thing. It never has been. It never will be. But there too, you can start to see what’s happening. It came from a notion of the body and the mind and the soul being distinct. And that’s an idea that’s coming out in the 17th century in the works of, for example, Rene Descartes. Quiz. Who’s Rene Descartes?

Correspondent: He’s some guy who was all about thinking. Maybe therefore. Something along those lines?

Tucker: Maybe “I think therefore I am.” We associate him with the scientific method, right? My daughter is in grade school and she just did one of her first science fair projects and came home and did the poster. And it was almost like watching Cartesian indoctrination in her science. Because he put that idea forward and he also put that idea forward along with another one — which was mind/body dualism. He said, “Hmmm. What differentiates animals from humans? Both animals and humans have bodies. And those bodies are very likely similar. Maybe they’re machines.” And this is the age of hydraulics. This is science being invented. Barometers, you name it. So it makes sense that they’re viewing the body as a machine. And he says, “Well, if we broke machines in bodies, there has to be something that is different. Well, we have minds. We think. We speak. We have souls.” And those souls and the capacity for thought can’t be in the body. Because animals, he said, don’t have that. And so if we take the soul of an animal, and they become nothing more than machines, then it’s a bit like working on your car. Are you really torturing that animal? Now I’m not saying that I think that. But that’s what Descartes allowed the natural philosophers, as scientists were called, to be able to do. It’s to start taking apart those machines. Those animals.

Correspondent: We’ll get more specific into animal torture in just a bit. But I do want to actually jump off…

Tucker: That’s a nice segue.

The Bat Segundo Show #388: Holly Tucker (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #366. Ms. Wilkerson is most recently the author of The Warmth of Other Suns.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Warming up to fascinating history.

Author: Isabel Wilkerson

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to ask about one of the key pieces of conflict relating to the Great Migration that fascinated me. You pointed out that the old timers — meaning the African-Americans who had lived in the northern territory before the Great Migration — were harder on the influx of new African-American migrants moving into the northern areas than almost anybody else. The Chicago Defender has this list of dos and don’ts. The endless articles about what you’re supposed to do as a new migrant. I’m curious. Based on your research, to what degree did this conflict — what effect did this have on the progress that came later in the 1960s? Did this deter efforts at unity? You kind of get into it the book. But I wanted to see if your research led to other areas here.

Wilkerson: I think that it was generally a low-grade competition rivalry — and maybe resentment — that really grew out of fear. It grew out of an insecurity. Because the people who were already there in the North were small in number. They had been pioneers from way back. And they finally established themselves in these often hostile and alienating cities. And their rival of basically country cousins in huge waves to the big cities obviously raised questions for them about what was going to happen to them. What was going to happen to this perfectly balanced, well-honed alchemy that they created with the majority of the people in these big cities. And they felt embarrassed by them. They felt shame. They felt resentment. And they often didn’t want to be around them. I must point out though that, while they were most likely to be resentful of them, and to maybe be sneeringly judgmental of them, they were not the ones who were actually hurting them physically in the same way that others were. I mean, when they moved out into other neighborhoods, when they arrived in these big cities, that was when they might be firebombed. Because they were going into a neighborhood where they were not welcome. So the people who were there, there was more a sort of insider resentment and fear that’s very different. But actually, it’s just as painful to the people who were arriving. Because the people who were arriving were like people arriving from any far away place to a new land that they hoped would be better. And they felt very hurt by that. Very hurt. And it actually limited their ability to move about. They couldn’t join certain churches. So it was an in-group stratification that is kind of an inside baseball thing, but kind of human nature. It’s about survival.

Correspondent: It also seems to me to be about class divide. And that’s one aspect of 20th century black history that we really don’t discuss. Going back to the original question of whether an internal class struggle like this, I mean, did it really have a serious deterrent upon advancement?

Wilkerson: I think it did in the beginning stages. You know, while the people were new and untutored into the ways of the North, the people, they were pretty much rejected and not welcome. Over time, like any immigrant group that’s ever come in — and they were immigrants in the true sense of the word. Because they were born in the United States. They were American citizens. They went to another region in order to realize the rights that they were born to. They essentially acted as any immigrant would. And so they went to the people who were there. And they found that it was difficult to make that adjustment. But once they did make the adjustment, they in turn would become as sneeringly judgmental as the people coming behind them. That’s just the way human beings think.

Correspondent: The retrousse noses.

Wilkerson: Yeah, that’s right. Ultimately though, larger forces would intrude. And as a group, they found themselves all hemmed in by the larger economy that didn’t really want to have them. And I wouldn’t say that it impeded progress to that degree. There were rivalries in every group. I think that it certainly didn’t help. It was very disheartening for people who just arrived. It is. Because you’re rejected by your own people. It’s very painful.

Correspondent: Instead of having a polarization effect. To really fight a lot of the racism that was going down. The firebombing and the Cicero riots.

Wilkerson: Exactly.

Correspondent: Well, this is very interesting. Because you cite this 1965 census survey, in which it was revealed that a lot of the migrants moving in had more education — equal sometimes, but often more education — than the native white Northeners.

Wilkerson: Exactly. Which is astounding. I mean, when I saw that, it was just hard to believe. But part of this is remembering the era that we’re talking about. We’re talking about an era in which many of the people were children of the Depression. And many of them had had hard lives, no matter where they were. Many of them were the children or actual immigrants from other places. So the early part of the 20th century was not a time of great enlightenment overall, unfortunately. So life was hard for everybody. But how ironic, actually, that the people who came up in this Great Migration were actually slightly better educated when it came to the numbers. Now that doesn’t mean that we’re not getting the quality. Because the quality of education in the South was markedly unequal clearly. But they had put in the time. They had gone as far as they could. And then they left finally for hopefully a better life in the North and the West. But it’s interesting that the mythology and the misconceptions about these people. Once I began to discover them, I found that that became a big focus of the work that I hadn’t anticipated.

The Bat Segundo Show #366: Isabel Wilkerson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Daniel Okrent

Daniel Okrent appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #337. Mr. Okrent is most recently the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Bombarded by too much bathtub gin and too many over-the-top movie trailers.

Author: Daniel Okrent

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about Walgreen’s. You point out that it went from twenty locations in 1920 to 525 during the 1920s, pointing out that it wasn’t just milkshakes that were responsible for this expansion. Yet all you present in the book to support this possibility is an interview with Charles Walgreen, Jr., who said in an interview with John Bacon that his father didn’t want the fire department in his stores because he was losing cases of liquor. I’m wondering if you made any efforts to corroborate this claim from another source. Has Walgreen’s managed to hush this up?

Okrent: Well, I think — be careful. I don’t make a claim. I say —

Correspondent: Suggestion.

Okrent: I make a suggestion. And that’s all I can do — is make a suggestion. But we do know this to be true. We know from Charles Walgreen, Sr.’s testimony to his son that they had liquor in the stores and he was afraid of losing it to the thieves. Right? Number two. We know that he had twenty stores at the beginning of Prohibition and 525 at the end. And if you want to believe it’s milkshakes, believe that it’s milkshakes. But the fact — the medicinal liquor business was an enormous business. Not just for the Walgreen’s drugstores, but for pharmacists across the country. You know, I have a bottle at home on my shelf. It’s kind of an inspiration. It’s an empty bottle. It says JIM BEAN. BOTTLED AND BOND. FOR MEDICINAL PURPOSES ONLY. This was a pure racket. And druggists, unless they had some kind of scruple that few apparently had, made a fortune because of it.

Correspondent: But beyond the Bacon interview, did you make any efforts to….?

Okrent: Yeah. I made efforts. There’s nobody alive in the Walgreen family today that I tried to make contact with, that had any thoughts about it either way. Or not. I don’t think that there’s been a conscious effort to cover it up. I think that it’s just forgotten.

Correspondent: Al Capone cultivated an image of benevolence. And you also point to Seattle bootlegger Roy Olmstead, who was quite ethical by comparison. He didn’t dilute his liquor. He didn’t resort to mob tactics. I’m wondering what factors made Olmstead a more ethical bootlegger. Was it Olmstead the man? Or was it the makeup of Seattle in comparison to the competitive violent world of Chicago?

Okrent: Yeah, I think that the latter has a lot to do with it. By all evidence, Olmstead was a decent man. You know, he was the youngest police lieutenant in the history of the Seattle Department. He was looked on as a golden boy of sorts. But because of his honesty, because he didn’t dilute, because he didn’t raise prices, he had very happy customers in Seattle. And he also worked very well with anybody else who was in the business. He built a big coalition. Really kind of a market control coalition. He controlled all of the booze that was coming into the Pacific Northwest. Capone was in a very different circumstance. I think that he was a different kind of man to begin with. And secondarily, he was in an extremely competitive cutthroat murderous environment, in which other people were trying to get a piece of the action. Olmstead didn’t try to accrue power to himself. He liked to run a good business. Capone wanted to be in charge.

The thing to me about Capone that is most surprising, relative to the popular image that we have of Capone, is that when he took over Chicago, he was twenty-five years old. He was a kid. And he was gone before he was thirty.

Correspondent: And he was played by all these older actors too.

Okrent: Yeah. I ask people, “How old do you think Al Capone was when he ran Chicago?” They say, forty-eight, thirty-seven, fifty. But he was a baby.

Correspondent: But in Seattle, was there violence involved?

Okrent: There wasn’t much violence in Seattle. There was a nicely cooperative operation between those who enforced the law and those who were breaking the law. Including the fact that the justice of the peace who presided over hearings and trials, they got a piece of the fine. So they liked the idea of people being arrested, paying a fine, and then went about it again — so that they could be arrested again. So they could pay the fine again.

Correspondent: So Olmstead set the precedent of a peaceful, money-oriented coalition here.

Okrent: Yeah. I think that there were others like that were others like that also in the country. But Seattle was remarkably free of the violent crime that hit the Eastern and Midwestern cities.

