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Jun 4, 2005 9:00 pm

American History and the World

New York Times Book review editor Barry Gewen’s “Forget the Founding Fathers” is an absolute must-read, and not just because it lauds my mentor Alonzo Hamby’s eminently laudable For the Survival of Democracy.

I am inclined to be sympathetic to an essay espousing an international context for American history – broadly writ, my work is on race, politics, and social movements in the United States and Africa, with interests in global terrorism (an interest that itself stems from my American and Southern African work) and sports (because sports are awesome). But I’d like to believe that I endorse many of Gewen’s arguments because they reflect ideas I have long had. One of the most exciting trends, for example, in American and African history is one that is not really diplomatic history, and it not comparative, per se, but rather addresses what can best be called “transnational history.” Some of the best works by Thomas Borstelmann and Mary Dudziak and Francis Njubi Nesbitt and James Meriwether and Brenda Gayle Plummer and Penny von Eschen and Lewis Baldwin (with whom I am engaged in a spirited exchange in the wonderful Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Comparative Studies-- the latest installment can be found here) and others too numerous to mention take this tack. These authors explore connections and linkages between societies and cultures, such as the impact of the Cold War on the Civil Rights Movement, the role of African Americans in the anti-apartheid struggle, and the interrelations between Africans and American blacks. Combine this with the explicitly comparative work of the incomparable George Frederickson, and suddenly we have a new trend in the historical profession that is worth embracing, unlike much of the faddish, naval-gazing obscurantism that has passed for recent historiographical eruptions.

Gewen’s essay is wide-ranging, but it has a central focus on the internationalization of that seemingly most American of subfields: The Founding Generation. The essay goes in unexpected directions and really speaks to trends that more historians are likely to pursue in the years to come.

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Derek Charles Catsam - 6/7/2005

Don --
But of course apartheid was largely a binary system, with the additional poles of "Coloureds" and "Asians" thrown in. The new South Africa is far less binary. I don't thgink that black-white division simply made it easier for Americans to grasp; it also reflected the political realities as they manifested in SA after 1948.

E. Simon - 6/7/2005

Point(s) taken -

Don Graves - 6/6/2005

Of course you recognize that that binary system is exactly the way many groups and individuals in this country wanted it to be portrayed for their own purposes. I don't purport to be an expert on SA (especially having never visited), but as a student of and practicioner of American politics it seems clear to me that there was a purposefulness in the way Americans were educated about "Apartheid". Whether it was those who were appealing to African Americans, or to college students, or even to mainstream Americans on "how far America had come" versus other countries, the unique prism through which Americans see a simplified version of the rest of world doesn't explain our understanding of SA as a "black/white thing".

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/6/2005

I think David is exactly right. I live in Texas, and I can tell you that Tejanos/Mexican Americans/Hispanics are as assimilated as anyone. UTPB is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and about half of my students have Spanish surnames, and they are as "assimilated" as any of my students. Indeed, in many ways, they are the norm asround here, and it becomes more pronounced as you go South of here. At least here in Texas, "Hispanics" have not only assimilated, "they" are the prevailing standard.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/6/2005

I think you all seem to make the same mistake as Samuel Huntington when you say that Latinos (Hispanics, whatever label you want to use) are not assimilated. Most historians agree that Spanish speakers tend to assimilate at about the same rates as other immigrants (three generations more or less) but that successive waves of immigration give the appearance of not assimilating. There are some exceptions to this (Hispanos in New Mexico, for example) but even these are complex. A better example would have been Native Americans.

E. Simon - 6/6/2005

...and to the last paragraph I'd add an exercise in the promotion of democracy in Europe. On that note, I'd think you, I and the peoples of Europe would all generally agree.

E. Simon - 6/5/2005

But if the French rejection was driven by a fear of market economics, even if this fear was on their part of a culturally particular brand, then that impetus would have also been a common interest throughout many parts of Europe, particularly the wealthier countries. Since the basic structure of the E.U. as concerns the inputs of governments (i.e. the council vs. a common parliament) wouldn't have much changed, I don't see how the constitution was poised to dilute the political influence of any of the nation-states, let alone that of France. It was still moreso a confederation than anything.

I have not seen much in the way of reporting that suggests cultural "dilution" of any other sort was anywhere near as big a factor. Do you have links that indicate otherwise?