Correspondent: What other cities were nonviolent in terms of bootlegging?

Okrent: Nonviolent. San Francisco. I think that San Francisco and, to some degree, New Orleans are the ones that come immediately to mind. San Francisco never really acknowledged that Prohibition existed. Even the judges in San Francisco. They threw cases out. The DA of San Francisco, which is both a city and a county — he was an official in the organization against the Prohibition Amendment. He campaigned against it. So violence wasn’t necessary. Because there was nobody trying to corner a market. It was an open market for everybody.

The Bat Segundo Show #337: Daniel Okrent (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Nell Irvin Painter

Nell Irvin Painter appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #329. Painter is most recently the author of The History of White People.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Drowning in David Coverdale’s noxious imperialism.

Author: Nell Irvin Painter

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

Correspondent: You are careful to write, “Harvard’s importance in eugenics does not imply some nefarious scheme or even a mean-spirited ambiance. Rather, Harvard’s import in this story attests to the scholarly respectability of eugenic ideas at the time.”

Painter: And that could be said about Princeton or Yale or any of the other lofty institutions.

Correspondent: But it is curious to me. I mean, if we recognize today [Robert] Yerkes and [William] Ripley’s stuff as “junk science” essentially, why at the time were these ideas so respected? Why did some of these people get tenured at Harvard?

Painter: Indeed.

Correspondent: I mean, it couldn’t have just been Harvard’s prestige. It had to be something else, I suppose.

Painter: Well, we’re talking about what was considered good science at the time. That was the knowledge that our culture needed at the time. And, after all, Ripley consulted all sorts of authorities. European authorities, American authorities, and so forth. So he had a really big bibliography and he followed the rules.

Correspondent: If someone attempted something along those lines today, I guess the Internet would kill it, I suppose.

Painter: Not necessarily. If it were something that we all agreed upon. Like, for instance, we’re seeing in the medical field right now. Recently, I read a report in the New York Times by a doctor saying there’s just too many prostrate cancer screenings. But a year or so ago, that was considered good science to have everybody screened. So things change.

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about Emerson, who you really take to task in this book. You devote a whole chapter to English Traits.

Painter: Yes. There are three Emerson chapters.

Correspondent: Yes. There are three Emerson chapters. But English Traits seems to be the one key text with which the…

Painter: It is the key text for this reason.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I just wanted to ask you about this. You note later in the book that Henry Ford was an admirer of English Traits.

Painter: Yes.

Correspondent: But in the book that you cited from — because I was really curious about this – Neil Baldwin’s Henry Ford and the Jews. Baldwin notes that it was Emerson’s essay, “Compensation,” that Ford favored above all else. And he even handed that out as as gifts. And that essay doesn’t contain any reference to race. You also state that Theodore Roosevelt echoes the phrase “hideous brutality” in English Traits. But in English Traits, Emerson uses the word “hideous” only once, in reference to the injustice of pauperism. And granted, there are issues with pauperism related to the Saxon seed, which we had mentioned earlier. But I just want to ask. Because I don’t disagree with you that Emerson’s views on the Irish, his drawing upon Robert Knox — these are problematic.

Painter: Yeah. I’m not saying that Emerson is a bad man. But I’m saying that Emerson, because of his importance in American culture, by focusing on these themes and presenting them, orchestrating them in his impeccable prose, made it acceptable. So it’s not that I’m castigating Emerson. I’m trying to place him in an intellectual theme.

Correspondent: But in the case of Henry Ford drawing more upon “Compensation,” say, than English Traits, that’s where I was — my question mark went up.

Painter: But we’re doing Henry Ford — what? Sixty, seventy years after Emerson.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, the other thing too is picking and choosing one’s values from Emerson. Like Ralph Ellison, for example. He was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Painter: Right.

Correspondent: And actually took a lot from the transcendentalists.

Painter: Oh, there’s a lot of Emerson. Emerson’s an extraordinary figure. And one who his contemporaries said embodies the whole of American learning. And to a certain extent, he did.

Correspondent: But going back to the question or relativism. Can he be let off the hook somewhat simply because he was, in part, an abolitionist? Maybe he didn’t go all the way, but…

Painter: No. We’re talking about different things.

Correspondent: Hmmm.

Painter: We’re talking about different things. Because he had one set of views, this doesn’t change what we think about another set of views. You can still respect Emerson for his central role in the American Renaissance and still know about his Saxonism.

The Bat Segundo Show #329: Nell Irvin Painter (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Peniel Joseph

Peniel Joseph appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #318. Mr. Joseph is most recently the author of Dark Days, Bright Nights.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he lands on Plymouth Rock, or Plymouth Rock lands on him.

Author: Peniel Joseph

Subjects Discussed: Whether or not the bold declarations within Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech has been entirely heeded, the progress of African-American politics, revolutionaries vs. political pragmatists, Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson, Michael Eric Dyson’s critiques of Obama, Jeremiah Wright’s perception, Obama’s failure to confront race, the February 19, 2009 New York Post cartoon, race as portrayed in Obama’s speeches, the Henry Louis Gates arrest, whether the beer summit was more of a symbolic gesture rather than a practical confrontation, black revolutionaries being denied publication in prominent mainstream outlets vs. Stokely Carmichael getting published in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, color-blind racism, the Nation of Islam’s bootrap and racial uplift strategies, Nixon seeing “black capitalism” as a promising prospect of Black Power, Fubu’s co-opting of Black Power slogans, black women and activism, misinterpretation of the Black Panther Party, the plasticity of ideology, Stokely Carmichael’s November 7, 1966 speech in Lowndes County, the fluidity of Black Power, Claiborne Carson’s In Struggle, Carmichael being wrongly accused of being the main influence on the SNCC Black Power position paper, misconceptions about Carmichael, Obama’s dismissal of Kwame Toure as a madman, the failure to celebrate Martin Luther King as a critic of American democracy, what Carmichael’s FBI file says about limited perspectives of black power figures, Carmichael’s antiwar stance, false government conclusions about Black Power, Tavis Smiley being taken to task for criticizing Obama, and prospects for new forms of Black Power radicalism.


Correspondent: When Malcolm X delivered his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, you point out that newspapers ignored his more tangible call for one million new black voters for a black nationalist political party. Now black voters, as we all know, were instrumental in getting Obama elected in November. I’m wondering though — because they were not necessarily black nationalists — whether Malcolm X’s call was entirely heeded.

Joseph: Well, I think his call is going to be heeded into the next generation at least. When we think about when Malcolm said that in 1964, there was no congressional black caucus. There were no black senators since Reconstruction. There were no black governors. There wasn’t the wave of black mayors that we started having — starting in 1967, with Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana; Carl Stokes in Cleveland; by 1970, Kenneth Gibson in Newark, New Jersey. In the early ’70s — ’73, ’74 — you’re going to have Coleman Young in Detroit, Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. By 1983, you have Harold Washington in Chicago. And that’s the Chicago that Barack Obama comes of political age in at least — even though he grows up in Hawaii, he’s born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. So I think African-American voters in the 1970s, in the 1980s, take heed to these politics of racial solidarity, for the most part. There’s going to be exceptions. People like Edward Brooke, the first black Senator elected in a general election in 1966 from the state of Massachusetts. Tom Bradley becomes Mayor of Los Angeles after the 1973 election in a city that only has 10% African-Americans. But for the most part, there’s really a racial script, where you’re going to get black elected officials in places like New Orleans. Mississippi becomes the state that has the most black state representatives and officials. It doesn’t have a senator. It doesn’t have a governor. But it has the most elected officials out of any of the states decades after the segregation of Freedom Summer and the assassinations of those three civil rights workers — Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman; two white and one black.

So when we think about Malcolm’s call, it is heeded during the ’70s and ’80s. But as we get into the ’90s and the 21st century, there’s going to be some real notable exceptions. People like L. Douglas Wilder, who becomes governor of Virginia in 1989. People like Deval Patrick, who becomes governor of Massachusetts in 2006. People like Barack Obama, who becomes a Senator out of Illinois in 2004. People like Carol Moseley Braun, who becomes a Senator in 1992. So when we think about racial politics, the politics of racial solidarity for elections is still there. When you think about Bobby Rush, who Obama ran against in 2000 for the South Side of Chicago Congressional District, that’s a black district. Most likely, you’re always going to have an African-American representative there. So the politics of racial solidarity are there. But at the same time, there’s a new class of African-American elected officials. People like Cory Booker in Newark, New Jersey, who are really doing a pan-racial appeal. There’s saying, “Look, I’m an elected official. I am also black, but I happen to be black.” They’re not coming out in a very robust way talking about black solidarity and that the reason why I should be Mayor of Newark is because I’m black. Michael Nutter in Philadelphia’s the same way. Deval Patrick, the same way. Where they’re saying, “I happen to be black, but I’m going to be an elected official for all people.”

Correspondent: I’m curious if it takes someone like a Harold Washington or an Obama to create that one particular figure who both revolutionaries and those who believe in the pragmatism — revolution can be pragmatism too in its own ways — but those who believe in elected politics. Because there’s always been a fractiousness going on between the two within the black power movement of the last four decades, in particular. So does it take some brand new figure to unite? Or is it possible to have someone who can leave a legacy beyond the elected moment?

Joseph: Well, I’d say that it depends upon the time period. Because when we look at the late ’60s and early ’70s, black militants and black elected officials had real coalitions and ties. I think the best example of that is Amiri Baraka and Kenneth Gibson in Newark, New Jersey — and also the Gary Convention in March of 1972. The Gary Convention was a national black political convention attended by 12,000 people. And the co-conveners were Congressman Charles Diggs from Michigan, Mayor Richard Hatcher from Gary, Indiana, and Amiri Baraka, who held no elected position and who was just a black nationalist poet and an organizer. So there was this coalition. But by the middle ’70s, that coalition is going to fracture — really amid mutual recriminations. Politicians are going to accuse militants of being wild-eyed dreamers who don’t understand the politics of governance and the pragmatism that governance really precipitates. I mean, to be an elected official is to be somebody who is pragmatic and to compromise. Militants are going to accuse black elected officials of being the worst kind of sellouts. People who really utilize the politics of racial solidarity to get into office. And as soon as they get into office, they use the power of municipal politics and City Hall to enrich themselves and their cronies. And I think you’re going to see that tension over the next forty years. But there’s going to be notable exceptions. One is Harold Washington, who has a coalition of pragmatists and militants and somehow, in four and a half years as mayor, manages to please them all. Because Washington is re-elected and dies of a heart attack right around Thanksgiving of 1987, but is very much well-regarded in Chicago. Another mayor is going to be, surprisingly, Marion Barry of the 1970s. At least the initial Barry. So Barry, before the huge controversies over crack cocaine and adultery and all this different stuff, had militants and moderates in his camp. And he managed to please both of them.

Correspondent: A very [Adam Clayton] Powell-like resurgence as well.

Joseph: Absolutely. Absolutely. And when we think about militants and moderates in the 2008 presidential election, you saw the social movement that surrounded Obama draw in pragmatists. And it also drew in revolutionaries. So sometimes you do see these transcendent figures. And, finally, the best example in the 1980s of that is Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson runs for President in ’84 and ’88 — really inspired by what Harold Washington was able to do. And Jesse gets three and a half million votes in the Democratic primaries in 1984. Seven million in 1988. And he really inspires both pragmatists and militants in that campaign.

Correspondent: But inevitably there still remains a fractiousness — possibly tied in, in Obama’s case, with the failure to discuss race, which you bring up in the book and which Michael Eric Dyson recently appeared on MSNBC in response to the Harry Read fiasco, pointing out that Obama was “a president who runs from race like a black man runs from a cop.” You point out, in your book, that Obama’s reluctance to embrace race is especially ironic in light of the fact that he has a public admiration for Lincoln. You note that “his appreciation remains a simplification in as much as it largely fails to deal with the sixteenth President’s extraordinarily complicated racial views.” So the question is whether that observation and Dyson’s remarks come from the same particular place. Does Obama’s many political compromises — which we were talking about earlier, the necessity of being a politician — essentially make his failure to confront race untenable?

Joseph: Well, it’s very interesting. I think that we’re living in a time period in which politicians can talk about race in a less open way than forty years ago. And I think that’s interesting. Because we usually think of progress as something that’s linear — it’s a linear narrative. So if it’s 2010, we should be able to talk about race better than we could in 1968. That’s not true in this case. We can talk about race in the late ’60’s in a much more candid way because of the civil rights act, because of the voting rights act, because of the race riots that we’re going on, because of the Kerner Comission. The New York Times used to be an organ in the late ’60s and early ’70s, where you had black militants who had a podium in the New York Times, were writing op-eds about black thinktanks and about the Gary Convention. The Washington Post was the same way. In a way that we would find — our generation — extraordinary. Because those august institutions won’t give black militants that kind of platform anymore. So the President of the United States, in terms of Barack Obama, one of the reasons why he won, race was a positive and a negative. It was a positive in the sense that, for a whole new generation of voters, especially those under 30, they found it quite refreshing that this man was running for President and took him very seriously. It was a negative, as we saw in the case of Jeremiah Wright, when critics of Obama, especially the right wing, could connect him to what was perceived as black extremism and anti-American sentiment. Including things like the Black Power movement. Because Jeremiah Wright is certainly coming out of a tradition of black liberation theology, which is rooted in that black power movement. People like James Cone. People like Reverend Albert Cleage out of Detroit. So I understand Dyson’s critique and, on some points, I actually agree with Dyson’s critique and others.

BSS #318: Peniel Joseph (Download MP3)

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Kid Chocolate

On January 6, 1910 — precisely a century ago — the Cuban boxer Kid Chocolate proceeded to undergo a ten-round bout with his mother’s uterus. He was declared the winner by a doctor (no referees were available in the hospital) and was awarded an umbilical snip for his preborn pugilism. It is safe to say that Kid Chocolate is no longer alive. Indeed, he has not been alive for a good twenty years. But there was a time in which Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo — once referred to, in all seriousness, as The Cuban Bon Bon, a sobriquet that could not easily fly today — was undefeated. But his opponents were better and he began to lose.

Kid Chocolate would be co-opted by Clifford Odets for his play, Golden Boy, where Kid Chocolate would be synthesized into the Baltimore Chocolate Drop. Odets introduces this composite by having the boy say, “The Baltimore Chocolate Drop is not as good as you think he is.” I would have asked Odets, “Is this entirely fair?” A December 24, 1959 issue of Jet reports that Kid Chocolate owned four homes at the time. I do not know whether or not he lost them. But one of the factors that motivated Sugar Ray Robinson to become a boxer, according to Herb Boyd and Ray Robinson’s Pound for Pound, was Robinson learning that Kid Chocolate made $75,000 for a half hour of fighting in the ring.

That’s $2,500 a minute to have someone beat you to a pulp before a crowd. Is it worth it? I think most people would say so. Without accounting for inflation, Kid Chocolate made more from one fight than I have ever made in a year. If I had to fight only one fight (30 minutes a year), at the risk of brain damage, a beaten corpus, and a warped skull, but I was able to earn that kind of money, then I might seriously consider Kid Chocolate’s rates. Then again, if I were to suffer brain damage, then I wouldn’t be able to write. So perhaps it’s not worth that kind of blood money. Even if I were to spend a good deal of time getting in the appropriate shape. Which I imagine would run into my reading and writing time. I would be a rather silly boxer.

By 1965, Robinson was broke. He had made $4 million boxing and it was all gone. Robinson may have been inspired by the wrong detail. Money (or the fantasy of earning a lot of it) isn’t really a good reason to make a major life decision. But Robinson, to his credit, lived longer than Clifford Odets did. Kid Chocolate lived longer than both of them. I have a feeling that Kid Chocolate simply liked to box. He had numerous flashy moves. You can look all this up if you’re curious.

Given the choice between Kid Chocolate (or even Sugar Ray Robinson) and Clifford Odets, which one will be more remembered a century from now? Or will any of them be remembered? All three individuals interest me. But I am not sure if anybody will be interested in them one hundred years from now. There may be some boxing scholar sifting through boxes (that is, if they are preserved), attempting to put together some comprehensive history. But will boxing have changed? If the theatricality of “professional” wrestling can shift dramatically to extreme elements involving nails, glass, and boards in a few mere decades, then it’s safe to say that boxing could just as easily become more gloves-off in the future. So will anybody be interested in past versions?

It is also worth observing that these fights tend to interest spectators as they unfold in the present. If you already know the fate of the match, then the boxing bout loses its appeal. On the other hand, Odets, being a playwright who planted figures in the crowd for some of his work, was also interested in the present moment. So is it entirely fair to place Odets above the boxers?

I had originally set out to merely observe that it was Kid Chocolate’s 100th birthday. Should I live another fifty years (a possibility, but one never knows!), I will remember Kid Chocolate on his 150th birthday and perform greater justice than this silly post assembled in the early morning hours.


The History of Verizon, Part Four (November 2000 to December 2000)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post continues my comprehensive history about the expansion of Verizon. This most recent installment takes the story through the end of 2000. Part One, which concerns itself with April to August 2000, can be found here. Part Two, which concerns itself with August 2000, can be found here. Part Three, which concerns itself with September and October 2000, can be found here.]

forsaledcLike any mushrooming company hoping to discharge its spores upon every square mile in a new field, Verizon had its lobbyists. In 1999 and 2000, Verizon, BellSouth, and SBC gave more than $7.1 million to political parties and federal campaigns, ensuring that they were among the top 25 donors. The funds were well-timed, arriving in Washington just as Congress was in the process of loosening restrictions.

AT&T perhaps had the most to lose from attempting to influence the reordering of the telecom guard. Faced with the October surprise of splitting itself up into four parts, AT&T alone had contributed $4.3 million during the 2000 election cycle. It was facing complaints from its investors.

Meanwhile, the telecommunications companies were beginning to enter more long-distance markets. Verizon, of course, knew when to steer clear of federal legislation or, more accurately, precisely when to time its actions in relation to governmental and competitive developments. Near the close of 2000, it withdrew its application for Massachusetts long-distance services. (Verizon was then under scrutiny from other telecom providers. In April 2001, it would receive federal approval in Massachusetts, where the competition would heat up.)

stockmarketdudeBy the end of October, Verizon may have been doing okay in the stock market. But its third-quarter profit was flat. The money that Verizon had spent to dominate DSL and long-distance markets with discount pricing had remained the same from the year earlier. Verizon profits in Q3 2000 were $1.99 billion, whereas Bell Atlantic profits had been $2 billion a year earlier. The m.o. involved spending and undercutting. But this seemed enough to assuage Wall Street.

Profits needed to come from somewhere. But there was also the matter of eager consumers trying to find the cheapest possible price on DSL. Local telephone service was the logical place to start jacking up prices. On November 1, 2000, while Verizon New Jersey proposed to double basic telephone rates from $8.19 a month to anywhere from $15-17 a month, regulators called a hearing. Elderly customers complained that they would be saddled with undesired expenses and undesired services. Verizon’s argument was that it cost them much more than $8.19 a month to provide basic telephone service to its customers, but Verizon spokeswoman Soraya Rodriguez did confess that there wasn’t much in the way of competition for local service

These sentiments were in sharp contrast to the Bell Atlantic days. In 1992, Bell Atlantic had brokered a deal with Trenton. They would rewire Jersey lines if the state loosened Bell Atlantic from a regulative loophole that forced it to lower rates if it made an unreasonable profit. In 1997, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities had stood its ground. The result was that Trenton had managed to get its line rewired and New Jersey customers had experienced some of the cheapest local telephone service in the country. But Anthony Wright, the program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, would organize opposition to the plan and score a victory later in the year. This was, however, not the end of Verizon’s efforts to squeeze profits out of local telephone service, as subequent 2004 efforts in the Northwest would eventually reveal. (Indeed, in early 2008, Verizon would play this card again when telephone deregulation was on the table. Regulation was retained, but, by 2011, local Verizon telephone service in New Jersey will be set at $16.54 a month. Verizon, as it turned out, could fight just as hard as New Jersey Citizen Action could.)