And if blaming it on cultural elitism means less protectionism in France, then the "neoliberal" market orientation which you, the French, and as you say, IL oppose, must have been predicated on benefiting the poorer nations of Europe. If so, I'm inclined to agree, but wonder why benefiting the poorer nations of Europe would have been (or, for that matter, should have been) seen as a zero-sum game.

I agree with you that the text should have been (to a certain degree) less a national government project, and more an exercise in the promotion of individual rights across the continent.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/5/2005

Chris --
I do intend to agree with you re: SA and muliticulturalism, but also to amplify that the rest of the world still sees SA as driven by a black-white binary that is, as you know, not the whole, or even most significant part, of the story.

chris l pettit - 6/5/2005

Far too few people were involved with its drafting...too much boardroom negotiation by "wise men" who had neither the scholarship in constitution-making nor the rule of law to enable them to bypass the people entirely, as happened for the most part. The constitution was rather railroaded through, without much thought as to how to deal with complex issues of immigration, refugees, rights, economic balance, etc. The Dutch, by the way, were in a much better frame of mind to reject the constitution. i believe that they are the 5th largest economic state, have one of the best socio-economic systems in terms of providing the minimum core requirements for their citizens (as required under international law and ignored by free market states), and supply the most money in terms of propping up the EU and, more specifically, humanitarian projects. The rejection by the Dutch was, as many commentators are starting to take notice of, a rejection of the free market ideologies of some of the other states and those leaders who were pushing so hard for the constitution. The fact that the British, italians, French (to a point), etc are starting to run the sort of deficits seen in the US, breaking the caps set by the EU, and breaking their obligations was a major thing to the Dutch. Throughout Europe, the people were not they were not consulted about the switch to the Euro, etc. It was not international lawyers, rights theorists, and constitutional scholars writing the was diplomats, and when lawyers were involved they were the ideological type under orders from their governments to articulate those positions that best suited the nationalistic aims of their masters. This is not democratic, nor rights based. It is absolutely correct that there was too much regulation, too much rigidity, and too much black and white text. It was as if they set out to make it as complicated as possible without really addressing the key issues of how to protect and ensure the rights of the people within the EU, particularly when it came to immigration and social services. it was more of a national government project. When you made your point about semantics, i think you hit it right on the head...if you look behind the French concerns re: labor, etc, to the assumptions upon which they lie and depend, cultural elitism comes to the fore much moreso than it did in the Netherlands vote (this goes to my usual point about critically examining fundamentally flawed assumptions instead of taking everything at "face value"). There is definitely an elitism in France in that they do not want to lose their influence and see themselves as one of the leading cultures in Europe instead of one of the many cooperative cultures. by no means is this unanimously true, but from the reactions of the people, it seems to be the predominent feeling. It is interesting in that I say that the EU drafters did not consult the people enough...but this is a great example of democracy manipulated because of ideology and misinformation (playing on peoples ill founded fears). For a democracy to work, and individuals views to be valid, they must be honestly consulted and not plied with fearmongering about loss of cultural influence, national power in a region, immigration, etc. There needs to be an honest conversation about the Constitution and Europe's path...which i dont think can happen with self interested nation state government representatives and diplomats at the helm, especially with a free market ideology at the core. This is why the no votes could turn out to be a very nasty situation in which nation states revert back to their solely self interested matters. it will take some very enlightened individuals to bring the EU to the place where it has the potential to go. Blair, Chirac, etc are definitely not those individuals. SO you get stuck between a rock and a hard place in that you don't want powerful men in boardrooms articulating a consitution when they are not highly educated and trained in law, constitutionalism, rights theory, etc, and are not charged with protecting the rights of all individuals who will be goverened by the constitution, but you do not want to have a "democratic" conversation that consists of stoking of fears, manipulation of religious, national, or cultural ideologies, propagandizing, promotion of economic strategies that are harmful for the majority of those to be governed, etc. how to have that enlightened conversation and include the people is the difficult part. This is why, if/when another constituion is constructed, i would submit that it be articulated by those highly educated in rights theory, consitutionalism, etc, and be rather generalised so that it can be a fluid document able to be interpreted by the European Court of Human RIghts (one of the better regional courts in the world at protecting rights). This will allow it to be able to progress as society does, will respect cultures and societal movements, will preserve national identities and those aspects of governance that involve only the individual states, etc. If there can be a truly non-ideological democratic discussion (i doubt it) then it should be had. but, as I am fond of repeating, ideologies (whether they be religious, political, economic, etc) have no place in discussions involving universal rights and obligations that are authoritative in multi-cultural systems. When speaking in universalisms one must have a balance between respect for cultures and customs that do not breach the universal rights of others, but must protect against the imposition of ideologies on those who do not share them. Ideas that are put forth in a debate over a constitution (if it is to be truly democratic) must be able to be critically examined and not easily debunked...and especially cannot be based in blind faith, fundamentally flawed assumptions, or ideas that history (and reason) have shown to be indefensible.