Verizon had, by this time, seemingly escaped from the lingering smoke wafting from the August strike. In New York State, the backlog for new lines had been eliminated by October 23, 2000. Or so Verizon claimed. In November, there were still reports of new apartments waiting for service in a 33-story tower declared “The Ultimate in Brooklyn Heights Luxury.”

Verizon continued to expand. Verizon Communications owned 40% of Venezuela’s national telephone company. And there was the $1.5 billion acquisition of Price Communications Wireless, which served the Southeast, but also faced $550 million in debt that Verizon also took on. And, as previously documented, Verizon backed out of the NorthPoint deal.


But what was particularly interesting was the amount of debt held by seven major telecommunications companies. In August 2000, Lehman Brothers analyst Ravi Suria wrote a report titled “The Other Side of Leverage,” which pointed to the weaknesses of vendor financing. Vendor financing was precisely what Verizon specialized in. It was a practice that permitted customers to buy their own equipment through unseen financial burdens managed by the company. Suria pointed out that the telecom companies had increased their share of the convertibles market from 5% in 1998 to 20% in 1999. (A convertible is a type of security that can be converted into another form of security — such as a share in a company.) Verizon had managed to pass off much of its debt through their convertibles, because there was no way to squeeze out significant profit from the networks at the time and there was no way to cover the interest payments on accumulating debt. Over the course of four years, the combined debt and convertible bonds of the seven telecoms that Suria was studying had dwarfed to $275 billion. As the New York Times‘s Gretchen Morgenson observed, this was a significant change from the $160 billion in junk bonds generated between 1983 and 1990.

And yet even Suria seemed convinced that there were promising possibilities in the telecom industry. Perhaps Verizon’s faith emerged from the possibilities of keeping customers on-board for life. After all, if you could wipe out the competition, eventually the customer would have no other choice but the Verizon network. And if you could lock a Verizon Wireless customer into a two-year contract, you could then tell your investors that convertibles were merely a “temporary” high-yield debt taken on while waiting for the almighty profits. Perhaps vendor financing represented a new method for Verizon to utilize Ricardo’s comparative advantage theory.

jamesluskThe equipment vendors buying into this infrastructure had to be somewhat concerned about this high-stakes gamble, but the possibilities of profit seemed to negate financial pragmatism. In Lisa Endlich’s Optical Illusions, Endlich reports that, in 1996, Lucent’s Controller was initially skeptical about expanding on such a significant lending risk. Jim Lusk, the Controller at the time, was an old-fashioned finance type who needed to see how the money was going to pay out and who believed that Lucent should stick to selling equipment rather than lending money, even he turned around for a contract that secured 60% of Sprint PCS’s contract. The cost? $1.8 billion, with payment of principal deferred for four years. Small wonder then when, four years later, Lucent was in bad shape, with the CEO replaced and investors demanding an overhaul. But then, by the end of 2000, the nine largest telecom equipment suppliers had a combined $25.6 billion in vendor financing loans to customers.

While such measures of financing may seem extraordinary from the perspective of 2009’s deep recession, keep in mind that such actions came shortly after the unprecedented economic boom of the 1990s. But, as we shall later see, Verizon’s investments in other properties were predicated on these companies, in turn, subsisting through additional vendor financing strategies. (By August 2001, Verizon was forced to write off half of its $5.9 billion investment portfolio.)

verizonfoundationVerizon also established the Verizon Foundation, with the intent to distribute 4,000 grants of $70 million, through an all-online process. This, of course, replicated the funds and the efforts of the Bell Atlantic Foundation. (Not counting for inflation, this figure would remain more or less consistent throughout the years. In 2008, the Verizon Foundation awarded $68 million in grants, roughly 6.4% of its profits from Q1 2008. The Verizon Foundation’s financial statements can be examined here.)

There were also advertising costs. The tab at Draft Worldwide and Zenith Media was $500 million.

The now ubiquitous practice of SMS text messaging was, near the end of 2000, not widely practiced in the United States. This was a bucolic and more innocent time in which people ate dinner with each other and actually had to wait several hours before telling other friends who they were hanging out with. You might say that before 9/11 “changed everything,” SMS “changed everything.”

While businessmen in Japan and Europe texted each other during meetings, it was not until the fourth quarter of 2000 that telecom communities began rolling out two-way SMS service, and cell phone customers could send text messages to each other of no more than 160 characters. The problem, in the United States, involved conflicting and competing standards.

It is necessary to begin at the beginning and briefly (but, by no means, sufficiently) explain these developments. In the early 1980s, emerging cellular telephone systems were creating numerous incompatibilities and frustrations. Enter a group of fussy European telecommunications administrators determined to solve the problem with a compatible system called Global System for Mobile, or GSM. At the risk of skipping over some vital SMS/GSM history and leaving out a good deal of important and interesting figures, let’s just say that they sorted everything out. (I hope to expand this section in the future.)

On December 3, 1992, in the United Kingdom, the first SMS message was sent by engineer Neil Papworth through the Vodafone network (before it was merged into Verizon Wireless). It read MERRY CHRISTMAS. But it would take seven years before the phrase, “Text me,” would enter into the lingua franca.

It took some time. But upon establishing a cost of about 10 cents per message, text messaging became popular in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, where many of the GSM originators resided. In October 2000, 157 million European wireless customers were SMS-ready. 9 billion SMS messages were sent every month. The price point created a premium that seemed affordable to teenagers and doctors alike, but this was a lucrative markup that remains a source of controversy today. (Indeed, in October 2008, Verizon Wireless had plans to tack on an additional 3 cents per text message.)

chatboardThe SMS standard used in Europe was GSM, but the US used three separate standards: TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access), CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), and a GSM variation that, much like the American NTSC television standard abandoned in 2009, was incompatible with numerous global territories. A Verizon Wireless customer in 2000 could not send a text message to a AT&T Wireless customer. And this lack of global SMS compatibility, together with the then-awkward requirement of typing an email address before sending a text, didn’t exactly win customers over.

AT&T Wireless got many of its customers hooked on text messages by offering SMS for free through February 2001. (AT&T would initially charge $4.99 for 500 messages a month, a considerable bargain compared to Verizon’s text message rates today.)

One unexamined consideration is whether Verizon, which owned and maintained all the pay phones in the New York subway stations, deliberately let these pay phones fall into disrepair. After all, why not move these disgruntled pay phone customers onto cell phone plans? And why not work with the city to establish a cell phone network within the cavernous subway system? Verizon, as it turns out, was better at repairing pay phones in 2000 than the year before under Bell Atlantic. According to the Straphangers Campaign, 18% of subway station pay phones were broken in October and November of 2000 (compared to 25% in August 1999). Whether the drop came from reduced crime or reduced pay phone use, it is difficult to say. But as Farouk Abdallah of the Straphangers pointed out at the time, Verizon’s contract with the MTA called for 95% of the pay phones to be “fully operative and in service at all times.”

payphonebellPay phones, however, were on the wane. When the City of New York announced that it would construct 2,262 new public pay phones, a number of Upper East Side residents, who presumably possessed the expendable income needed to pay for a cell phone, complained about the 1,000 pay phones appearing in their neighborhood. Never mind that only half of New York residents had cell phones and 20% of residents in poorer neighborhoods didn’t even have regular phones. The pay phone kiosks would be an eyesore. Verizon, interestingly enough, did not apply to operate the new phones.

Three months before the United States would enter a nine-month recession in 2001, shares in Verizon fell $3.94 on December 20, 2000 to $51.88. Despite the 3,500 DSL lines that Verizon claimed it was installing daily, Verizon seemed more interested in promulgating financial projections for 2001 and 2002 rather than coughing up any data about the present. (Lucent, that seemingly dependable equipment vendor who had bet the farm on vendor financing, announced two days later that it would lose more than it had anticipated and that layoffs were forthcoming.)

And the customers wanted more. They wanted nationwide coverage that wasn’t lossy. Analysts suggested that the infrastructure wasn’t there and couldn’t support the dramatic uptick in customers. Could the customer understand that a cell phone was entirely different from a landline? Did they know the difference between an analog and a digital phone? Did they understand that using all those minutes in the package was a trap to get customers reliant upon cell phones? Did they consider that maybe it was the telecom companies who held all the cards in the relationship? Or perhaps increasing and often unreasonable demands were a way for the customer to feel that he had some power or confidence?


The History of Verizon, Part Three (September to October 2000)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: About a year ago, I began a comprehensive history about the expansion of Verizon. I don’t know if I will ever finish the narrative, because the story is quite complicated. But here is the next installment in the series. Part One, which concerns itself with April to August 2000, can be found here. Part Two, which concerns itself with August 2000, can be found here.]

With the August strike eating eighteen days of steady service, Verizon Communications faced a considerable delay in work orders. There were 50,000 delayed repairs and over 200,000 orders for new service that needed to be fulfilled. And if a customer wanted to go to another competitor — such as AT&T or MCI WorldCon — well, that customer would end up facing the same delays. Because by the summer of 2000, these companies relied heavily on Verizon’s networks.

There were, however, positive developments from the new contract emerging from the strike. In early September, Verizon offered its 210,000 employees 55 million shares of stock options. 85,000 union workers would receive 100 shares a piece. Verizon Wireless employees weren’t included in the contract, but this was a victory for the unionized workers. For analysts were also suggesting that Verizon stock was a good buy.

dickarmeyCustomers service reps, bearing the brunt of too much stress, were given five 30-minute breaks each week. The new contract also made it difficult for workers to be shuttled around from one national region to another, which caused BusinessWeek to raise an opportunistic eyebrow. The New Economy demanded “labor flexibility,” which seemed to BusinessWeek to involve unhitching one’s residential roots like a serviceman constantly on the move from one military base to another. (Ironically, there had been four rounds of base closures over the past twelve years, where some 152 bases were closed or curtailed courtesy of legislative efforts from Rep. Dick Armey. Perhaps it was believed that the New Economy’s private entrepreneurship might miraculously provide for government workers shifting around in the Old.)

Still, as New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse pointed out, the Verizon contract — like the Firestone and United deals at the time — had worked out somewhat well for workers because the industry was unionized. Unions had sacrificed their power in the past four decades, but at least one remaining bundle of workers was able to secure a victory. Not even the steel or the auto industries had been able to do this in the 1980s without some serious backpedaling.

oldtelephoneFor eager customers, however, the more important question was whether or not Verizon could roll out its DSL services faster. Verizon, like Flashcom, was sometimes taking as long as six months to install DSL service, particularly in New York. In New York, Verizon blamed the problem on the ancient wiring systems. But since Verizon remained in control of the telephone wires, perhaps Verizon’s failure to roll out DSL service had more to do with the competitors. If Verizon held out in New York, other companies would have to expend considerable resources building their own wires. Road Runner, however, continued to flourish with its cable services.

Verizon approached this competitive dilemma by slashing its DSL prices in some territories from $49.95/month to $39.95/month. The augmented coverage territory secured by the GTE-Bell Atlantic merger would result in reduced prices for both residential and business DSL service. And the DSL modem was free if the customer committed to a one-year contract. But was it really free? Sure, you’d save $120 in one year if you signed up for a one-year contract. But the modem itself was worth only $99.

As Forbes‘s David Simons observed, the $39.95 price point was a boon for mass adoption, even if it wasn’t particularly profitable for ISPs. (And if you were a smaller ISP, you’d pay more for the installation and upkeep of a DSL line. ISP Planet‘s Jim Wagner pointed out that the $39.95 price point gave other providers only $7.45 a month to earn back service costs, as wel as the $400 installation.) Perhaps the strategy here was to get Verizon customers hooked on long-term contracts, with an emphasis on high-volume profit by giving customers extra incentives to sign on for other services under the “savings” imprimatur. Verizon also offered two other deals that year: a 30-day money back guarantee and $5 off every month if you also had one of Verizon’s local calling packages. Aggressive marketing helped spread the message.

The question of just how aggressive Verizon was in 2000 with its customer sales representatives may not be easily answerable. But there are some suggestions that Verizon customers were not only signed up for DSL service that was not only unavailable in their area, but forced into two-year contracts. A former Verizon worker posted this story to in July 2001 (I preserve the spelling and grammatical mistakes):

After going through the so called ‘training’. A group of about 20 of us were thrown to the ‘wolves’, so to speak. After a few weeks of lying to people…my conscience started bothering me. It was a particular customer, an old lady…very sweet. She reminded me of my grandma. She literally started crying on the phone, About how she could never get connected to the internet. The first thing I did was to check to see if service was even available in her area, or if some ass had sold her “verizon high speed internet” some where, where it wasnt even available.(I had already seen a few cases where customers had signed 2 year contracts, and they didnt even have service in their area!). And sure enough, after I checked on the system…the service wasnt even available in her area. I just told her the truth “mam, verizon high speed dsl internet service is not even available in your area….” she had been going back and forth with “Technical Support Agents” for about a year…and no one had even told her that service wasnt even available in her area. Yet she was signed up for a 2 year contract and was even paying!

The Associated Press’s Peter Svensson reported in September 2000 that Verizon was even putting a stop to other ISPs who were using Covad lines. A Brooklyn customer named Dana Smith hoped to get DSL service through a smaller provider who used Covad. But since the DSL installation involved her Verizon landline, Verizon was uncooperative and hindered Covad’s attempts to fix problems on her line. And when she called Verizon, the company tried to sell her on its DSL service.

The FCC became Verizon’s unwitting accomplice. In October 2000, the FCC considered rules forcing commercial landlords to allow any telecommunications carrier (referred to as a “CLEC,” which stands for “competitive local exchange carrier”) access into its buildings to install new lines. In mid-October, the FCC ruled 4-1 in favor of the CLECs. The landlords lost. And it seemed as if the tenants had won freedom of choice. But how many of the tenants had to contend with Dana Smith’s scenario? If “choice” involved being steamrolled into one-year contracts through deep discount price cutting and uncooperative skirmishes with Covad, did the customer really opt for the service?

drlauraIt’s worth pointing out that Verizon did listen to its customer base from time to time. The company had pulled its ads from Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s show after Schlessinger had uttered hateful remarks about gays.

While Verizon wasn’t winning any friends among the early adopters, the telecommunications giant was then boasting that those who called for directory assistance were now spending 3.6 seconds on the phone, compared to 5.5 seconds in 1996 under Bell Atlantic. (Customer service, of course, would prove to be an issue for Verizon in the years to come.)

In mid-September 2000, the Justice Department had also approved Verizon’s purchase of OnePoint. (Here are the FCC documents.) OnePoint, known for providing high-speed Internet services in nine major metropolitan markets (particularly apartment buildings), would permit Verizon to expand its DSL service. (Indeed, Verizon didn’t waste any time. Only one month later, OnePoint was building a 4,000 square foot telecommunications facility in Atlanta.)

Meanwhile, on the mobile phone front, on August 31, 2000, the Justice Department granted approval for a merger between SBC Communication and BellSouth, making it the nation’s second-largest mobile-phone company. The new venture combined 17.9 million subscribers, just trailing Verizon’s 25.4 million customers. (The competition was also heating up on the local phone service front. By October 2000, SBC had revealed hopes to nab $1 billion in local service revenue over the next two years.)

Verizon responded to this competitive threat by amping up its advertising. In addition, Verizon had settled upon Burrell Communications Group to handle a brand introduction campaign. These advertising costs were estimated somewhere between $20 million to $30 million.

As Verizon continued to expand its operations, the erection of copious cell phone towers spawned some controversy. In addition to the cell phone tower’s eyesore aesthetic, Tiburon telecommunciations consultant Ted Kreines observed real estate prices drop for property near the towers. At the time, Verizon spokeswoman Tracey Kennedy noted that Verizon was doing its best to keep facilities from looking unsightly.

Verizon’s aggressive efforts to woo its customers for flashy services at cut-rate prices weren’t limited to DSL. Near the end of September, Verizon hit upon a strategy to target mobile phone consumers. A new program called New Every Two offered a customer a free cell phone if the customer signed on for a two-year contract. There was also the option of a phone upgrade. Verizon was the first of the then six wireless carriers to offer these options.

And in October 2000, the Vodafone Group, which was Verizon Communications’s partner in Verizon Wireless, was also eyeing Eircom, an Irish telecommunications conglomerate. A brief summary of Irish telecommunications: Telecom Éireann was a company assigned to overhaul the Irish telecommunications structure. The company, with a majority stake owned by the Irish government, exceeded its expectations and converted the entire network to digital by the 1990s. But in 1999, the Irish government sold off its 65% stake. Eircom was the parent company of Eircell, which represented the mobile division of Telecom Éireann. In other words, a company, largely bankrolled by a government, that had built up one of the most effective telecommunications networks in the world was gobbled up by one of Verizon Wireless’s principals. Innovation built with public money was snatched up by Vodafone in 2001, and Eircell became Vodafone Ireland, a private entity that sponsored Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? without apparent irony.

Verizon Wireless was also expanding on local fronts. On October 10, Verizon Wireless acquired 24.2% of Sacramento Valley L.P., which provided cell phone service in Northern California and Nevada. (Verizon’s stake in Sacramento Valley L.P. was now more than 76%.)

With all this buying and all this expansion, was an initial public offering in the cards? There was an initial plan in mid-October and the IPO was expected to bag about $5 billion, but economic conditions scrapped that. It was expected that the IPO would take place by the end of 2000. (As it turned out, the IPO was delayed considerably longer.)

There were also a few innovations that anticipated application developments on the smartphone. Years before Snaptell, Verizon teamed up with BarPoint, where Verizon customers could punch a bar code into their phone and determine how much it was at an online store. (BarPoint, which would wither away like many companies of its type, may have had the right idea at the wrong time.) Verizon also had an idea of charging customers $36 a year to list their email addresses in the phone book, little realizing that such information would be instantly findable through search engines in very little time.

cellphonedriverVerizon took great care in presenting itself as a corporation that cared about the public. In October, Verizon spokesman Kevin Moore praised a New Jersey Senate study to examine whether cell phones distracted drivers. (Of course, Verizon’s message always changed with legislative developments. A mere seven months later, another Verizon spokesman named Howard Waterman begged then New York Governor George Pataki to wait three years on banning cell phones in cars. Waterman didn’t mention public safety or distracted drivers. His motivation for the delay was “to allow wireless customers time to upgrade their phones because some of them simply do no have handsfree capability.”)

Verizon had a terrifying knack for transforming its message and its motivations seemingly overnight. The spokesman you dealt with today might be somebody else tomorrow. One division might be another or absorbed into another next month. A small carrier leveraged out during this expansionist fervor might have its stationery replaced by Verizon in weeks. At least the unionized workers still had some protection. But the customers accepted all this without question. The economy was in bad shape. There were exciting technological advancements, such as cell phones and DSL, to be had for a pittance. But would any of us know the real prices we paid for our convenience?