DC...I am not sure whether you are disagreeing with me re: South Africa or not. I think what you said serves to illustrate my point. I am not sure I ever claimed that the ANC is not all means they are. it is just that they still trade on their revolutionary image, and manipulate their power hierarchial spot (at least some of the more misguided individuals involved do...and thus the party as a whole has turned that way). I figured you would be more supportive of Power than I, given your ideological stance (which we dont have to is just there). I can respect that...i just don't think she has any defense in law or anything other than politics and whatever political values she thinks is "right" and are far from universal. While she may make decent points, i put her in the same grouping as I do Kristof...maybe good at holding feet to the fire...but if we actually follow what they say (and we usually do to a point), nothing is actually solved, and more problems are created than are alleviated. History seems to bear this out (subject to whomevers ideological interpretation of course).


E. Simon - 6/5/2005

Chris -

It is good to chat and there is much that you have seen and can contribute here.

What all of this shows is that important political institutions need not create a singular dominant quasi-cultural identity that, all too often, ends up stifling the creative expression of how various communities within can constructively engage and proceed about their affairs on a whole sphere of levels.

I believe the South African model could be at the same time an inspirational and yet practical model. I do hope these lingering issues that you speak of can be constructively addressed and resolved.

Europe does intend to promote itself as a continent united in the diversity of its various cultures. Perhaps the fact that these cultures are largely nation-state based is the reason for the current difficulties in proceeding with its construction. I am interested in knowing what you thought were the weaknesses of the proposed constitution - (other than, of course, its long-windedness, stuffiness, and obscurity in relation to actually and concisely specifying what kind of a new vision can be forged by such common institutions and procedures) although feel free to go beyond the prosaic. As concerns French culture, my understanding is that protections for labor at the expense of trade and free exchange within and throughout Europe was at the core. Do you think this is really a cultural issue or one that is cultural only insofar as they sought to protect "French" standards of working, leisure, and economic enterprises? I would call these social issues, but maybe the distinction is merely semantic.

I have posted at Liberty & Power on structural issues within E.U. governance that could be made more "democratic." They are, however, mundane American-style proposals, unfortunately.

Derek Charles Catsam - 6/5/2005

One quick point re: South Africa -- one factor in South Africa's multicultural successes is that it is far more than a black/white issue -- indeed, were it just a matter of black and white, some might call SA a success, but when one differentiates Africans -- there are 11 national language groups, 9 of which are non-European-based -- it shows that multiculturalism in SA involves Zukus and Xhosa and Sotho and Venda and so forth, and that the ANC has done a pretty good job of being non-ethnic, even if racial dynamics still are pretty pervasive.

btw -- I am far more supportive of Power's book than Chris is.

chris l pettit - 6/5/2005

Re-reading your post I realised i misunderstood the multi-culturalism statement regarding the US a bit. I still think my response appropriate, but also want to state that I do believe that, while many do get drawn into the bland nature of "Americanism" many communities hold onto their cultural traditions. THe Hispanic and African-American communities are good examples...but even within the Hispanic communities they divest even further. i worked as a homicide investigator in Florida for a few years, and spent a lot of time in the Hispanic communities and noticed a lot of division. Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Colombians...all have different communities and group them as Hispanic is kind of like grouping us and Canadians as NorteAmericanos (which they do at times). In North port, FL, there is a huge Russian community. How many Chinese communities are there in many large towns where Chinese is spoken almost exclusively in parts. In California, there are huge Thai communities, Japanese, Korean, Philippine. My father is from the Irish community of mother is full blooded German from the German community. My grandmother spoke mostly great grandmother almost exclusively German...even though they were both a couple generations removed from coming to the US. I do think that many communities hold on to their traditions. of course there are also many who trace their ancestry from many different traditions who find it difficult to identify with any one tradition and end up in the blandness of American tradition. Of course it can be said that any of the other traditions is interpreted differently by each individual, and means different things to different people...but I think that just helps my point that we are all humans first and share certain universalisms and rights before we divest into our different artifical hierarchial relationships. There is no gene that makes us one thing or another...but we are all biologically human.