Dan Carlin: A Hardcore Podcaster

Dan Carlin is a very intense and passionate man. One can hear the veins bulging out of his neck when he talks about history. I do not know what the man’s caffeine intake is, but his podcasting presence is a welcome alternative to the soporific lectures sometimes associated with historians.

Carlin’s brio is a good thing. And it’s why I’ve become a fan of his podcast, Hardcore History.

There are regrettably no hyperlinks in Carlin’s archive, but if you spend a day or two bouncing around in his archives, you’ll find a 40 minute monlogue on the impact of drugs and alcohol on historical events, a febrile portrait of Winston Churchill (“A racist! A colonialist! An alcoholic! A bad parent! A reactionary! Militaristic! A megalomaniac! A shameless self-promoter and self-advertiser! These are just some of the criticisms that have been leveled at Winston Churchill throughout history.” And he’s only just getting started.), and speculation on what might have happened had events during the year 1066 turned out differently. He’s also managed to land an interview with Connections man James Burke, who sounds slightly wary of Carlin’s enthusiasm, but is a good sport.

If you have even a passing interest in history and science, Carlin’s energy will most certainly get you pumped up in ways that you may not expect.


The History of Verizon, Part Two (August 2000)

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a continuation of my ongoing history of Verizon. Part One, which covers the months of April through August 2000, can be found here. Part Three, which covers the months of September through October 2000, can be found here.]

James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader, became the voice of Verizon. Jones had proved popular as the voice of Bell Atlantic and his services were extended to talking up this new brand with his instantly recognizable baritone. But the Baltimore City Paper‘s Joe MacLeod was having none of this. “You never once in your whole entire life said the word, ‘Verizon,’ I’ll bet, unless you knocked back too many highballs or were wacked out on that Special K or Vitamin C or one of those other letters, but now you’re going to say ‘Verizon’ all the time like it’s a real word, and you’re going to write checks to Verizon and call Verizon, and say stuff like, ‘The goddam Verizon’s on the fritz again.’ But it’s not. There’s no such thing as a Verizon. Don’t believe James Earl Jones. It’s a made up bullshit word, and they (and you know who ‘they’ are) probably paid James Earl an ass-load of money to pitch the Verizon on the teevee.”

Whatever “ass-load of money” was paid to Jones, eight years later, Verizon’s name now trickles across the cochlea without cognitive dissonance, thanks in part to Jones’s efforts. The campaign, overseen by Bozell, ensured that the last dregs of Bell Atlantic would be cast asunder for this great leap forward. Jones would later use his position at Verizon to siphon off a hearty combo of Verizon and NEA money for a Magna Carta exhibit, present a $25,000 literary-tech grant to a San Ysidro school, present literary grants, and hand off awards to Russian cinematic talent. In 2002, Jones, testifying before a House Subcommittee on Education Reform, would declare, “I could not be more proud to be associated with an exceptional company like Verizon.” Even when speaking at the 2007 Buffalo Book Fair on literacy, Verizon was indelibly attached to Jones’s words.

In 2007, Jones walked away. While Jones served as a pitchman, Verizon’s contract had restricted Jones from any long-term commitments. Jones’s contract kept him off the Broadway stage until 2005. Jones, in fact, would not appear in any films between 2001 and 2004. In an interview with NWA WorldTraveler, Jones explained, “[Verizon] let me be silly for 15 years on camera — breakdancing and all that. I was as silly as I dared get. They understood that this guy usually is taken as dignified, with a big voice, so they said, ‘Let him be silly,’ and it’s worked!”

But was this really a position for an actor of Jones’s dignified stature to be in? How many dramatic presentations or Broadway performances were lost because Verizon required his services? With a strike heating up in August 2000, the Workers World News Service went further: “Who’s on the board of directors? Not James Earl Jones.” The WWNS proceeded to name names. “Your may not see these folks in the Verizon ads. You may not see their faces on your telephone bill. But these corporate interests are part of the system of exploitation that dominates our lives from telephones to political offices.”

But was Verizon really maintaining a system of exploitation? Or was it just practicing the most ruthless business practices necessary to get ahead?

With the Bell Atlantic-GTE deal receiving FCC approval, Verizon began making quiet payments to ensure its continued expansion. GTE paid $2.7 million to end an inquiry concerning allegations that it had refused to let local phone equipment in GTE offices without the construction of special facilities. Even though the FCC permitted local phone companies to place equipment at their central offices, GTE had insisted upon special equipment cages. The FCC had permitted the local phone companies to place their equipment in COs without the cages, but that hadn’t stopped the phone companies from complaining. Thankfully, money was one of those magical mechanisms that helped end such gripes.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming strike threatened to halt Verizon operations. More than 86,000 telephone workers from Maine to Virginia planned to walk out. On August 4, 2000, Verizon submitted a proposal to the unions. Verizon agreed that it would increase wages by 3 to 4 percent a year for union employees and improve pension plans. But with the income disparity between union and nonunion workers still unaddressed, and the details on job security and very specific demands still unclear, the unions balked. As one particularly prescient Verizon worker said, “Because the company would rather farm out work, this means one company installs the line on the outside of the building, which is us, and another on the inside, which is them. This results in a big headache for the customer, who has to be at home for two days instead of one, and a loss of income to a nonunion company.”

There are other interesting figures to consider here. In 2000, Verizon’s wireless operations generated $532 a year in revenue from each customer. A telephone company customer earned a meager $324 a year. Verizon’s wireless employees were nonunion and its telephone company employees were union, thus resulting in considerably more revenue from its wireless operations. In other words, Verizon had a vested interest in ensuring that its wireless employee basis would remain nonunion. In a competitive market and a declining economy, profit was king. And one Wall Street analyst, speaking to the New York Times under anonymity, suggested that if Verizon’s wireless unit were completely unionized, it would cost the company $300 million a year.

On August 7, 2000, with no negotiations in sight, the workers walked out. Basic services were not affected, but repairs and installations were. Verizon created a stopgap by deploying 30,000 managers — all working 12-hour shifts — to cover services that were normally performed by employees. One technician opined of the managers, “‘I think none of them are qualified to do what we do. Most of [the managers] were educated in college, but they’re not technically inclined.”

The union members were dressed in red, picketing in solidarity. One customer service reporter told the New York Times that she was “tired of being treated like a second-class citizen within the company,” but declined to give her name. Verizon had informed employees that they would be fired if they discussed joining the union at work. Most of the striking workers were former Bell Atlantic workers. The GTE units were not directly involved.

News of the Verizon strike hit many outlets, but some overlooked the company’s considerable expansive efforts. As The Motley Fool‘s Chris Rugaber reported, “While that story is important, investors interested in the telecom sector should pay just as much attention to the company’s announcement yesterday that it has already signed up 1 million long-distance customers in New York.” The company’s goal was to reach the one million mark by the end of 2000, but Verizon was five months ahead of schedule. Verizon pledged to donate $1 million to New York charities to celebrate this achievement.

By August 8, 2000, the strike had gone on for three days, with neither side coming to an agreement. “We continue to frankly plug through some of the more difficult issues that confront us,” said Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe. “It’s become sort of an intense, exhausting sort of a process.” Rabe claimed that there had been 455 acts of vandalism, violence, and harassment of Verizon managers over the previous six days. Eggs and bottles were thrown at those who crossed picket lines. Verizon offered a $250,000 reward. These acts went further. On August 8, 2000, the New York Times reported that vandals had begun slashing telephone cables in New York, causing thousands of New Yorkers to lose service. But Communications Workers of America vice president Al Luzzi declared, “We don’t condone vandalism; we never did, we never well.” Luzzi suggested that Verizon managers might be responsible for the cut cables. Nevertheless, two striking Verizon workers were nearly electrocuted when they confusedly cut through a power cable that they believed to be a phone line.

James Henry, a Bear Stearns analyst, observed that if the company could maintain service without its 85,000 employees, this would be an effective marketing tool. One that would give the company solvency, so long as the strike didn’t last beyond a week. Indeed, in the early days of the strike, Verizon customers did not experience considerable disruptions in phone service.

That same day, Verizon announced that it would be teaming up with NorthPoint to build a new broadband company. The move was on to shift broadband services to DSL. Lawrence T. Babbio, Verizon’s vice chairman and president, boasted that he was putting in 3,000 DSL lines a day. With the new company under NorthPoint’s name, Verizon was looking at a service capacity of 600,000 DSL lines. With Verizon making an $800 million investment in the new company, with $450 million of these funds allocated to network expansion and product development, NorthPoint only needed federal approval, which was expected in mid-2001. NorthPoint was an appealing acquisition because of its business customer base. Business customers could be counted upon to generate more revenue than the garden-variety consumers that Verizon had within the Bell Atlantic network.

But in November, Verizon decided to pull out. Verizon claimed that it terminated the deal because it didn’t care for NorthPoint’s deteriorating business and operating conditions. NorthPoint, counting upon the $800 million, was apoplectic. Said Liz Fetter, NorthPoint’s Communications President and CEO, “I am stunned to get the news after months of conversations with Verizon on the strong business opportunities available to the combined entities. Verizon was not entitled to terminate these agreements, and we are exploring all our options, including funding options and legal remedies.”

There was no breakup fee for terminating the deal.

NorthPoint had seen its stock decline from $39.12 a share to $2.50 a share in just under a year. The Verizon setback caused NorthPoint stock to plunge to a mere 75 cents per share. Verizon’s stock, by contrast, gained 81 cents that same day. Brown analyst Michael Bowen said to CNN, “If they lose Verizon they don’t have much of a future.” Sure enough, Bowen was right. After a round of lawsuits that NorthPoint had filed against Verizon, a NorthPoint shareholder sued NorthPoint about accounting malpractice. Because of these circumstances, 19% of NorthPoint’s workforce was laid off just before Christmas. In March 2001, NorthPoint would eventually file for Chapter 11.

Did Verizon have every intention of backing out of the NorthPoint deal? It is difficult to say with any accuracy, but I do intend to investigate this.