Again...hope this makes sense and that even in my ignorance their might be some wisdom...


chris l pettit - 6/5/2005

a very interesting response and raises some great questions...

South Africa, as DC will back up, is an interesting gase simply because it is so recently removed from a hard exclusionary mono-cultural arrangement, so it is somewhat difficult to examine how far things have come or where they will end up. However, where SOuth Africa made huge strides is in the way in which they resolved the conflict and moved into democracy (of sorts). By utilizing restorative justice and encoraging reconciliation and multi-culturalism, the transition was a lot less chaotic than it could have been. There can, and will continue to be, problems in the way things have been handled...and I have criticised parts of the process myself, but in general principle and the overall effects of the TRC and the reconciliation process, successes have greatly outweighed failures. One of the reasons I admire the South African Constitution so greatly and think it is the best in the world is because it acknowledges universal rights but also allows for customary law and respect for individuals and societal groups. The society here is truly multi-cultural, with 11 different official languages, and so many different ethnic groups that it is impossible to be well versed in all the different traditions. It is, with a few modifications, the foundation upon which I base many of my visions of a working international system. Again...there are still cultural differences and tensions, but there will always be extremists or traditionalists who are convinced that their tradition is correct and will want to impose it on the rest of the population (or at least see that it is the most privileged among traditions). The country is also only 11 years old in a lot of ways and thus still contains much confusion and problems to be worked out.

I honestly believe that because the country is so incredibly diverse and multi-cultural, the people are much more readily willing to view themselves as humans, then Africans, then South Africans, then their societal groups, etc. There is still a strong sense of culture, custom, and community, as well as an individualistic streak, but these are all viewed as being contained within a brotherhood of humanity and it is understood that the same rights that one wants afforded to his/her group must be afforded to all others as well. Tutu used the word "ubuntu" meaning "brotherhood" to describe the TRC process and what humanity and Africanism means to Africans. Many people truly believe in it, and my admiration of the concept and peoples acceptance of it has only grown while I have been here. You still have your nationalists and power brokers in politics...your moral entrepreneurs and people who want to operate on a powr based scale (the ANC is currently suffering from having way too many of these individuals)...and those who continue to push their faith or ideology over universalism. but from my experience with students, professors, judges, people in the townships, and a huge percentage of the people that I have spoken to and dealt with in my years here...this country does believe in universalism and living together in the spirit of humanity...and the Constitution reflects that.

I often wonder why the US still remains as polarised as it does...meaning why you still find so many communities that hold onto their traditions so vehemently without even recognising or interacting in a positive fashion with other communities. I agree with your perception of the blandness and incongruity of American identity...but this could almost be a positive in that American identity means different things to different people. If there could be more open interaction, the idea that the US is truly a melting pot could be realised. There would not necessarily be an "American" identity...instead there could be a spirit of interrelatedness accompanied with respect for different traditions, representing the universalisms that the US falsely claims to currently represent. I sometimes think that people try too hard to establish some sort of "American" tradition with all the silly flag waving and song singing. Why create something like that (although, yes, it is now a beast of its owm) when you can call yourself a melting pot and enjoy diversity as well as the universalisms that are shared. I apologise that this is somewhat broad...but to get into the discussion we must begin generally and move towards specifics.

having traveled and lived in India, I can tell you that it is an incredibly diverse country with several distinct cultural sections that manage to live in relative peace, from Tamil Nadu in the south to the community surrounding Agra in the Northwest. There is still an Indian nationalism, but the cultural dynamics are also vibrant. It is interesting to view the power societal relationships in India and how culrual views are manipulated in a problematic I suppose is the case in any such system of government (and happens in South Africa as indicated as well).

I would include the Chinese (in spite of the "cultural revolution" and the desire of the communists to assimilate the different peoples). There is still a strong sense of togetherness on a local level while still respecting one another's customs and backgrounds. My most controversial example would be in Tibet, where the Chinese government has committed ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide, but the local peoples, for the most part, have tried to help the TIbetan people regardless of whether they consider themselves "Chinese" or not. Granted, the attitude and pacifism of the Dalai Lama has greatly helped in this regard...but the Chinese government has no hope of gaining the moral high ground due to the micro-level cooperation.

I think that there are many examples of multi-cultural communities that can be found on the micro-level...and a few such as South Africa on the macro-level. The problems seem to begin with those in power who utilise cultural and religious rhetoric to stir up problems and emphasize cultural relativism (and moral relativism for that matter) over universal humanism in order to entrench their power and influence, and that of their state. The French vote is a great example of this. While I must say that wisdom can come out of ignorance and xenophobia, since the "non" vote was good for democracy, the rule of law, and the EU in the long run, the French were urged to vote the way they did by those in positions of power because of fear of loss of influence in Europe (selfish fear of losing power and presitge) and fear of the loss of their "identity" (thinking French first instead of humanity)...both awful reasons for voting the way they did. If the Constitution was of high quality, it would have been a horrible mistake. As it is, they made the right decision, but for absolutely wrong reasons. It demonstrates that individuals vote ideologically and can reject multi-culturalism. There is now a chance for the EU to do things properly and build a system based in human rights and democratic input...but many of us fear that because of the refusal of individuals to see themselves as humans, then Europeans, then nationals...and failure to understand that cultures (as well as individualism) can be preserved within a universal global community...that we will remained stuck in the worship of the nation state and stubbornly cling to our cultures, traditions, religions, and nationalisms, without realising that it is possible to have both.

Sorry for the length and hope it makes some sense...good to chat


Derek Charles Catsam - 6/5/2005

Caleb -- The Meriwether book is fantastic. This really is an exciting trend in US-African history.

E. Simon - 6/5/2005

Chris, there are, as far as I know, few examples of politically or culturally stable multicultural societies. The U.S., often touted as a "melting pot," is so large and comprised of so many immigrant communities that they ultimately tend to assimilate into the broader and disgustingly bland "American" cultural landscape. The most notable exceptions seem to be African American and Hispanic communities, but perhaps numbers are not insignificant in this regard.

I have heard India referred to as a multicultural society, but perhaps this is encouraged by a federal framework of states of people already speaking different languages in the first place. Perhaps the longstanding pluralistic nature of Hindu worship and the size of families and extended families also has something to do with this.

Your favorite, and one by which I am continually intrigued, South Africa, is touted as a multicultural model and I am aware that its constitution seeks to somehow engender this in law. I am curious as to what the research shows on whether and how legal structures can conclusively preserve this, since the relationship between political or social factors and the maintenance of mono-cultural, or if you will, "oligo-cultural" societies already seems somewhat established.

I hope you will note that my inquiry is open-ended and specifically not promoting a mono-cultural or specifically nation-state model, so I hope you will not feel defensive and reply in kind.

Thanks in advance -

chris l pettit - 6/5/2005

A wonderful article...but at times he cites writers who fall into the same nasty habits of those he criticizes. Samantha Power is a great example. She still believes in the "duty to act" and the greatness of American ideals (which she sees as similar to universal ideals without understanding her own bias)...a sentiment which is abhorrently wrong. There is no idea of a community of men in her work...or if there is, it is seen as least in terms of achieving what she advocates. She still worships before the golden calf of the nation-state and is incapable of thinking outside the box on that issue. Her approach still leads to American triumphalism and power relations instead of the rule of law. A much better cite would be one of the texts of her colleague at Harvard, Robert Rotberg...such as his text on Truth v. Justice.

I do greatly appreciate this sort of work and conversation though, as so many Americans are ignorant of not only the complexities of their own history, but have no foundation in world history...or how the histories of different nations and cultures interact in an interrelated framework. It can get a little overboard in finidng narrow similarities that are focused on a little to closely without seeing the bigger picture...but I suppose we can say this of all disciplines and it gives us something to debate. I appreciate his criticisms of Zinn, but do find them to be a bit too harsh in that Zinn is by no means trumpeting one specific group (who are the "underdogs" by the way...aren't they just the "losers" who don't get to write the history?... or whose versions are in certain circumstances seen as "revisionist" by those in power?). But all the same...his point is well taken in that the complexities and interrelatedness of history and culture desperately needs to be appreciated and articulated.


Caleb McDaniel - 6/5/2005

I used Meriwether's book to great effect in an undergrad class on "American Activists Abroad." It was consistently named as a student favorite from the syllabus.

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