It should be pointed out that NorthPoint enjoyed a great success between 1999-2000, with its stock rising 68% on its first day of trading (like many dot coms) and alliances brokered with the likes of Microsoft. Led by CEO Elizabeth Fetter, a 41-year-old antique collector with a penchant for restoring historic homes, NorthPoint had relied on the Baby Bells to install DSL, but was often dissatisfied with the speed at which it could roll out its service. And although the future looked bright for NorthPoint (and fellow competitor Covad) in light of recent regulatory advantages, NorthPoint had been hit, like many, by the downturn in the economy. Verizon’s cash influx was just the kickstart that would help NorthPoint expand. But NorthPoint, expecting a fair deal, relied on the money instead of questioning it.

So why did Verizon go after NorthPoint? Did it make similar overtures to Covad? Was NorthPoint simply too hungry to expand? And why didn’t NorthPoint’s counsel ensure that the Verizon deal was airtight? Did Verizon see NorthPoint as a competitor it could whittle down? Or did it have even some intention of cooperating with Verizon all along? These questions will require investigation.

On August 9, 2000, the New York Times reported that Verizon and the unions were nearing a negotiation that “might make it easier for the unions to organize workers” at the Verizon Wireless unit. But the strike had heated up. Verizon reported 455 strike-related incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism to the police in twelve states. With the New York summer heat rising, tempers were too. A Verizon maintenance truck run by a nonunion Verizon contractor was battered and remained stuck under a maintenance gate when a striker gained access to the gate’s remote control. New York State Supreme Court Judge Louis York granted a temporary restraining order that barred picketers from preventing workers and managers from conducting their work. Verizon increased its $10,000 bounty to $25,000.

On August 8, 2000, Verizon’s shares plunged, dropping 14%. It was Verizon’s sharpest one-day freefall since 1987. The NorthPoint deal hadn’t helped. Nor had Verizon’s bid to acquire OnePoint Communications. The terms of the OnePoint sale were not disclosed, but OnePoint was known for the DSL services it provided to apartments and office buildings in nine major U.S. metropolitan markets. Unlike NorthPoint, OnePoint had remained private.

Back on the picket lines, the struggle remained tense. 24 union members had been arrested. Waste and birdshit were tossed upon five Midtown South Precinct officers monitoring picket lines, dumped from the top of Verizon’s 41-story headquarters. The police did not plan to rule out management or strikers. And the 8,000 workers protesting outside Verizon’s headquarters participated in a rally the next day that spilled over into Bryant Park. Even presidential candidate Ralph Nader made an appearance on the Fall Churchs, Virginia picket line. Meanwhile, one advertisement featuring a Verizon worker in a hardhat with the slogan, “Bell Atlantic has a new name,” remained in circulation.

Some commentators, such as the New York Times‘s Mary Williams Walsh, suggested that the customer-service complaints had become a new labor issue. Walsh pointed to Verizon’s requirement by CSRs to ask customers, “Did I provide you with outstanding service today?,” which made at least one feel like an idiot. But if the CSR did not answer the question, then a supervisor listening into the call would deduct points from the performance score. Was the burden of having to be nice all the time something to fight over? Walsh depicted the typical Verizon worker working four hours in the morning, four hours in the afternoon, with an hour off for lunch and two 15-minute breaks. But the stress arose because a supervisor kept track of every workstation using a color-coded grid. In one glance, the multihued squares would reveal whether a CSR was keeping someone on hold for too long and when a CSR signed on and off. One CSR named Patti Egan pointed out that there was only a two-second window between calls, without time to type up the order of the last caller. Often, unfinished orders were set aside, to be presumably completed during one spare two-second moment. Factor in the pressure for CSRs to upsell callers on features and the incentive for a call center to sell $60,000 worth of products a month if the CSRs want to move out of customer service and into jobs without sales duties, and the pressures that the workers were fighting for became all too clear.

By August 14, 2000, Verizon had made a new offer to the unions. But Communications Workers of America spokesman Robert Master declared it “old wine in new bottles.” But the picketeers has started to thin. The thousands of workers who had struck in the previous week had been reduced to 750. Nine days into the strike, employee Danny Marino remarked, “I didn’t think that it would come to this, definitely; I thought this would last only two or three days.” He had been married the previous month. Meanwhile, managers continued to take care of the 80,000 requests Verizon was receiving each day.

On August 16, 2000, the unions declared that they would break off negotiations with Verizon if they could not reach an agreement by midnight the next day. Mandatory overtime and job security remained the two 900 pound gorillas swinging in the room. But the next day, the workers continued talking past this deadline

As the strike took a considerable toll on Verizon’s stock share and federal rules prohibited companies from owning more than one license in a metropolitan market, Verizon unloaded wireless franchises in Chicago and Cincinnati to an investment group led by J.P. Morgan.

Finally, Verizon and the unions reached a tentative agreement. Nonunion wireless employees were permitted to organize. Two-thirds of the strikers settled on a contract two days later. The workers agreed to a three-year contract, procuring a 12% wage increase over three years. And Verizon had imposed a condition upon wireless union organization: if 55% of the employees at a work location agreed to sign cards, they’d have a union. Union telephone workers won the right to conduct more work, such as the installation of high-speed Internet lines. Mandatory overtime would be reduced, but it would still be mandatory. On the work stress issue, the unions were given five 30-minute periods each week whereby the CSRs could perform work that didn’t involve calls. But the two-second window between phone calls had gone unacknowledged.

Three years later, when the contract ran out, there would be another strike. But the next time around, Verizon would not cave. Verizon and the unions would agree to a new contract in September 3, 2003, with a one-year wage freeze, new hires not covered by the job security provisions, and one that would last five years. Five years. The precise length that Verizon had insisted in 2000. The precise length that had worried the unions because of the rapid changes in the telecom industry.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the unions were preparing to strike again. The numbers now? 86,000 in 2000. 65,000 in 2008. I will examine how this workforce figure was reduced and go into the 2003 strike in forthcoming installments. But for now, I’ll simply observe that the renegotiated five year contract expires on August 2, 2008. Whether the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will learn a few lessons from these previous two strikes remains to be seen.

Forgotten Statue, Forgotten Spirit

schurz.jpgLike many statues nestled along the rectangular trestles of Manhattan’s parks, Karl Bitter’s bronze depiction of Carl Schurz — situated at the corner of Morningside Drive and 116th Street — is regularly overlooked by many New Yorkers. They walk their dogs. They chat on their cell phones. They rush to important appointments or set out to beat a jogging record. But they rarely stop to observe this rather tall and intriguing figure who remains memorialized.

That’s saying something, considering that Schurz is quite vertical in design (he stands nine feet tall), his left foot juts a mite forward, and his portly girth, disguised by a thick and definitive bronze coat and cape, demands attention. To look over the promontory where Schurz is propped, you must walk up three stone steps to get an unoccluded view. But no matter what building your eyes settle upon, Schurz will remain in dogged peripheral vision. Maybe pedestrians are vexed by Schurz’s hatless and Germanic form — for what it’s worth, he does politely hold his hat in his right hand — invading Harlem’s horizontal vista, which, like every Manhattan neighborhood, is now undergoing terminal gentrification. Perhaps to live in New York, the New Yorker cannot look upon the past, but must continue contending with the swift-paced momentum of the present. And if that means accepting glass monstrosities in lieu of charming brick buildings without remonstrance, so be it. But this willful acceptance also extends to figures like Schurz, who reminds us that there was indeed a New York before the present one.

The Schurz statue is unsullied by the verdigris now eating away at another of Bitter’s sculptures — that of Franz Sigel residing on West 106th Street and Riverside, currently earmarked for renovation. Schurz and Sigel both have parks named after them. (Karl Bitter, alas, does not. New York reserves its laurels for its heros, not the artists who render the legacy.)

We know that Schurz was a military man, a political reformer, and a journalist. He spent the majority of his life outside of New York, served as Secretary of the Interior for President Rutherford Hayes, moving to the city in 1881, ostensibly to retire. But a man of his insurmountable energies could not settle down. He had twenty-five years left in his life to make a name. And he did. Starting with his immediate rise to editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post in 1883 and followed by becoming one of the Mugwumps supporting Grover Cleveland the following year. He spoke out against Tammany Hall, drawing enthusiasm for his remarks even as a fife and drum corps passed by.

The first fact that, in our efforts for good government, stares us in the face is the existence of an organization — Tammany Hall — whose very purpose it is to give the city the worst government it dares, to the end of making money out of it. And this organization has been for years, and is now, in full possession of the municipal power.

schurzreal.gifSchurz spoke these words as two friends of his were the top mayoral candidates. He would not let friendships get in the way of principle. Likewise, he did not think much of William Jennings Bryan and also campaigned against him.

As the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation is proud to announce, he was an adopted New Yorker and was often unpredictable with his political choices. Schurz was gleefully antagonistic, and on September 22, 1900, he resigned his Presidencies of the National Civil Service Reform League and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York, observing, “I frankly confess that on account of my position of antagonism to other policies of the Administration, the performance of my part of that duty is especially unwelcome to me.” But he could not quite give this ghost up and was elected the following year as President of the Civil Service Reform Association.

When Schurz was buried in Sleepy Hollow in May 1906, he had an audience both rich and poor. Andrew Carnegie and Joseph H. Choate stood beneath one umbrella. The Times described Schurz as “a publicist and patriot.” The funeral was attended only by relatives and close friends, but policemen had to stop many who hoped to get a view of Schurz’s coffin. It was Choate who ensured that the statue now standing in Morningside Park was completed.

Schurz had a reformist ebullience scarcely seen in the present political age. We now seem to settle for charisma and monoglot messages about hope. Those who do stand out are censored or declared too lunatic for the political arena. This stands in sharp contrast to the words Choate unfurled during the statue’s unveiling, “As a leader he did what is so seldom seen and yet so necessary in the upholding of the best in public life. He put expediency above personal and party advantage. He never allowed party to lead him in the wrong direction, and for years he stood alone, an independent figure in party and public life.”

At the pedestal before Schurz’s form are the words: CARL SCHURZ Defender of Liberty and Friend of Human Right.


Today, who knows Schurz’s name outside of hard-core history buffs, fans of The Who, and curiosity seekers? Not long ago, when I visited Schurz’s statue, I observed a broken bottle of Gilbey’s upon the faded ornamental brick. The bottle had apparently been thrown at Schurz, and the glass shards glistened more resolutely than the brick. While the bottle, in all likelihood, had been hurled by a cavalier youth, I couldn’t help but contemplate whether there was a rejection of Schurz’s spirit in the air. History was apparently the work of others. But it seemed to me that it was the other way around.

75 Books, Books #8-11

Books #8 & #9 were books relating to a future Segundo podcast.

Book #10 was a book relating to a future Segundo podcast.

Book #11 was Kevin Starr’s California: A History, part of the Modern Library Chronicles series. Starr is best known for his mammoth work Americans and the California Dream, an invaluable series of books that are quite meticulous in their pursuit of California history from 1850 onwards. What makes Starr’s books so enjoyable is that, beyond their gushing and spirited quality, Starr takes great care to concentrate on labor history and minorities in addition to the heavy-hitters. I’m sure that I’m not alone in hoping that he manages to complete this series before his death. (The years 1951-1989 remain to be filled in.)

This comparatively slim volume finds Starr attempting a one volume history from the Bear Flag Revolt on. And the result sometimes feels a bit rushed, if only because there’s a lot of information here to cram into 350 pages. Figures and incidents are introduced with very little fanfare. (Thank goodness there’s an index to keep track of the frequent entrances and exeunts.) One reads this finding Starr just dying to break out of the confined form and riff on political figures, reluctantly placing himself in the position of precis-wrangler. While I was familiar with many of the colorful characters from other volumes, the book’s truncated form precludes Starr from offering his fiery commentary (and even his obsession with age takes a back seat). Or to put it another way: There are some writers who are intended to write lengthy books and some who are not. Starr definitely fits into the former category. I read this book hoping for morsels from the missing years and was a bit disappointed to see Governors Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan largely unremarked upon, although Starr does demonstrate the historical arcs of California’s obsession with technology.

Which is not to suggest that California is without merit. As Starr gets closer to the present day, his depictions of California as a land of health and a land of promise begin to kick in. And for anyone requiring a refresher course on California history or who wants a taste of Starr before delving into the California Dream series, the book is certainly worth a look.

Deaths, Revivals and Roastings

Historian and one-time Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin has passed on. Boorstin was best known for his American trilogy and his fascinating books on human innovation. (I highly recommend The Discoverers and The Seekers.) One read a Boorstin book for the best of reasons: to ride a journey across human progress with an enthusiastic mind eager to make connections. Boorstin was an American James Burke, adept at showing the strange way in which the world was charted and everyday things were created. He’ll definitely be missed.

T.C. Boyle’s enemies are dying off. Less people hate Boyle now more than ever before. I remain optimistic. There will come a day when there are more Boyle lovers than haters.

Now who honestly expected to see Kate Christensen profiled in the Post? It’s difficult to say whether this is an effort to woo people who are disappointed by the increasing non-literary direction of the NYTBR. Personally, I welcome feverish Post headlines like VIDAL REVIVES BRAWL WITH MAILER or ZADIE SMITH ROASTS CHICKLIT AUTHORS OVER SPIT.

John Lescroart whines that he doesn’t get any respect. Dude, shut up. You’ve sold 10 million books.

So Chip McGrath (and literary coverage) can be found now in the magazine?

Robert Silverburg has received the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. He plans to address the Nebula Awards with maniacal laughter.

Dick and Jane are being brought out of retirement. This time, the books are being mined for nostalgia rather than education. USA Today insists that, “Still, in their day, Dick and Jane were cutting-edge.” I beg to differ. Unless Dick and Jane are supporting a love nest, complete with tops and bottoms, Jane getting the bukkake treatment, and Dick tied up, standing naked against a pilaster, unless Jane ends up in a halfway house and Dick has a heroin problem, unless Dick gets a mohawk, or Jane gets a nipple piercing, they will remain hopelessly unhip by-products of a more innocent time. Which is not to say that I have any specific contentions against Dick and Jane. I love their simple dorky intonations and their carefree concerns. Just don’t go around calling them the new black. That’s all I’m saying.

The Guardian on Garrison Keillor’s latest: “Misogynistic, full of literary in-jokes and unwilling to tackle real emotion, I suspect fans of this novel will be restricted to Larry Wylers the world over, which isn’t such an insignificant readership judging by the number of puffa jackets on the streets.” Ouch.

A sign that creative book coverage isn’t dead: Frank Wilson looks to be positioning himself as a qurkier Yardley. He asks the world why the 1921 novel, Memoir of a Midget, isn’t better known. The great thing is that he’s actually serious.

And Christopher Hitchens spares no words for Mel Gibson. Except Maureen Dowd was there with the association first.

Memo to Writers: Please Stop Dying!

Writer Roy Clarke has been kicked out of Zambia. The cause? Calling President Levy Mwanawasa a “foolish elephant” and two ministers “baboons.” Apparently, Fleet Street tactics don’t get you far in Africa.

Philip Pullman’s trilogy is now a six-hour play. But its staging hasn’t been without controversy. A few febrile fans have planned to picket the theatres. But if playwright Nicholas Wright “includes the Tom Bombadil scene,” the production should be in the clear.

Pulitzer winner John Toland has died at 91. In addition to writing Hitler: A Bigass Biography to Demolish All Bigass Hitler Biographies, Toland won the 1971 Pulitzer for The Rising Sun, which covered the Japanese Empire during the same time period. A few other people who departed from this earth over the weekend: Barbara Jeffris and L.A. underworld novelist Douglas Anne Munson.

And David Kipen has a nice tribute to the recently late John Gregory Dunne.

I’ll try and scoop up more news later, but, as all of you nursing vacation hangovers should know by now, today involves something of a shift back into gangly routine. And it’s probably more abrasive than casually replacing your bar of soap with Brill-O-Pad. In the meantime, why not try some of the folks on the left, many of whom are returning back to their respective perches?

Bush Bonaparte?

From Alan Moorehead’s The Blue Nile, explaining the cultural conditions after Napoleon began his Egypt campaign in 1798:

It was perfectly true that the Mamelukes, in moments of violence, behaved infinitely more cruelly to the Egyptians than the French did. But this was not the point. The Mamelukes were the devil they knew, and Bonaparte was not. His sincerity — and there is no doubt at first his approach to the problems of governing Egypt was both very sincere and very intelligent — was misunderstood. The Egyptians naturally looked for duplicity beneath the apparent altruism.

Forgotten Legacy

From Kevin Starr’s Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era:

The Chinese had preceded the Japanese into the fields of California. By 1880 fully one-third of the state?s agricultural labor was Chinese. As the Chinese presence in agriculture increased in the 1870s with the fall-off of mining, so did violence against them. On 15 March 1877, for instance, an organization of white gunman calling itself the Order of Caucasians broke into a cabin of Chinese workers near Chico, robbed the immigrants, then set fire to the cabin, killing four Chinese men. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 [the first anti-immigration bill at a national level, passed shortly after the transcontinental railroad] cut off Chinese immigration to California entirely, the Chinese held their own in rural California for a while but tended in the 1890s to drift back into cities and towns. At first, as the Chinese left the countryside in search of better opportunities, the large-scale farmers and ranchers of California gave serious consideration to importing blacks from the South to the replace them, but by the 1890s not blacks but Italians, Portugese, Japanese, and later Mexicans began to replace the Chinese in the fields.

By 1900 nearly half, 45 percent, of California?s total farm labor was Japanese. At first the Japanese underbid their competition, including the lingering Chinese work force, in order to gain a foothold. They entered the fields strongly organized, hiring themselves out through kieyaku-nin, trusted middlemen who negotiated contracts and guaranteed living arrangements, including smoothly functioning eating and boarding clubs and other support services. Once they had eliminated the competition through low bidding and efficiency, the Japanese began to behave just like union labor: controlling their numbers to keep wages high, negotiating one grower against another, organizing quick strikes when they felt exploited, boycotting farmers they did not like. They also began to rent land whenever they could and eventually to buy their own farms. Skilled in intensive farming (their California farms averaged 54.7 acres), Japanese agriculturists were capable of paying higher rents or paying more to own marginal land ($15 an acre in 1910, when the going rate was $10) because they could coax a higher yield from the soil once it was theirs.

By 1910 some 1,816 California farms, for a total of 99,524 acres in Los Angeles, Orange, Fresno and Sacramento counties, most of it in vegetables, potatoes, fruit, berries, grapes, sugar beets, and other intensive crops, were controlled by Japanese. By 1913, 281,687 acres were in Japanese hands, either owned or leased; 383,287 acres by 1920. One San Joaquin Delta farmer, George Shima, who arrived in California as a young laborer, controlled 28,000 acres by 1913, from which came 85 percent of California?s potato crop, earning Shima the undisputed title of Potato King. Not only did the Japanese outdistance all other groups in farm ownership, they also established an interlocking network of marketing cooperatives and protective associations, presided over by the United Japanese Deliberative Council in Northern California and the Central Japanese Association in the South.

Bested in farm ownership, outproduced, outmarketed, excluded from employment (only George Shima showed any willingness to hire non-Japanese labor), white California grew envious, then angry, then overtly anti-Japanese, complaining, as did Elwood Mead, of the impending Asiaticization of California agriculture. The major offense offered by Japanese success was that it cut to the core of a dream that just was not working: small family farms for white California.